WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Tuesday accused Bahrain of failing to protect workers' rights in its response to a March 2011 general strike at the time of the Arab Spring and asked for formal consultations under a free trade pact.
"Ensuring that workers in Bahrain - and in other countries - can exercise their fundamental labor rights is a top priority for the Obama Administration," acting U.S. Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis said in a statement.
Bahrain, a small island country off the Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia, is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
Washington's request for talks came about two years after the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor organization, first complained that the Bahrain government's brutal crackdown on the general strike violated commitments to protect workers' rights under the U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement, which went into force in 2006.
"We're pleased the U.S. government is moving ahead with consultations even though we had hoped this announcement would have been issued months ago. Unfortunately, the campaign to dismantle the Bahraini labor movement has been moving much faster than the U.S. response," AFL-CIO trade and globalization specialist Celeste Drake said in a blog.
The U.S. Labor Department issued a report in December, some 20 months after the general strike, that faulted the Bahrain government for the actions it took.
"In the widespread dismissals after the March 2011 general strike, trade unionists and leaders were targeted for firing and, at times, criminal prosecution for their role in the strike, and Shia workers and political critics of the government faced discrimination," the U.S. report said.
"The reinstatement process for these dismissed workers has raised additional concerns of violations of freedom of association and political and sectarian-based discrimination against Shia workers, which reflect the larger context of a deteriorating labor rights environment in Bahrain," it said.
Talks between the two countries are expected to begin within 30 days, unless both sides agree to a delay.
"My sincere hope is that these consultations will produce a concrete plan of action, based on the recommendations in the Labor Department's report that will strengthen labor protections in Bahrain and help prevent violations of workers' rights," said acting Labor Secretary Seth Harris.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative's office said the United States was optimistic that the talks with Bahrain "will yield a satisfactory outcome."
If not, the next step would be to convene a joint U.S-Bahrain subcommittee on labor affairs, which could turn to a mediator or conciliator to resolve differences, she said.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Christopher Wilson and Paul Simao)