Kuwait is host to a vast number of overseas contract workers from countries in South and South-East Asia, including India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Philippines, who are predominately employed in the construction sector and service industry.
The single largest expatriate community in Kuwait is comprised of Indians who, according to the Report of the High Level Committee on the Indian Diaspora, account for almost 20 percent of the total resident expatriate population. Currently, Egyptian nationals comprise the largest foreign Arab population.
In recent years, women have represented an incrementally larger percentage of overseas contract workers in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries; according to local press, they may now constitute one third of Kuwait’s migrant population.
Each migrant – be it migrants settling into a specific country, or transiting through a specific country, or emigrants from a specific country – have vastly different needs.
"Here, in GCC, we refrain from calling them migrants because we have a different situation; we rather use the terminology 'temporary contractual labor' since the stay is temporary in nature in GCC countries. So, they still are considered as the closest groups to arriving or migrant workers but, again, they do not require the same services as let us say workers arriving in Europe would," says International Organization for Migration GCC Programme Manager Mohamed El Zarkani.
In a conversation with El Zarkani, on the sidelines of a public awareness campaign called 'Together Against Trafficking in Persons', which IOM Kuwait held at the Avenues Mall under the auspices of the Minister of Information and Minister of State for Youth Affairs Sheikh Salman Al-Sabah, The Times Kuwait looked at the various aspects of migrant-related issues, including trafficking in persons, especially in the GCC and specifically in Kuwait.
"Trafficking is a bit of a tricky situation in the region, it has two edges to it: One is the reason behind trafficking through the process of recruitment that starts in the country of origin, where they receive false expectations of the job while paying a lot of money to agents and sub-agents and arrive here laden with debt. The second issue here is the lack of strict regulations, specifically when it comes to protection of domestic workers," he said.
Trafficking in persons is defined in the Kuwaiti law as: recruiting, employing, transporting, harboring, or receiving, coercively, by force or threat of using force, or by other forms of abduction, fraud, deception, coercion, abuse of power or influence, exploitation of vulnerability, giving or receiving amounts of money or in-kind benefits for exploitation such as prostituting others, or any form of sexual abuse/ exploitation, servitude, forced labor, slavery, slavery-like practices, or removal of body organs.
However, in recent times, the Government of Kuwait has made considerable progress in labor mobility management, enhancing protection of temporary contractual workers’ rights and actively working to combat trafficking in persons.
To this end, IOM has undertaken considerable initiatives to foster enhanced dialogue between relevant government entities in Kuwait and in migrants’ countries of origin. In addition, IOM continues to avail of technical expertise in associated programmatic areas, including through a recent workshop on international best practices for management of temporary contractual labor for government representatives.
"This year, a lot has changed in the GCC; laws have been introduced regulating work of domestic workers in the Kuwait. In a sense, this has established an environment of protection for domestic workers, with the laws explicitly detailing as to how many hours a day they should work, for how many days in a month and that their passports should not be withheld, and so on," he continued.
The Kuwaiti legislature against trafficking of persons includes Article 31 which states that no person shall be subjected to torture or disgraceful treatment undermining his/her dignity. According to Kuwaiti law 91 of the year 2013, the penalty for the crime of trafficking in persons may be maximized to the death sentence if the crime causes the death of the victim. The law also implicates any person who hides suspects or victims of such crimes. Article 5 of Law 68 regarding domestic labor, bans advertising, promotion and classification of labor based on doctrine, gender, color, or cost, in a disgraceful way while Articles 8 and 9 stipulate that no part of the salary may be deducted and the employer shall provide food, clothing, housing and medication to the worker. Furthermore, Article 12 states that the employer shall not withhold any personal ID documents, Article 27 imposes a KD 10 fine per month if the employer defaults to pay the domestic worker the salary as agreed on time and Article 29 orders six months jail time or a KD 500 fine for the recruitment of any domestic worker under the age of 21.
With these laws coming in, he feels Kuwait is pioneering this fight against trafficking. IOM Kuwait is certainly looking forward to continue working with the government in implementing these laws: "Laws are very nice but if they are not implemented, they are as useless as not being there," he said.
"Kuwait is keen on confronting trafficking in persons and has passed laws criminalizing it. A special unit, under the Ministry of Interior, has been established to deal with it domestically,” said Chief of IOM Kuwait Iman Eraikat in a speech delivered at the Avenues event.
In addition to the counter-trafficking unit, this year, a new shelter for runaway workers, both men and women, with top-of-the-line facilities has been established. The new shelter is self-operational, in the sense that anyone who knocks on its doors would be granted shelter, unlike earlier operational mechanisms where only those referred to by organization such as IOM or embassies would be given shelter.
"Earlier, the subject of human trafficking was a taboo; no one spoke of it here because there was a lot of shame involved in it. There is no shame in accepting that one has trafficking in their country; it exists in every single country of the world. The shame is in how much you do to combat trafficking and that is what differentiates countries."
As the leading inter-governmental agency in its field of specialization, IOM works in partnership with the UN on a broad range of migration-related issues. Expanding on his perspective on migration patterns across Middle-East and from Middle-East to Europe amidst the ongoing European migration crisis, El Zarkani said, "They are extremely different groups: the workers come here for work, which is temporary. Looking at trafficking, the lack of specific legislations here is being addressed now."
"On the other hand, countries in Europe are receiving irregular migrants who are mainly those affected by either natural disaster, or man-made disasters. But within them, there are ones who are economic migrants who cannot survive in their countries; this is when mixed-migration comes in the picture."
Criticizing a recent article in Al Jazeera which stated: “maybe we should call everyone a refugee as this will give it more importance,” El Zarkani said this was absolutely wrong, “not only because they are very different and that countries are obliged to provide assistance under international law to refugees, but also because this statement assumes that migrants have no rights. We still need to differentiate and provide rights for migrants as much as we provide rights for refugees.”
While politically, Europe might not like the idea of migrants and refugees settling in their countries for reasons such as changes in their identities, economically, amidst Germany’s demand for 500,000 migrants due to shortage of labor, “most of Europe screams about this little number of very desperate migrant refugees that go there.”
He added that with regard to the programming that is taking place in the country, the IOM, UNDP and ILO, with the Public Authority for Manpower (PAM) have one joint project that aims at building the capacity of PAM to better manage labor migration and combat trafficking in persons.
The body aims at capacity building through research and getting at par with the international humanitarian standards for running the shelters for runaway workers and its operational aspect.
“We are introducing IOM’s flagship program Assist Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) – a mechanism giving a venue for workers wanting to leave for various reasons including trafficked, exceeding their stay in Kuwait and being stuck in black market. We can potentially give them a way out with the condition they volunteer to go home. We can also offer them any medical attention, if required, before they travel, we give them fund to start their business in their communities in their countries of origin,” he revealed.
Within this AVRR model, not only are the needs of the migrants addressed but also that of the community they are returning. Done by labor market assessment of the country of return, understanding gaps in the local economy there, the kind of skills in need and guidance of returnee in this specific gap to the local economy there, builds a win-win situation for both the countries.
He added, “We are piloting this model for the first time in GCC now,”
Positively at the IOM Kuwait launched campaign, the presence of Deputy Foreign Minister Khalid Al Jarallah, Assistant Undersecretary at the Ministry of Information Yusuf Mustafa, Minister of State for Youth Affairs Sheikh Salman Al-Sabah, along with representatives from the UNDP Kuwait, international organizations, members of the diplomatic corps and media representatives, reverberated the country's keenness to tackle the issue.
Other speakers at the launch of the campaign at the Avenues Mall included Deputy Chairman of Kuwait Red Crescent Society Anwar Al-Hasawi, and UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Kuwait Resident Dr. Mubashar Sheikh.
“We are proud that the government of Kuwait is pioneering and raising awareness on such an important topic. Trafficking is a global problem, what differentiates one country from another are the efforts that are taken to combat human trafficking,” said Dr. Sheikh.
The IOM Kuwait has, since 1991, been working towards combating trafficking in persons by holding regional workshops, training courses and symposiums for government officials and the media, as well as training domestic-shelter staff and hosting regional consultation meetings. However, much of this work has been away from the public view. It is for the first time that IOM held a three-day awareness campaign for the public to get at the comfort zone of many and cause them to think about the issue.