The recent oil price slump and subsequent sluggishness in the local economy has had an unintended victim — the expatriate at the bottom of the totem pole. Many construction and contracting companies, once flush with cash and jobs, have seen their fortunes tumble as projects get deferred, downsized or downright cancelled in the economic downswing. With money that used to flow freely suddenly drying up, companies have had to resort to cutting costs, laying-off workers, delaying salaries, or in some cases simply refusing to pay their employees.
Thousands of expatriates have been rendered jobless and left to fend for themselves. Seeking refugee with friends, or stranded in distant workers’ camps, many of these unfortunate workers are in total desperation. Without money to buy food, to send home to their families or repay earlier loans, some are seeking the ultimate opt out by ending their lives with a sheet or rope tied to the ceiling.
The most recent story was that of a young Filipino man who ended his life last Friday inside the workers’ camp of one of the largest construction companies in Kuwait. Unable to cope with pressures brought on by an employer unwilling to pay salary arrears, mounting debt and no money to live on or send home, several hundred employees living in the same camp are at a crossroad. They are desperately seeking help from their embassies and pleading with the government to step in and solve their problems.
For its part, the government has stepped up efforts to ensure timely payment of salaries and stipulated that non-payment of salaries is a violation of local laws. Nevertheless, many companies continue to flout regulation and deny workers their salaries.
Labor-related problems and complaints are normal in a country like Kuwait where nearly 1,500,000 workers reside, a senior government official recently said. The official was responding to a report by Migrant Rights, a non-profit organization that reports on the conditions of migrant workers in the Middle East, which claimed that nearly 15,000 complaints of ‘unpaid wages and benefits’ have emerged in Kuwait.
It is estimated that more than 10,000 labor disputes are received annually. The complaints ranged from delayed payments, passport confiscation, failure to approve visa transfer papers, etc. He said that the newly-established labor authority has its doors wide open to receive labor-related complaints. “The authority will not hesitate to intervene as soon as possible in order to find solutions that protect the rights of workers and employers at the same time,” he added.
Despite this assurance, powerful and callous companies still manage to ride slipshod over regulations and continue to deny the basic human rights of their employees.