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Hunger-strike highlights humanitarian crisis
January 13, 2018, 3:53 pm

In early January of this year, around 50 employees of a leading construction company in Kuwait, working on a project for the government-run Kuwait National Petroleum Company (KNPC), staged a hunger-strike inside the headquarters of their company located in Al-Rai. The distressed employees who had been staging a sit-in within the company were pleading for their long overdue salaries and other settlements.

The workers on hunger-strike were seeking an amicable solution to their grievances, as well as the return of their passports and air tickets so as to enable them to go back home. Many of the stranded employees had been working with the same company for years and said they felt totally betrayed by the management’s indifference to their months of continued plight.

Lower oil revenues in recent years and subsequent budget deficits have compelled Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to cut-down or shelve many construction projects. As a result of the slowdown in pace of implementing public infrastructure projects and payment delays, several companies engaged in government projects have faced cash-flow problems.

While some companies were genuinely impacted by the slow-down, a few unscrupulous companies exploited the situation and introduced arbitrary salary cuts, delayed payments or altogether stopped paying salaries to their employees. They abandoned employees in isolated labor camps and even refused to renew the residency permits of their staff, placing the employees at risk of being arrested and deported by the authorities.

Non-payment of salaries and abandoning contracted employees has become a recurrent theme in the country. Nearly a year ago, in mid-February 2017, a few hundred Indian employees of the same company, working on projects for the Ministry of Electricity and Water (MEW), arrived at the Indian embassy to complain about non-payment of their salaries and abject living conditions at their labor camp.

The workers, who reportedly represented the more than 2,000 fellow-workers stranded at the labor camp in Shuaiba Industrial Area, sought assistance of the Indian embassy and appealed to the then Indian Ambassador H.E. Sunil Jain to help resolve their bleak situation.

Over the months and without any financial means at their disposal, thousands of employees continue to live under desperate conditions in desolate labor camps. Sometimes they have had to spend weeks without water and only intermittent electricity. Lack of proper sanitation and with no easy access to medical care, many of the workers live and suffer in pain. 

Volunteers from Indian and Kuwaiti humanitarian organizations arrange for free meals to be distributed in the workers camp. While these gestures are no doubt a welcome relief for the thousands living in the camp, the workers lament that all they want is the salaries owed to them for their months of sweat and hard labor, and the right to return home safely to their families.

During the nearly one year that they have been languishing in camps waiting for their long overdue salaries, the visas of many employees have expired. The company has so far refused to renew their expired residences, not only making their continued stay in the country illegal but also resulting in huge amounts as fine for overstaying.

Last week, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs Dr. (Gen) V.K. Singh arrived in the country and held meetings with Kuwait’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah, as well as with the acting Social Affairs Minister Dr. Jenan Mohsen Hassan Ramadan.

In his meeting with the Kuwaiti authorities, Minister Singh discussed in detail the issue of Indian workers stranded in Kuwait without salaries, their current dismal living conditions, as well as their illegal status on account of the expiry of their visas, as well as the huge fines they had incurred through no fault of their own.

The Indian minister also visited the stranded workers at their labor camp and saw for himself the sorry plight they were in and met with other workers at the embassy premises. Briefing the workers on the outcome of his discussions with Kuwaiti authorities, the minister said the Indian government had urged the Kuwaiti side to look into the issue of pending salaries and undertake all necessary legal measures to ensure the payment of pending salaries and other settlements. He said that a time line had now been set up and the government would monitor progress on a continuous basis.

He also informed the workers that the Kuwaiti authorities had assured him the government would discuss the issue of visa fines at the cabinet level in order to initiate appropriate steps to allow the workers to exit the country without paying fines for overstaying.

For the record, nearly a year earlier, then Indian Ambassador Sunil Jain had raised the non-payment of salaries and other related issues with the Minister of Social Affairs and Labor, Hind Subaih Barrak Al-Subaih. The minister had also assured the ambassador that everything possible would be done to expedite a solution to the problem.

Also, in a separate meeting that embassy staff held with management of the company, they had been provided with a written promise from the company’s manager that employees would begin receiving their payments in installments within a week.

In all fairness, it needs to be said that in late-March of 2017, following Minister Al-Subaih’s direct intervention, the Ministry of Electricity and Water (MEW) reportedly revoked the bank guarantee provided by the delinquent company and agreed to pay salaries directly to the affected workers. However, nothing seems to have moved forward since then, and one year later, despite being assured salaries by the company’s management and being guaranteed of their legitimate rights by the minister, the employees continue to unnecessarily suffer in bleak labor camps. 

Some of the companies in Kuwait, and there are several, that hold back salaries of their employees are not small-time operators. Many of them are long-established well-funded organizations with a track-record of working profitably on public and private sector projects for more than 30 or 40 years.

Allegedly, these companies are using employees as a scapegoat in a bid to pressure the government to speed up their own due payments. It is shameful that, rather than approach the country’s courts to speed up their delayed payments from the government, these companies have taken the easy way out and used employees to gain their ends in this most appalling manner. It is all the more disgraceful that these companies, which repeatedly tout their ISO certifications on quality management systems, and often claim employees to be their greatest asset, should at the slightest pretext abandon their greatest asset on the street to fend for themselves.

In this context it is worth pointing out that when news stories of thousands of workers stranded for months without salaries is published in regional and international media, it is the name of the country where the event takes place that gets besmirched, not that of the individual companies involved. Unpaid salaries, labor disputes and pathetic living conditions of migrant workers employed by companies in the private sector in GCC are usually headlined in the media as ‘inhumane treatment of migrant workers in Qatar, UAE or Saudi Arabia’.

It is inconceivable that Kuwait, which is regarded as a humanitarian beacon for the world and is committed to upholding the humanitarian principles enshrined in various international documents, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), should allow a handful of companies and individuals to blatantly trample these venerable covenants.

Clearly, the time has come for the government to step in and take decisive action against companies that willfully and brazenly trample on the human rights and labor rights of migrant workers in the country, and in the process tarnish the good name of Kuwait.


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