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KSHR report flays treatment of migrants
May 26, 2018, 4:05 pm

Being a migrant worker in Kuwait is not an enviable position. Caught between lawmakers clamoring to throw out expatriates to adjust the demographic imbalance, and a government keen on addressing youth unemployment among nationals through a Kuwaitization drive, many expatriates are left without recourse to a decent livelihood in this land of plenty. The plight of migrant workers in the country was brought out in a recent report by the Kuwait Society for Human Rights (KSHR).

The report, prepared by Labor Issues Monitoring and Follow-up Unit of KSHR and covering the first four months of 2018 is aptly titled ‘Kuwait Treatment of Migrant Labor: A Step Forward & Two Steps Backward’. The report reveals the disquiet among many migrants over growing xenophobia in the country, often fueled by lawmakers making derogatory remarks that verge on racism and which sway the attitude of society and citizens towards migrant workers.

“Building New Kuwait begins with building human beings, and building human beings is done through feeding them with positive values and granting them rights and privileges as a citizen and resident, and not feeding them with messages of violence, discrimination or racism,” says the KSHR.

According to latest statistics made available by the Public Authority for Civil Information (PACI), Kuwait’s population of 4,580,498 people comprises 3,197,219 non-Kuwaitis (69.8% of population) and 1,383,279 Kuwaitis (30.2% of population). Additionally, of the total workforce of 2,705,613 in Kuwait, as of December 2017, public sector employs 448,011 while the private sector takes in 2,231,370 workers. Of the total workers in the Public Sector, Kuwaitis account for 322,381 (72%) and non-Kuwaitis total 125,630 (28%). In the private sector, the overwhelming number of workers are migrants, accounting for 2,168,784 (97%) of total workers, while Kuwaitis make up 62,586 or around three percent of employees in this sector.

The demographic and occupational imbalance revealed by such statistics have led to complaints that foreigners are the cause of unemployment among citizens and that public funds are wasted on the welfare of migrants. Many citizens believe that expatriates deplete the public services and resources, such as health facilities and road networks. Migrants are also often blamed for the country’s traffic congestion, environmental pollution and prevailing social malpractices.

However, contrary to these complaints and averse to the comments made by a lawmaker that “expats are opportunistic bacteria”, migrants are a major driver of many vital economic sectors in the country. By providing their cost-effective labor and forming a large chunk of consumer spending, expatriates are a significant force in driving the country’s real estate market, banks, telecommunications, automobiles, private education and health activities, as well as their large purchasing power forms the bedrock of food, retail, hospitality, travel and public transportation sectors.

But the report is not all negativity; it also highlights the positive policies being activated by the government to protect migrant workers.

Positive aspects: In January, the Minister of Interior exempted violators of residency law from paying fines and avoiding security procedures, provided they exited the country voluntarily, or legalized their residency status by paying due fines.

The government also introduced mechanisms to ensure protection of workers from violations perpetrated against them by obliging employers to implement the Labor Law provisions. In February, the Public Authority of Manpower (PAM) introduced a new automated system for receiving labor complaints online at the PAM website. An SMS system was also set up to send messages to both employer and employee so as to stop malicious reports and to inspect whether the worker is truly absent from the workplace or not.

During the period under purview the report noted that the Department of Domestic Labor revoked the licenses of eight domestic employment offices and suspended the activity of six other offices due to non-compliance and violation of the law. On 26 April, the Kuwaiti Criminal Court issued a first-of-its-kind ruling against a citizen for human trafficking. The court sentenced a Kuwaiti citizen along with his three accomplices to life imprisonment after they were found guilty of trafficking a group of Asian workers to massage parlors in Kuwait and forcing them to engage in adultery with customers.

Negative influences: The report added that despite the good efforts made by the government to protect and preserve the rights of non-Kuwaiti workers there were many counter-measures targeting workers:

For instance, in January, the government began implementing its Kuwaitization drive, which aims to reduce the number of migrant workers in government agencies on an annual basis in order to reach specified percentages for each job category by 2022. In the wake of this initiative, many migrant workers in government institutions have been terminated with their notice period of three months set to expire in early June. Along with Kuwaitization drive, the government also announced plans to reduce the number of expatriates to one million, by deporting more than two million workers at the rate of 100,000 each year.

In January, a member of the National Assembly proposed imposing fees for the expats driving license amounting to KD1000, and KD500 for renewing the license annually, as well as imposing additional fees on expats possessing more than one car. In April, the Parliamentary Finance Committee approved bills on imposing fees on remittances of expatriates after ensuring that there was no constitutional violation. This vote came despite fears expressed by many that such a tax would push the emergence of a parallel market to official remittance channels.

The report also mentions about the many complaints that KSHR has received from domestic workers on the ‘long work hours without rest; working for long hours without pay; being prevented from annual leaves’. The reports adds that domestic labor is subjected to many violations, sometimes amounting to slavery, torture, humiliation and rape, which has caused political and diplomatic problems between the Government of Kuwait and the Philippines, in addition to a number of countries such as Sri Lanka, India and Ethiopia that send domestic workers to Kuwait.

Kuwait is a signatory to 19 International Labor Organization Conventions, including seven of the eight fundamental conventions that give priority to international labor standards and are supposed to guarantee the rights of workers. But the truth is these domestic laws are based primarily on recruitment of migrant workers under a sponsorship system. This system links labor visas to those who recruited them, which raises the chances of abuse and exploitation of labor. In addition, it restricts the workers’ freedom by giving the sponsors the power to control the workers’ life in terms of renewing residence and moving to another work. Such a system also facilitates the sponsor into becoming a visa-trader and a key contributor to the increase of marginal employment.

While commending the positive steps taken to protect the rights of workers in Kuwait, the report also calls for an immediate stop to racist verbal attacks against expatriates. The report also hopes that lawmakers and others will rationalize their speeches against migrant workers that aim to spread hatred in the society.

Recommendations: Among the many recommendations made in the report are:

Canceling the sponsorship system and transferring the sponsorship to the government.

Updating labor legislation and criminalizing its violators.

Ensure decent work for laborers, especially for domestic laborers.

Permanently cancel administrative deportations and replace them with judicial deportation.

Stop the targeting of migrant earnings and refrain from discrimination in official decisions.

Initiate non-discrimination in the right to education and health.

Replace the term ‘servant’ in the official transactions or official websites.

According to KSHR, any violation of the workers’ rights by companies or individuals harms the reputation of Kuwait in regional and international forums and places the country’s foreign policy in an embarrassing situation. The global community loses trust in Kuwait’s humanitarian credentials when instances of migrant worker abuses are published in international media.

Through the report KSHR calls on those concerned with combating the spread of hatred in the country to double their efforts and work to replace hatred and calls for extremism with the right to a decent life for all, legally, administratively and socially.

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