Kuwait has repeatedly been felicitated and lauded in international circles and in the media for its compassion towards the poor and its humane acts in support of those suffering from both natural and man-made calamities. In 2014, the country was designated as an ‘International Humanitarian Center’ by the United Nations General Assembly.
In a statement released on the occasion of Kuwait being designated an International Humanitarian Center, the UN Secretary General’s Envoy for Humanitarian Affairs, Dr. Abdullah Matouq Al-Matouq noted: Kuwait’s government and people built on the humanitarian and charitable work their ancestors had initiated, offering the world a role model for humanitarian work, with no discrimination whatsoever regarding religion, ethnicity, language, or geography. This bright image Kuwait offers has qualified the country for a leading humanitarian status.
Most recently, the Director-General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) was in Kuwait to express the organization’s appreciation for Kuwait’s humanitarian role around the globe. Speaking on the occasion, the Director-General William Lacy Swing praised Kuwait's contribution to improving the lives of displaced, immigrants and refugees around the world. He added, “Kuwait has always been a source of hope for those suffering from crises. ”
It is only appropriate that Kuwait’s numerous monetary and non-monetary contributions in support of those suffering around the world should be recognized and appreciated by the international community. However, it is disconcerting that Kuwait’s significant role in providing international assistance and its good standing among the global community is being eroded by the shameful activities of just a few hundred individuals and a handful of companies.
Exploitation of domestic workers, misuse of the sponsorship system, visa trading and repeated instances of non-payment of salaries to workers by some employers, including a few reputed large firms, have been widely described, closely examined and extensively discussed in local, regional and international circles. Unfortunately, when news of such human rights violations is reported, it is usually the name of the country that is mentioned, not that of the individual companies or people involved.
In August of last year, Saudi Oger, a leading construction firm in Saudi Arabia owned by the family of billionaire and former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, laid-off several thousand employees without paying their salaries for months. However, when the issue hit the headlines, it was the reputation of Saudi Arabia that got tarnished, not that of Saudi Oger. 'Tens of thousands stranded in Saudi Arabia without food, water or salaries for months', was how international media reported the news; there was hardly any mention of the company involved in the fiasco.
Qatar and UAE have also been in the news lately over mistreatment of workers involved in construction of infrastructure for such high-profile events as the 2020 World Expo in the UAE and the 2022 Football World Cup in Qatar. Humanitarian organizations and global media have accused these countries of indifference in stopping the abuse of workers. The firms involved in providing inadequate and unsanitary living conditions for the laborers, or not paying their salaries on time, are hardly mentioned in the disparaging reports filed by the media and global organizations.
Just last week, in Kuwait, a few hundred Indian employees allegedly representing the thousands of workers employed by Kharafi National, a leading infrastructure development company in Kuwait, arrived at the Indian embassy to vent their grievances about non-payment of salaries and poor living conditions.
The workers claimed they had not been paid monthly salaries for nearly six months and were living under unhygienic and desperate circumstances at their labor camp in Shuaiba Industrial Area. They appealed to the country’s ambassador and other embassy staff for assistance in finding a solution to their dismal situation, and to help them obtain their long overdue salaries.
The workers complained of being stranded at the company’s labor camps and living for weeks at a stretch without water, poor sanitation, intermittent electricity and no proper medical attention. They said that every month company representatives had assured them salaries, only to renege on the promises at the end of the month. The desperate workers said all they wanted was the salaries owed to them for their months of sweat and labor, and the right to return home safely.
These workers, many of whom could not afford to live without salaries for even a month, had been without access to any financial resources for months on end. Their desperation was compounded by the fact that not only were they unable to fend for themselves, but their families back home who depended on their monthly remittances for sustenance were undergoing untold suffering.
Sadly, once again, when news of workers stranded for months without salaries is published, it is the name of the country where the event takes place that gets besmirched, not that of the individual companies involved.
The low oil prices in recent years, which have led to revenue loss, budget deficits and slower economic growth in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) bloc, has resulted in the government delaying payments for some ongoing projects. While many companies were genuinely impacted by the slow-down, a few companies exploited the situation and introduced arbitrary salary cuts, delayed payments, or altogether stopped paying salaries to their employees.
With projects in abeyance, some companies even refused to renew the residency permits of their staff. This placed many employees without valid residence and in danger of falling afoul of the police and other authorities that have been authorized to arrest and deport illegal residents.
It is nothing less than shameful that companies should use their employees as scapegoats and withhold their salaries, in a bid to raise the issue in the public domain and thereby pressure the government to speed up payments for their ongoing projects. Rather than approach the country’s courts and raise a case against their debtors, but thereby risk a fall-out and probably no future contracts from the government, these companies take the easy way out and appallingly use their employees to gain their ends.
Kuwait is a signatory to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The ICESCR commits the country to work towards granting economic, social and cultural rights to individuals, including labor rights and the rights to an adequate standard of living, without any discrimination.
It is inconceivable that Kuwait which is committed to upholding the lofty principles enshrined in the international documents, should allow some companies and individuals to brazenly trample these venerable covenants. Regrettably, labor rights have been willfully infringed in the past, and this will probably continue to happen again, unless the authorities step in and take a decisive stand against such companies and individuals who tarnish the country's good name through their disreputable actions.
[As we go to press, it is understood that the Indian embassy discussed the issue of non-payment of salaries with representatives of the company involved. The embassy has been assured in writing that the workers would begin receiving their payments in installments from next week – Ed]