Kuwait's Ineffective and Inequitable Crackdown on Undocumented Workers

Share Find us on Twitter Find us on Facebook Find us on ... Share this via email
Mar 20 2013

Kuwaiti authorities have conductedintensive sweeps against undocumented migrant workers in recent weeks. The Ministry of the Interior’s security team rounded up hundreds of migrants working without legal work or residency visas. Migrants face heavy fines, indefinite confinement, and eminent deportation. Most are unable to access legal representation to contest their treatment and receive only limited support from their embassies. Kuwait justifies these transgressions on migrants’ rights by underscoring their “unlawful” status.

However, Kuwait eschews its own complicity in the proliferation of undocumented migrant workers by refusing to recognize and resolve the sponsorship system’s deficiencies. The sponsorship system’s rigid configuration engenders the conditions that regularly drive legal workers into an undocumented status. The system renders workers entirely dependent on employers through several provisions; for example, a worker’s residency is only valid so long as they maintain his/her contract with the sponsor. Workers cannot legally transfer their employment to another employer without their original sponsor’s permission. If a worker does manage to obtain the sponsor’s release (unlikely in the case of dispute), they are required to pay a prohibitive transfer fee equivalent to $754-$1884 USD. This⁠ sum is much more than most workers, many of whom already face large debts, make in months.

Employers can exploit their superior legal standing by threatening to deport workers who complain of delayed or unpaid wages, or of working conditions that deviate from the original contract. Workers’ access to legal recourse against abusive employers is furthermore restricted by both this latent threat of deportation as well as other obstructions imposed by the sponsorship system: Workers can lodge cases against employers, but in doing so almost inevitably terminate their current contracts and are unable to legally work for another employer throughout the case’s duration. The vast majority of low-income workers are unable to survive months without a salary - and moreover cannot afford crucial legal representation or translating services - particularly when cases are unlikely to produce a favorable outcome. In the few cases where the employer is found at fault, the court may simply elect to “release” the migrant from the employment contract which necessarily entails the migrant’s deportation. This outcome is a risk most migrant workers cannot afford to pursue. Newer migrants are especially encumbered with substantial recruitment-related debts and are unwilling to return home without the means of remuneration.

Thus, the construct of the sponsorship system paralyzes workers into illegal, exploitative conditions. In such situations, the most feasible alternative that migrants possess is to venture into undocumented work.

Kuwait’s indifferent attitude towards undocumented workers is in part legitimized by popular myths. For example, one frequent assertion in local media is that illegal workers (particularly domestic workers) earn more income than legal workers. Op-eds complain that illegal workers extort Kuwaitis, effectively reversing the sponsorship system’s exploitive relationship. But undocumented work is not the preference for the majority of migrant workers. Though migrants may abscond from legal employment because of under or non-payment, illegal work is neither inherently nor typically financially secure. Undocumented migrants enjoy even fewer protections that regular workers, in part because the threat of deportation is still eminent. Workers must be careful not to aggravate employers or prospective employers who can refer them to the police.

A second myth (propagated here in a recent Kuwaiti piece) vilifies undocumented workers through vague, unfounded assertions of the miscellaneous ‘danger’ they pose to society at large. In actuality, undocumented migrants tend to avoid any potential encounter with authorities (and subsequent deportation), dissuading most prospective criminal proclivities.

In tandem, Kuwaiti policies and local media coverage cultivate these prejudiced misconceptions; Kuwait fails to proportionately criminalize employers who knowingly pursue and hire illegal migrants. Employers may hire illegal migrants for a variety reasons - the need to employ more migrants than sponsorship quotas allow, a preference to hire part-time workers, or the desire to circumvent recruitment fees or regulations and acquire very expendable workers. These employers comprise the essential “demand” fueling undocumented workers, and are equally complicit in contravening the sponsorship system. Moreover, ex-sponsors are rarely investigated for (possible) offenses that initially provoked employees to abscond. Withholding wages, physical assault and poor living conditions are also violations of Kuwaiti laws.

Yet, neither ex-sponsors nor employers of undocumented workers face legal action comparable to migrants. In rare instances, unlawful employers have been penalized with fines or imprisonment (though periodically, such rulings are circumvented or subsequently diminished). Nonetheless, they are not pursued as vigorously nor treated as harshly as migrant workers. They are not rounded up in masses, denied legal representation, or subject to indefinite confinement. Furthermore, the paucity in penalties levied against sponsors tacitly condones and perpetuates the systematic exploitation that redound to undocumented migration, in effect contradicting Kuwait’s intended efforts.

Similarly, media outlets do not subject employers to the dehumanizing spectacles that typify coverage of migrant worker crimes. Kuwait Times “Crime” section publishes photographs of predominantly foreign suspects, thereby distorting public perceptions of criminals and of the migrant population. Bedoons are also subject to this same prejudiced representation (read more about state and social discrimination of Bedoons at BedoonRights.org.) These photographs often depict migrants in vulnerable positions. In one photo, a group of Arabs are seated at table in the background while a group migrants sit on the floor. In another, a large number accused migrants sit herded on ground. The employers of these undocumented workers are not forced into such degrading postures nor are their photographs ordinarily circulated. The written narrative of undocumented migration similarly excludes the complicity of employers. These unbalanced orchestrations furthermore legitimize transgressions of undocumented migrant rights on both the state and individual level. Undocumented individuals are not exempt for UN’s declaration of Universal Human Rights that guarantee them equal recognition and protection before the law.

There are factors aside from the sponsorship system that contribute to undocumented or ‘illegal’ migration. Some migrant workers arrive in Kuwait without documentation for a variety of reasons, such as attempting to circumscribe expensive recruitment costs, volitional or non-volitional trafficking, employer visa fraud, or because of bans from origin or destination countries, quotas and age limits. Additionally, not all migrants who abscond from their sponsors are necessarily victims of abuse. In some cases, migrants may work as freelancers with nominal sponsors who charge them a fee.

However, the inflexible sponsorship system remains a leading structural cause of Kuwait’s large undocumented migrant presence. If Kuwait endeavors to eradicate illegal migration, it must address all contributing factors. Kuwait’s short-sighted and inefficient “crackdowns" fail to confront state causes of undocumented migration. The fervent, disproportionate concentration of force against the repercussions of Kuwait’s own policies - the undocumented migrants themselves - unsurprisingly gives way to grave human rights violations.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East