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Racial Hierarchy and Migration in Kuwait

On March 11, 2014

I moved to Kuwait from the US in 2005 to begin a job at a new American-style university.  My first impression of Kuwait, mediated largely by my interactions with the staff, faculty, and student body of the university, an impression which was not incorrect but merely superficial, was of its extreme cosmopolitanism.  I was really excited by the interactions I had with faculty, staff, and students from the Gulf, Arab countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, and to a lesser degree, India and Pakistan.

I was not in the country for much for than a week before I began to see the dark underbelly which was the unskilled labor force in the country.  I cannot speak with authority about what the pay was for the jobs but I did regularly witness labor abuses.  An example: A building was being constructed in the empty lot right next to my apartment building and each morning from my kitchen I would observe the progress on the construction.  It was an ambitious project and ultimately stood at 25 floors.  I regularly saw men hanging off the sides of the building at the ends of ropes with no safety nets below.  Nor did I ever see anyone wearing hard hats.  The construction continued 12 months a year even through the most intense summer heat.  I also noticed that there was no stop to the construction during Ramadan when most of the workers would be fasting.

During the time that I lived in Kuwait I travelled quite a bit in India and during those trips I inevitably ended up talking with people about Kuwait, Dubai, Qatar, etc.  Most Indians in the service industry seemed to have either worked in the Gulf or knew people who had.  The general sense was that it was a lousy place to live and work but that the pay was excellent and that they would do it again.  I always felt a little disappointment when I heard this because I guess I was hoping to hear that someone was starting a movement to stop sending workers to the Gulf until they improved the conditions of the employment contracts.  The times that I pushed the conversation a little bit in that direction I was told that the conditions at home were much worse and that one was considered lucky to land a job in the Gulf.  This made is sadly clear to me that the Gulf was going to always have a non-stop supply of workers ready to take the jobs on whatever terms were offered.

I do not know how many non-Kuwaiti workers were in the country at any given time--the statistics I read differed quite a bit, ranging from 50% to 90% of the total population.  Americans and Europeans factored into that statistic but our lives were very different from, say an unskilled laborer from Bangladesh.  As an educated American teaching for a university, I was at the top of the ex-pat hierarchy.  The hierarchy was very clear:  Educated white Western Europeans and North Americans were at the top followed by Eastern Europeans and Western Europeans and North Americans of color.  (It was of great interest to me to see how the Kuwaitis had internalized American racial discrimination even though Kuwaitis themselves ranged in skin color from deepest black to "white.")  The next level included the educated and skilled workers from countries like India, Lebanon, and Egypt who held jobs such as accountant or high school teacher.  I heard anecdotally about the salaries of these jobs often enough to believe that as one descended the ex-pat hierarchy, the salaries descended just as fast.

I have been out of Kuwait for a while now and am still processing the experience.  Like the taxi driver in Goa, I too would do it again.  The money was great and I had an amazing experience living and working in a part of the world I never would have otherwise gone to.   But ethically I do not feel I have a right to speak about the living and working conditions of the unskilled laborers in Kuwait.   I was as removed from their experience while living in Kuwait as I am from the workers in factories in China who ship their goods to the US for me to buy.


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