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Kuwait’s Health Contractor Fires Striking Workers

On August 26, 2014

Faraj, a health technician from Egypt, was forced to pay a recruitment fee in the form of a 1500 K.D (5300$) loan from his future employer. This was the price for a job contract with al-Awadhi company, an official contractor for Kuwait’s health ministry. The following story is not unique but rather a frequent experience endured by migrants who challenge their employers.

In early August, a report published by al-Rai newspaper uncovered the illegal practices of companies subcontracted by the health ministry. Some of these companies did not specialize in health services while others were entirely fraudulent. Often, Kuwaitis register businesses in order to sponsor a large number of migrant workers, only to then exploit them by ‘leasing’ them out to other employers and charging them illegal fees to renew their residencies. al-Rai's report brought attention to government contracting of unqualified companies but neglected to further investigate the exploitation of migrant workers by these companies. met with Faraj and a group of Egyptian and Sudanese workers employed by the same company.  Faraj was promised a monthly salary of 300 K.D (1050$) plus a 50 K.D  bonus. He was recruited to Kuwait in November 2012 under false pretenses and left without legal papers or a job for three months.

“When I demanded to be paid my salaries, they threatened me with deportation” said Faraj, “and there were four cases like mine, waiting to be paid.”

Faraj did not fall for the company's threats. He was given two months' wages and asked to sign on a document that indicates he was paid his first three salaries in full, but he refused.

“And the housing? I do not know where to start.” The company uses one-bedroom apartments dividing each to three rooms with two persons in each room. Six people share one apartment and a bathroom, without a living room or any decent maintenance.

“I demanded better living conditions. This is inhuman.”

In addition to withheld wages and substandard housing, Faraj and his co-workers endured grueling mornings and nights:

“Everyday, I have to take the only company bus from my residence in Mahboula to Kuwait City. The trip would not take more than 40 minutes. Yet, I spend 4 hours on the way to work because the company fits all employees in one bus and picks them up from areas all around the country.”

Faraj added that the daily meals given to employees were “barely consumable.”

After seven months of mistreatment and irregular payments, Faraj decided to submit a complaint to the Labor Ministry. The company promised to comply with the ministry's directive to pay its workers, but then tried to blackmail them into signing false documents that claimed they took loans of 675 K.D from the company. The workers refused and were terminated from their jobs a month after their complaint. Faraj then discovered that the health ministry contracted the company to pay each worker 400 K.D per month, though the workers were only being paid 300 K.D.

Throughout this struggle, the technicians went on strike three times.  The company attempted to intimidate them by terminating contracts of new workers who had been with the company for less than 100 days - Kuwait’s labor law allows employers to terminate contracts within first 100 days without penalties, except for their exit ticket and earned salaries. New workers were notified of their dismissal within only 24 hours of their repatriation.

The company intimidated and collectively punished workers for legally demanding their labor rights, circumventing Kuwait's meager migrant worker protections.  Faraj’s experience once again evidences the Kuwaiti government’s failure to respond to recurrent recruitment and employment issues. This is not the first time that a company contracted by the health ministry has failed to pay its workers on time; in October of 2013, the Ethiopian embassy filed a complaint on behalf of 300 nurses who were not paid for three months.

The health ministry’s complicity in such unfair recruitment practices and exploitative working conditions affirms the government’s deliberate negligence towards migrant workers’ labor rights. If Kuwait is unwilling to adequately monitor the companies subcontracted for public services, it is no wonder that such abuses are rife in both public and private sectors.