On August 10, al-Anba published a short complaint addressed to Kuwait’s Minister of Labor, Hind al-Sibeh. The letter shares the experiences of five Sudanese workers, who like many migrants were lured to the Gulf with false promises and trapped into exploitative working conditions. In a subsequent statement to al-Anba, the ministry claimed to have resolved their case by allowing the workers to transfer their sponsorship. But Migrant-Rights.org spoke with the workers, who contend that the ministry reneged on its decision; the workers alleged that upon denying their request for transfer, one ministry official verbally and physically assaulted them. Below, the workers provide their own account of events.
After paying illegal “recruitment fees” of 800 K.D. (2800 USD) each, the workers were offered jobs in Kuwait with al-Raed Security Company. “We signed contracts before arrival that specified eight working hours everyday for a monthly salary of 100 K.D.” But once they arrived in Kuwait, the company told the workers “your contracts have no value.” They were told to sign new contracts stipulating 12 daily working hours for a monthly 70 K.D. Those who objected were threatened with deportation.
Eventually, every worker was coerced to sign the inferior contracts because they needed to pay off their recruitment debts – returning home was not an option, and changing employers was not an option because of Kuwait’s sponsorship system. Contract substitution and illegal recruitment fees are both exploitative recruitment practices that Gulf migrants regularly face, but for which GCC countries displace accountability. While it’s true that more coherence is required between origin and destination countries, it is GCC states that are often unwilling to implement the reforms necessary for this coherency.
The workers then waited eight months for their residency papers to be finalized. Though sponsors are solely responsible for these administrative procedures, migrants are nonetheless held financially and legally accountable for delays. Each of these workers is now required to pay 360 to 420 K.D in late fees for issues out of their control. Employers are also required to pay late fees, though these are waived if the worker transfers sponsors.
Moreover, the company did not pay the workers for five months. After much objecting and demanding, three of the workers received their salaries.
“The company continued to withhold our payments,” one worker said. “We had to organize several strikes.”
Eventually, the workers realized their only solution was to demand a “release” in order to transfer the Kafala to a new employer. Here is where the labor ministry steps in: the Disputes Committee offered to broker a typical compromise - the workers would be released to a new employer, but only if they signed a document clearing the company of any dues. Both sides agreed. The workers completed the requisite paperwork and headed once more to the ministry.
Badriyya al-Mukaimim, the assistant director of the Sector to Protect Manpower, had been the official who offered the deal to the workers but she was not present when they returned to finalize their papers. Another member of the Disputes Committee, Emad al-Harbi, was in charge in her place. al-Harbi denied the existing agreement, though it was signed by several ministry officials, and refused to process their papers.
“He started to yell at us” saying “you Sudanese are always causing problems” one of the workers narrated. “Then he took off his Iqal and started to hit me hard.”
The other workers argued with al-Harbi, while the assaulted worker could not react “because I know I will be the one blamed if I were to fight him.”
The day after al-Anba published the complaint, the Labor Ministry contacted the newspaper claiming to have solved the issue. A rep told the paper that al-Harbi was “notified” and the workers’ issue is resolved. Migrant-Rights.org contacted the workers for confirmation, but they said they did not receive a call from anyone in the ministry and that their situation remains unsolved.
“We are now dragged into a new problem” the worker said, “but this time it is with the ministry itself.”
This is not the first time Kuwait’s MoL has been criticized for its failure to manage migrant worker complaints. The guards' experience highlights the several obstacles to justice migrants encounter when they attempt to navigate Kuwait's labor bureaucracy. While officials herald the existence of legal protections for migrant workers in reality the system is rigged to disempower migrants. Migrants are forced into disadvantageous "compromises" that fail to penalize abusers or to even be enforced; the company was not questioned for changing the terms of agreement by increasing working hours and offering reduced wages. The ministry did not require the company to compensate workers for delayed and unpaid wages or the late residency fees. The ministry itself failed to comply with the agreement it brokered. The ministry official who assaulted the migrants was not held accountable, not even asked to apologize. The ministry’s statement to Al-Anba admitted no mistake and offered no regrets. If the Kuwaiti government treats workers with such disdain, it is no wonder that employers feel they have free reign to do the same.
This story also indicates the measures that need to be taken to protect migrant rights, should officials care to know. Contracts signed abroad should be acknowledged after arrival and not exchanged for new ones with different terms. The ministry should ensure full and on-time payments for all workers, by implementing a system that is not monopolized by employers. Workers should not be penalized for delays in regulating status, as the Kafala system gives them no such control over matters. Moreover, the ministry should be consistent with its decisions, while holding officials accountable for any mistreatment of complaining workers. That migrants repeatedly resort to lodging complaints with local papers evidences the ministry’s calculated inefficiency.