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“The Kafala is a System of Slavery,” an interview with the Kuwait Trade Union Federation

On August 2, 2014

Abdulrahman al-Ghanim is the general secretary of the Kuwait Trade Union Federation. He is also in charge of the Expat Workers Office, which operates under of the federation. This office, despite legal and political limitations, is calling for the end of the Kafala system in Kuwait, for a legislation that regulates workers' rights in the private sector, and for migrants’ right to unionize. The Federation is also involved with workers' complaints submitted to the Ministry of Labor. In this interview, al-Ghanim discusses the apathy and discrimination systematically practiced against migrant workers in Kuwait. What motivated you to establish the “expatriate workers' office”?

The Kuwait Trade Union Federation by law covers all workers in Kuwait, and it is a third party in the International Labor Organization (ILO). We found out that workers in private sector are not covered by a union and complaints increased so we established this office in 1993 to look at these complaints and work them out.

MR: Do you attempt to mobilize and include migrant workers in the local labor movement?

Movements erupting lately in Kuwait were political rather than labor-related. There have been some attempts lately, for example among Sudanese nurses who were demanding equal rights at work because they were getting paid less than others. We were present during this case and solved the problem between both sides. Unfortunately, we face a real problem in Kuwait because of regulations that do not allow expat workers to form a union. They are allowed to join unions but not if they are workers in the private sector which does not have a union.

MR: What is your position towards the escalating crackdown against migrant workers?

The ongoing crackdown does not aim to fix the problem. We saw how arbitrary this campaign was, targeting migrant workers. We denounce and reject such approach to the issue. It is like solving a mistake with another. The mistakes of the labor ministry are resolved with deportations by the ministry of interior affairs!

 MR: Did you take any action against these arbitrary policies?

Yes of course. We met with the MoI and they basically told us that they will continue to deport “violators.” They said they will not stop until they “clean up” the country from all “violators.” Unfortunately, the MoI does not allow us to interfere and in future these issues will only get worse and make Kuwait look bad when it comes to labor rights and unions.

 MR: You have previously demanded the abolishment of the Kafala System. Do you still push for this aim?

We have been working on this since 2008. We are only given promises. We do not see any seriousness or clear steps taken to end the Kafala system. We have proposed an alternative to Kafala that makes the state the sole sponsor, facilitating recruitment. The suggestion is forgotten in the drawers of the labor ministry. The Kafala system is a failure and a system of slavery.

MR: How do you fight passivity and hostility practiced against migrants?

Our powers are simple and limited; financially and in numbers. We cannot do much other than dealing with complaints and personal issues. Such things should be done by the government which is obligated to make such efforts according to international treaties of labor and anti-racism. A worker is taken into an enslaving system, right after arrival in Kuwait.

MR: Have you taken any steps taken to support domestic workers?

Surely. We took part in writing a proposed law for domestic workers but it is still waiting approval of the parliament.

MR: Do you think the new law would be efficient?

We took part in drafting this law. We hope it will be a good first step, to start regulating and centralizing recruitment and issues of expat workers.

 MR: How would you evaluate of the labor ministry, especially when it comes to the accountability of sponsors and employers?

Bad bad bad. Even the weak companies who have no connections and friends in the ministry, are punished with only 1 year suspension of their Kafala privileges; meaning they are not allowed to sponsor any workers within that year. The big companies, however, are untouchable. Recently there was a case in which a company admitted committing violations. The company was only asked to sign a paper promising not to repeat violations. They are still recruiting new workers, getting 2000 KD for every recruitment!

MR: Is the ministry aware of this illegal trading?

Yes of course. If they did not know, that should be a bigger problem. There is a countless number of complaints and problems that are just related to the black market of work visas.