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7 years in Kuwait with no leave: Indian migrant forced to disappear

On April 13, 2015

A middle-aged Indian migrant, “SG,” arrived in Kuwait to work for a shipping company in 2004. In India, SG had signed a contract to work as manager of the company’s research and development department. But once in Kuwait, he discovered he was expected to run the entire company on his own. He often substituted for accountants and other overwhelmed employees. He described himself as a joker of sorts, shuttled between every department to complete unfinished tasks.

Like many migrant workers, SG’s options were limited. He needed the money for his family, and he could not file a complaint against his employer without threatening his opportunity to work in Kuwait. The associated expenses, the difficulty in locating a lawyer, and the likelihood that any outcome would ultimately result in his return to India were all reasons SG swallowed exploitation for nearly 7 years

Over these years, the company grew into a successful, middle-sized firm. But despite SG’s crucial contributions, his salary never rose and he was never compensated for working overtime.

Still, SG’s conflict with his employer was not sparked by a demand for fair compensation but merely a request to for time off to visit his family. SG had not seen his family for seven years, since his first arrival to Kuwait. Migrants cannot bring family members with them unless they meet a minimum required salary - at least K.D 400 ($1300 USD) monthly according to Kuwaiti residency law.

Under Kuwaiti labor law, migrant workers, like other workers, are entitled to vacation time. But many migrants are forced to bargain with their sponsors for these basic labor rights, often with unfavorable results.

SG’s employer told SG the workload was too big and that no one could substitute for him. SG repeated his request for six months, denied with similar excuses each time. At one point, the employer told SG that his passport – confiscated upon arrival in Kuwait - had been lost, and that he should try to get a new one from the Indian embassy.

[tweetable] “I think he was lying to me. He made up the story of my passport being lost so he can buy time and keep me from visiting my family”[/tweetable]

SG was unsure what to do; he did not want to lose his job, but he could not stay away from his family any longer. He became more and more disenchanted with the prospect of ever being able to take time off.

“I did go to the embassy though. I told them I lost my passport and they started to ask me questions and request papers to have the new passport issued to me. This only meant that I would be wasting time and money to get through the bureaucracy.”

After four months between state offices and the embassy, SG obtained a new passport. At this point, he decided he could no longer tolerate his exploitative working environment and requested a release from his employer, to permit him to work for another company in Kuwait. He obtained the necessary paperwork and secured a new job only to discover a complaint submitted against him.

Despite seven years of faithful labor, his employer has submitted a case of “disloyalty” against him, accusing him of stealing K.D 25,000 ($82,000 USD). His attempt to transfer jobs was automatically suspended, and he would be subject to more legal obstacles and expenses in order to remain in the country legally. Unless he could refute the charges, he would be imprisoned.

Meanwhile, SG had no legal status; he was still in the process of transferring employment and his residency expired. In such cases, the labor ministry imposes a daily fine for everyday a migrant stays “illegally” in the country at a rate of 2 dinars per day. Once again, SG found himself in limbo, under threat of incarceration and further financial burden.

After much bureaucratic delay, SG decided to leave the country at any cost. He had waited long enough for the case to be processed, but feared the possibility of arrest for his residency status or the false fraud charge. His prospective employer did not want to entangle himself in the case.  His former employer had easily and successfully  levied sponsorship laws for revenge.

SG changed his phone number and embraced his status as another undocumented migrant in Kuwait. He told that he would be leaving the country in “some way” and disappeared. reached out to his employer and lawyer, neither of whom have heard from him for weeks. His phone line is no longer active. We hope SG has made it home safely.