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Another Look at Kuwait's New Laws for Domestic Workers

On August 10, 2015 reviewed the latest draft copy of Kuwait’s domestic labor law in June. Kuwait’s new domestic labor law, over two years and several drafts in the making, has been welcomed with moderated praise from much of the public. Though it is one the Gulf’s first laws specific to domestic workers, how much can the conditions of these workers really be expected to improve?

Kuwait’s parliament recently approved two laws on migrant domestic labor; one establishes a public-sharing company that organizes the recruitment of domestic workers and the second regulates workers, employers, and recruiters. While one law regulates recruitment agencies, the other establishes a public domain for recruitment with no mention of existing recruitment agencies. One Kuwaiti newspaper questioned the rationale behind the simultaneous approval of two laws with apparent contradictions over the regulation of recruitment agencies.

The new laws introduce some positive changes, but core issues remain insufficiently addressed or entirely ignored. Comparing the law’s draft and official versions reveal a number of compromises. Overall, the new legislation suffers from a lack of enforcement mechanisms.

The Good: Ambiguity & Practical Limitations on Enforcement 

Kuwait’s law offers a number of potentially positive changes, but with few mechanisms for enforcement and accountability. Other apparent improvements are tempered by their limited reach and ambiguity; for example, the new daily upper limit on working time is ‘12 hours...with rest time.” Though this is significant - the first time Kuwait has established maximum workings hours for domestic workers - it is still in excess of the 8-hour workdays the majority of the labor sector enjoys. The number and length of rest periods is also undefined. The new law also grants workers a weekly rest day but does not specify that the worker can spend this day at their leisure or outside of the sponsor’s home.

In any case, there is virtually zero scope for enforcement as workers are not guaranteed any avenues to report abuse. Some workers struggle to secure regular communication that might permit them to at least inform their families or embassies of abuse – even then, the Kuwaiti government is third-party to these reports.

The draft does reflect some positive changes in perspectives towards domestic workers; draft language has been changed from “served” and “servant” to “worker” and “employer.” The law also prohibits agencies from advertising domestic workers disrespectfully or based on religion, gender, color, or cost. This represents one of the more progressive articles, as discriminatory advertising is widespread and contributes to the dehumanization and commodification of domestic workers. Anti-discrimination laws specific to migrant workers, let alone domestic workers, can be found nowhere else in the Gulf.

While the law introduces the concept of overtime into the sphere of domestic work, there are again few practical mechanisms for enforcement. There is no method of labor monitoring and workers have limited access to lodge complaints – often their only contact is their recruitment agent, who more often than not is concerned with pleasing the employer rather than fairly resolving disputes. Though recruiters are newly required to report issues to state agencies, again there are no actual means of enforcement. The draft specified penalties against recruitment agencies that do not inform the domestic labor department of cases of abuse and disputes but the final legislation omits these penalties, instead only requiring agencies to attend to the department’s calls.

Additionally, the notion of overtime in this context seems to normalize inhumanely long working hours as workers are legally permitted to work up to 12 hours.

Workers and employers are obligated to sign standard contracts issued by the Interior Ministry; the standard contract is a welcomed step to ensure workers are aware of the kind of work they can expect and compensation they will be receiving. The law also prescribes a new minimum wage of KD45 (US$150) and requires money transfer receipts as proof of timely payment of salaries. Employers must pay workers KD10 for every delayed wage.

The domestic labor department at the Interior Ministry will have the authority to extend workers’ residency to allow them time to resolve disputes. The time period is not specified and it is not clear if “absconding” workers will be given this extension and if the charges against them will be dropped – as many abuses come to light only after a worker has absconded and sought aid, this would be essential to making the law viable. The 2014 Trafficking in Persons report makes note that this criminalization of absconding migrants further restricts the movement of domestic workers and render them particularly vulnerable to forced labor.

The new law also exempts domestic workers from legal fees in labor disputes and requires civil court to examine their cases within a month of referral from the domestic labor department.

The Bad

Workers are not granted the right to change employers under any condition.

As for housing, the new law obligates employers to provide “appropriate” housing with no further specification or requirement for privacy.  From the parliament’s discussion session, legislators were clearly not concerned with worker’s privacy but rather trying to think of a type of housing “that is not the kitchen” according to MP al-Zalzala. Interestingly, the new legislation does not specify that a domestic worker must live in the employer’s house – parliament members felt that the location could not be specified because (male) drivers are domestic workers who sometimes do not sleep or reside inside the house.

Perhaps the most negative change made by the parliament was to the article relating to the confiscation of passports. The parliament voted that the article should allow employers to “keep passport with worker’s consent.” Consent is a tricky concept in the very unequal relationship between kafeels and workers, and particularly when workers are typically uninformed of their right to retain their passport or otherwise unable to decline. There are also no penalties mentioned for those who confiscate passports without workers consent, despite its prohibition under Kuwaiti law. The 2014 TIP reports notes:

It remained uncommon to find domestic workers who took refuge in their home-country embassy shelters with their passports in their possession. The government remained reluctant to prosecute Kuwaiti citizens for trafficking offenses. Kuwaiti law enforcement treated cases of forced domestic labor as administrative infractions, and punishment was limited to assessing fines, shutting down employment firms, issuing orders for employers to return withheld passports, or requiring employers to pay back-wages. In 2014, the MOI, in partnership with an international organization, held an anti-trafficking training.

Furthermore, workers would be hard-pressed to make any official complaint about this practice, as it is the very confiscation of passports that often prevent workers from leaving the employer’s home and seeking help.

The absence of meaningful input from civil society organizations is just one reason the new law may fall short of tangibly improving the conditions of domestic workers.  Domestic work remains treated differently than other kinds of labor, though the chasm has perhaps been bridged ever so slightly.