Kuwait’s Domestic Labor Law: One Year Later

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Jan 12 2017

Over a year has passed since Kuwait’s parliament approved a law on the recruitment and employment of domestic workers. The new law was widely celebrated by state officials and international organizations for its “slow progress” in protecting workers’ rights and enhancing a “good image of Kuwait." However, Kuwaiti officials appear satisfied merely by the law’s existence, so far failing to create a plan to monitor its enforcement, its progress, and its deficiencies.

Migrant-Rights.org reviewed both the problematic and promising provisions of the law throughout its various drafts and final implementation. Below, we revisit a few of these issues in light of recent developments. Overall, our analysis still holds – that even the law’s few positives are effectively neutralized by the absence of any meaningful enforcement mechanisms.    

This month, the first public corporation established by the law will come into force. The corporation was designed “in order to control price hikes and avoid human rights violations.” Government agencies own 40% of the corporation, while 60% will be open to national shareholders (i.e. citizens via local cooperatives). The corporation’s performance will be monitored by the Ministry of Interior (MoI), instead of an independent body or the labour ministry or even the parliament. Thus, the corporation is likely to be policed, but not quite governed on the basis of labour rights. Both the UAE and Bahrain are also considering centralizing domestic labor recruitment under state agencies – a move which perhaps highlights the Gulf’s neoliberal approach to corporatizing the function of public agencies. The impact of the corporation on recruitment is something to be watched over the next year.

Last week, a MoI official stated that the Domestic Labour Department has helped reclaim KWD 13,000  (USD $42,500) in unpaid salaries for domestic workers since the new law came into force. The minimum wage for domestic workers, as set by the 2015 law, is KWD 45 (USD $150) per month. The amount reclaimed seems less impressive than the ministry depicts, considering that there are at least 661,414 domestic workers in Kuwait (including only those with valid visas). Moreover, the department has only referred 25 cases to court after failing to resolve disputes between employers and employees. The number of cases is very small but more detailed information pertaining to these cases could indicate some progress in workers' access to justice, but the MoI has only released statistics with little context. 

Migrant-Rights.org received a leaked draft of the domestic labour law in June 2015. The official copy, available publically later, had compromised a number of positive clauses in the initial draft. The most important of these was the bank guarantee required for employers to recruit a worker. The bank guarantee could have helped domestic workers like Vanessa, a 25-year old Malagasy migrant who was tortured and enslaved by her employer for three years before she managed to escape. Vanessa received support from local groups who publicized her case and connected her with a lawyer (who took almost half of her awarded compensation as a fee). However, she was forced to stay in a shelter for months until the case was resolved and suffered from PTSD. Kuwait’s legal procedures make it very difficult for victims of abuse to nominate a power of attorney to fight on their behalf and return home, and the legal status of escaped or absconded workers means they are effectively imprisoned in the shelter. A bank guarantee could allow workers to obtain their own lawyers or to return home faster than the current bureaucracy allows.

Another problematic article allows for the confiscation of workers’ passports “with their consent.” Though the confiscation of passports was finally declared illegal a few years ago - after years of the MoI actively encouraging sponsors to take migrants’ documents - no employers had faced any penalties for this widespread practice.  In November 2016, the MoI announced a plan to create residency cards that would feature workers’ and sponsors’ information. “It can be used instead of a passport and can solve problems related to confiscation of passports by employers.” The new cards resolve a bureaucratic obstacle for the MoI, enabling security forces to more accurately verify migrants’ legal status on the spot - migrants can be subject to random visa checks on the street -  while permitting employers to continue holding onto workers’ passports. Residency cards are less useful for migrants; while they might prevent a documented migrant from being erroneously detained or deported for not having their paperwork on their person, they don’t provide them with the same mobility as a passport. Authorities now literally sanction the confiscation of identity documents, leaving workers at risk of being stranded and unable to return home for months.  This pattern of legislation crafted to the ultimate benefit of securitizing and making migration management more efficient, rather than protecting workers’ rights, is one that emerges repeatedly in Kuwait’s migration policies.

Another major issue affecting the law's  enforcement is the general opposition of employers to a worker’s right to a weekly day off. Families are likely to consider their own day outside the home as a domestic worker's day off as well – even if she is required to be with them and often is still watching kids, or otherwise still working. It is a commonly held belief that a domestic worker is likely to use her day off to see a man, and from there can only come unwanted pregnancies or diseases. Whatever sexism exists in policing and violating women’s bodies in society is experienced tenfold by domestic workers.

Herein lies the Kuwaiti government’s difficult, essential -  and thus far failed task - to work at multiple levels in both law and society to eradicate the practices and attitudes that oppress domestic workers. Current initiatives, overall, only reinforce workers’ vulnerability.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East