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Op-ed: Kuwait's backtracking on 'pay-for-amnesty' policy fails to protect rights of migrants

Kuwait’s recently rescinded amnesty for some migrant workers on irregular status is the last in a string of controversial policies, prompting the question: will Kuwait ever learn from its mistakes and prioritise the human rights of migrants?

On February 20, 2024

On January 18, news circulated of a pay-for-amnesty policy (No.26/2024) announced by the Ministry of Interior (MOI). According to a now-deleted report published by Kuwait’s Al-Anbaa newspaper, the policy targeted approximately 110,000 migrant workers – with no clear demographic breakdown mentioned – who attained an irregular status before 2020. The amnesty would pause all deportations and safeguard those migrants from prosecution and police arrests, instead diverting their cases to the Ministry of Social Affairs (MSA). By paying a maximum fee of KD600 (US$1,940), these individuals could then regularize their status and obtain a work visa.

Only a day later, on January 19, Al-Abnaa reported that the MOI rescinded the amnesty scheme and instead resumed crackdowns on illegal residents, targeting them for mass deportation.

Policies affecting migrant workers, whether attempted labour reforms or annulled failures like this amnesty scheme, hardly ever consider a problem holistically. On the contrary, these decisions are often reactionary outbursts to previously unresolved issues abandoned only to receive a band-aid solution – all at the expense of the migrant worker.

This rescinded amnesty scheme may seem like just another ministerial mishap, but dangerous fallacies exist under the policy’s surface. Most significantly, these supposedly ‘illegal’ status remedies completely disregard the power imbalances of the Kafala system, under which only the employer/sponsor can renew migrants’ visas. Dismissing the onus that is on the sponsor effectively absolves them from their legal responsibility. The burden is on authorities to remedy an ailment of their design, which puts into question two elements of the amnesty scheme: First,  why impose such a high fine on a demographic that is both disenfranchised and disempowered? And second, what are the aims of this model of rectitude when the ultimate target of justice, one that lies within the position of all employers, is far removed from the equation?

Kuwait still suffers from a large fiscal deficit. Assuming the scheme would have charged KD600 per migrant (with an estimate of 110,000 on irregular status), then where would the sum of KD60 million go? As reported, it is not clear if the amnesty fees would be levied in lieu of, or in addition to, visa violation fines.

The average monthly wage for migrant workers is estimated at KD343, as reported by the Kuwait Times, making the cost out of bounds for most. This is especially the case given that migrants with irregular status have no legitimate employment opportunities.

Legal status for most visa categories requires employment. Kuwait’s most recent Central Statistical Bureau (CSB) report shows that from 2019 to 2022, the categories of private sector workers (Visa 18) and “domestic servants” (Visa 20), visa violation rates have been consistently high. For the Visa 18 demographic, the percentage of violations registered range from 25% in 2019 to 22% in 2022. Whereas for Visa 20 demographic, the range stands at 47% in 2019 to 49% in 2022. Both categories held their lowest percentages in 2020 of that four-year window, a year of mass deportations that decreased their respective populations.

When the statistics for 2023 are released later this year, it undoubtedly will show no significant change. In fact, as reported by Arabian Business, Kuwait deported an average of 108 migrants per day throughout 2023, meaning over 35,000 people were deported likely based on some type of visa violation.

The amnesty scheme, as reported by media outlets, also made no mention of reimbursing unpaid wages. Given that many migrant workers become irregular because of delayed or unpaid wages, they must be considered in any policies addressing irregularity.  Wage theft is a frequently recurring violation (especially during the height of Covid-19 in 2020) for which employers are rarely held accountable, creating an utter detachment of the government and its ministries from the lives and experiences of migrants. This passive relationship posits a deadly gap between the two, all of which eliminates the employer from the equation and transforms them into benefactors of the system.

As for employee-employer relations that often cause irregularity, many of the migrant workers who live with that status are already deeply exploited and more often than not, repeatedly extorted. Through legal case handling as well as journalistic reporting, I have seen recurring violations that are clear yet systematically abandoned by authorities: for example, workers are frequently arbitrarily dismissed early into employment and left with no knowledge or resources to survive in Kuwait; employers often coerce workers to pay large sums for visa maintenance; employers regularly confiscate passports and civil identification, and then demand payment for them, among many other patterns at play. Additionally, the MSA’s general visa fees are disproportionately high in comparison to migrant income.

On a more personal level, in 2020, Ali*, an Indian migrant worker, knocked on the doors of my parents’ house at the height of the lockdown. While migrant workers in Kuwaiti towns such as Jleeb-al-Shuyoukh witnessed intense police crackdowns, often violently conducted, Ali escaped and trekked over 25 km by foot to my town. His original employer had returned Ali’s passport and told him to go fend for himself, as he could not (or would not) afford his salary any more. Ali remained in our house, worked odd jobs across multiple neighbourhoods for chump change, and eventually bought his own way out of the country.

Ali’s case, compared to others I’ve either registered or reported on, is one of the mildest. For women, it is far more demeaning and violent. For other men, irregularity at best means months in deportation centres before they’re flown en masse to their origin countries, and at worst means indentured to work without pay or coerced into greater illegalities. On the employer’s end, Ali’s kafeel is also not the worst example. Many other employers charge large chunks of money for returned passports or civil IDs, file absconding cases to receive government stipends, or entrap their employees to work illegally without pay among many other exploitations.

Nowhere in the MOI’s communiqué to the local press is there mention of employer’s obligation or state-led initiatives guiding migrant workers through this amnesty scheme. Repeatedly, through the interwebbings of Kafala in law and society, the employer is given a carte blanche to both violate worker rights and alleviate themselves from (allegedly) legally binding responsibilities. Be it a domestic worker coerced into illegal status and held forcefully to labour without pay, or a private sector worker dismissed without reason for cost-effective purposes, there are no ministerial policies issued demanding employers tend to their responsibilities.

As long as both state and citizens, ministries and employers, see the migrant worker as nothing more than a flesh-covered machine, then no policy will ever address its targeted problem holistically. In that way, these deadly gaps will remain open and only fill up with the lives of humans.

*Name changed to protect identity of worker


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