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Fire in Kuwait Workers' Accommodation Kills at Least 49, Injures More Than 50

On June 13, 2024

An overcrowded migrant workers’ building in the Mangaf area, south of Kuwait City, caught fire on the morning of June 12, killing 49 migrants, most of them Indian workers. More than 50 others have been injured several of whom are in critical condition. The names of the deceased have not been released.

As per local media, firefighters and forensic personnel are currently searching the building for more bodies, and the death toll could increase. The six-story building was housing 196 workers. Witnesses reported that some workers jumped from high floors to escape. One migrant died instantly after his head hit the edge of the balcony.

In a widely circulated video, a company official, questioned by Interior Minister Fahad Al-Yousuf Al-Sabah, states that all the residents are employed by the same company that owns the building. The Interior Minister added that the incident happened “as a result of the greed of the company and building owners.”

The company, NBTC, is one of the largest civil construction contractors in Kuwait, established in 1977. NBTC has been hired by major government and private companies, primarily in the oil and gas sector, such as Kuwait National Petroleum Company, Kuwait Oil Company, FDH JV (DAEWOO), and Tecnicas Reunidas. The workers’ accommodation is located near Kuwait’s main oil companies and refineries.

Under Kuwait’s labour law, employers that are engaged in government contracts or those employing workers in remote locations are required to provide accommodation. Employers who fail to offer suitable housing must compensate workers with an allowance, as detailed in Kuwait’s Ministerial Decision No. 199 of 2010. This allowance should be at least 25% of the worker’s wages if they earn the minimum wage, or 15% if they are paid above the minimum wage. The official minimum wage in Kuwait is KD 75 (US$248).

NBTC is co-owned by Mohammed N. Al-Baddah, a Kuwaiti businessman who serves as the company’s chairman, and K.G. Abraham an Indian businessman who serves as the managing director.

According to local reports, the fire department found a pile of bodies of deceased and injured individuals in the stairways, suggesting that the building was overcrowded and severely lacked proper fire safety measures. Most of the workers suffocated to death due to smoke inhalation. The fire broke out on the ground floor and spread throughout the six-story building.

The Director of the Fire Accident Investigation Department of Kuwait, Colonel Sayed Hassan Al-Mousawi, stated that the high number of deaths owed to the closing of facades, the presence of partitions made out of highly flammable materials between rooms, and the closure of the building’s roof, which prevented many from escaping.


A systemic issue, not just an individual case

As an immediate response to the incident, the Kuwaiti Interior Minister ordered the detention of a company official and the building guard. Investigations are ongoing and those responsible will be held criminally liable, according to the Ministry. The Minister of Works and Minister of State for Municipal Affairs, Dr Noura Al-Mashaan, also suspended leaders of Al-Ahmadi Municipality, the jurisdiction in which the building is located.

This fatal accident is even more unconscionable as just a few years ago GCC states, and particularly Kuwait, struggled to contact the spread of Covid-19 infections due to the congested and poor accommodation provided to low-income workers. Furthermore, Kuwait has in recent times, carried out forced evictions along with dehumanising campaigns targeting male migrant workers, which resulted in workers being displaced and forced to seek housing in evermore crowded and ill-serviced parts of the country. What Kuwait has consistently failed to do is hold employers accountable for providing subpar accommodation.

Across Kuwait and other GCC States, many migrant workers reside in overcrowded buildings or company accommodations that lack adequate safety and hygiene measures. Consequently, incidents such as fires, gas cylinder explosions, and building collapses are not uncommon.

While the Gulf States have codes for workers’ accommodation, these regulations are poorly enforced. The situation is even more complex for migrant workers whose employers do not provide housing. These workers must rent accommodations independently, and the buildings they occupy are not subject to the same laws and inspection mechanisms typically applied to labour camps.

The Kafala system and the social exclusion faced by migrant workers in Kuwait further disempower them from raising complaints about dangerous housing conditions or organizing for better working and living conditions.

Given that NBTC is a major construction contractor in Kuwait’s national oil and gas sector, it remains to be seen whether the company’s owners will be held criminally liable or if the blame will be shifted to a building manager instead, giving the owners and the state and private clients a free pass. As MR has previously reported, Gulf States rarely impose criminal sanctions on the owners of large and established errant companies, particularly those contracted by the government.

As the Kuwaiti government’s response develops, it is likely to be restricted to inspection campaigns and holding a few individuals accountable, rather than implementing systemic changes to the labour migration system and the socio-economic framework that makes migrant workers vulnerable and expendable. Migrants will remain unable to choose safe and suitable living and working conditions, making it only a matter of time before a similar tragic incident occurs.