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Visible only at Death: Will Kuwait learn from the Mangaf fire?

Is the avoidable tragedy a wake-up call, or business as usual?

Home, or, at the very least, the place where we each rest our heads at night, should be safe. Yet in the early hours of Wednesday, 12 June 2024, the residents of a seven-storey apartment block in Kuwait’s Mangaf neighbourhood, woke up to a raging blaze, plumes of smoke, and screams. 49 migrants—all employed and housed by the NBTC group– were killed and roughly 50 other workers were injured. From drivers and deliverymen to engineers and accountants, the majority of the deceased hailed from India, and fatalities also included migrants from the Philippines. The Kuwait Fire Force’s investigation indicated that the blaze originated with a short circuit, further fuelled by flammable wall partitions and poor storage of gas cylinders. The high number of deaths was attributed to inadequate fire escape routes due to the closure of the roof terrace on the overcrowded premises.

The magnitude of the tragedy sent shockwaves through local media and elicited an uncharacteristically swift response from authorities. The incident took place not in some remote and isolated desert map but in a densely packed neighbourhood home to migrants from diverse backgrounds. During a visit to the site of the fire, Kuwait’s Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister, Fahad Al Yousuf Al Sabah, laid blame at the door of greedy property owners who violated building safety standards. Municipal officials were suspended, representatives of NBTC Group were referred to prosecution, and a sweeping inspection of commercial housing properties – where most non-citizens live – was launched across the country. Real estate companies and employers sent fire safety notices to their tenants and employees. Statements of condolences poured in, and funds were raised for victims’ families.

Essential and unseen  

At first glance, the incident seems to be merely the result of housing safety negligence . However, as anyone with more than a passing familiarity with Kuwait knows, the true cause runs deeper. The Mangaf fire is the unsurprising result of a host of structural issues inherent to the Kafala system and exclusionary urban governance practices that shape the lives of Kuwait’s three million foreign residents, particularly working-class migrants who make up the majority of non-nationals and face the most marginalisation.

From its gleaming skyscrapers to its ever-expanding network of highways, from its hospitals and schools to luxurious shopping malls, there is hardly a single aspect of Kuwait’s built environment and economy that does not owe its existence to the sweat and labour of migrant workers. They have been and will continue to be essential.

Yet, migrant workers are invisible in the discourse and decision-making on the very issues that impact their rights and their lives. The Kafala system interrupts the relationship between government and migrant workers, by delegating key aspects of labour and migration governance to private citizens and employers,enabling a plethora of human rights violations.

In addition, urban governance in Kuwait, characterised by centralised decision-making by a handful of national entities, fosters an unsustainable and exclusionary urban experience. The country and its population are spatially segregated by design, a policy decision dating back to the country’s first master plan in the 1950s. Kuwaiti citizens live mostly in low-density areas with single-family type homes, while non-Kuwaitis cannot own property and mostly rent in high-density apartment-style vertical housing.

Moreover, the Kuwait Municipality and the Supreme Council for Planning and Development are the most influential bodies when it comes to urban spatial planning and development. These entities operate at the national policy level rather than as local entities that serve residents

While this affects the entire population, the disconnect, distance, and disenfranchisement for Kuwait’s foreign residents, is far greater. Non-Kuwaitis have no say in how the city looks and functions, having neither political nor municipal representation. Recent research has shown that this dynamic contributes to reinforcing policy choices such as the segregation of residential neighbourhoods by nationality, and limits much-needed efforts to expand housing development for non-citizens.

There is thus a mismatch between representation and interests. And in this context, imperative issues like housing safety get delegated to employers and real estate developers who do not have the incentive to effectively comply with regulations, as demonstrated by the fatal Mangaf fire.

Having migrated in search of employment to support their families in countries of origin, workers earning as little as KD 75 (USD 244) each month (the national minimum wage) often remit the majority of their income, leaving little for themselves. Employers are obliged by Kuwait’s labour law to provide “suitable” accommodation or housing allowances to certain categories of low wage-earning workers, but not enough to guarantee that accommodation is dignified and supports residents’ wellbeing with many of the housing options being relegated to shared bed spaces for low-income migrants. This perpetuates a reliance on slum lords who are committed to collecting rent but have limited incentive for maintenance and upkeep, especially when enforcement is lacking. Many migrant workers also have little access to accurate information on their labour rights, let alone to complaints mechanisms with municipal health and safety authorities.

Reactionary accountability  

In the immediate aftermath of the Mangaf fire, there have been glimmers of public accountability. The Public Authority for Manpower (PAM), received direct orders, from Deputy Prime Minister Fahad Al Yousuf Al Sabah, to halt all governmental contracts with companies who have not updated their employees’ lodging information. Government officials also criticised a privacy law that impedes commercial housing inspections. The head of Kuwait City’s Municipality, Saud Al-Dabous, noted to local press that the privacy law “stops us from entering commercial buildings unless with the Public Prosecution’s permission or written permission by the landlord”. Al-Dabous also suspended the operations of Al-Ahmadi’s municipality, which manages Mangaf, pending a thorough investigation.

Initial arrests have been made, and profiteering landlords publicly have been warned. Kuwait’s government and NBTC Group have pledged USD 15,000 and USD 9,600 respectively as compensation to each of the bereaved families, a small sum when so many of the victims had at least two to three decades of work and life ahead of them. NBTC has also promised compensation of USD 2,400 to each of those injured. It is worth mentioning that many of the deceased (the youngest was 23, oldest 65, and the majority in their 30s) were in their prime with very young families, with several more years of productivity. Even the combined sums do not come close to fulfilling the needs of their dependents.

While welcome, these measures have been accompanied by others that reveal the overall response’s short-sighted nature. Nationwide inspections may have eliminated some immediate safety risks for now, but they are not a long-term solution. They have tackled violations such as the creation of unauthorised additions to buildings to house more workers, improper storage of flammable materials, use of basements for unauthorised purposes and so on. But to date, official statements have not indicated any meaningful attempts to address the underlying urban policies and challenges, let alone utter the words kafala.

Despite existing laws that levy penalties for housing and safety violations, the government’s approach has been to deflect consequences onto migrant workers, rather than holding employers and real estate agents accountable. Less than a week after the tragic fire, the government reportedly declared that it would evict and deport workers found living in housing that violates safety codes. Deportations, averaging a record-breaking 100 migrants expelled daily last year, have long been the primary method for dealing with complex challenges of human trafficking and visa trading in Kuwait. Following a three-month amnesty period, authorities have launched a new inspection and deportation campaign targeting workers with irregular residency status. Yet, the move to deport workers because of their housing conditions leaves them facing the combined weight of inadequate rights protections on the one hand and the risk of losing their livelihood on the other.

Authorities have thus prioritised quick measures over actual reform, namely tackling the kafala system at its roots. Meanwhile, landlords and employers have found it sufficient to send perfunctory safety messages, passing the bulk of the burden on to their tenants and workers. These measures sidestep more constructive solutions like accessible health and safety education, housing improvements, or legal exemptions to the privacy law for labour inspectors.

Systematically expendable

Housing safety is far from the only issue where migrant workers’ needs and experiences are ignored. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, some hailed it as the great equaliser. After all, a virus does not care about the colour of our skins, our passports, or monthly pay cheques. Studies have since shown that in its first year, the coronavirus pandemic led to a disproportionate increase in excess mortality among non-citizens when compared to the Kuwaiti population. Compared to expected “normal” mortality levels for each group, estimates show a 32.4 percent increase in deaths among Kuwaitis in 2020, with the figure for non-Kuwaitis being 71.9 percent.

The failure to account for differences in housing and urban environments in the implementation of partial curfews and lockdowns also had diverging impacts for the two groups — speeding up and increasing disease transmission among the non-nationals. When vaccines became available, migrant workers found themselves at the back of the queue, with governments choosing to prioritize access based on citizenship rather than medical need. For many, vaccine access was ultimately facilitated through employers eager to return to pre-COVID productivity levels, rather than directly through the Ministry of Health

Another imminent concern is climate change, a subject that has struggled to capture the attention of decision makers. In the absence of proactive mitigation and adaptation measures that account for the socioeconomic realities of different resident communities, it will once again be Kuwait’s most vulnerable residents who bear the brunt of the climate impacts. The country has recently extended its summer ban on outdoor work (from 11 am to 4 pm during the months of June and August) to include motorcycle delivery workers. Despite these regulations, male migrants who make up the majority of outdoor workers in sectors like construction and agriculture, already face significantly higher levels of heat-stress related mortality. Unable to meet the surge in electricity usage during the extreme summer heat Kuwait has resorted to scheduled power cuts during peak hours, as the nation’s power plants are unable to meet the demand. While more affluent households may afford generators and inverters to tackle power cuts, this is likely not an option for migrant workers who live in company-provided cramped accommodation. Furthermore, the peak hours coincide with the midday work ban, during which time they are likely to go back to their living quarters, and be forced to stay in unventilated and overcrowded rooms that would have heated up through the morning, without power to cool down. Workers who cook their own food will have to contend with the possibility of their food going bad because of refrigeration not working due to power cuts.

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Making migrant lives visible  

Much ink has been spilled on the challenges faced by migrant workers living under the kafala system. Yet for those in power — governments and employers alike — workers remain only as resources to be managed.

NBTC Group posted a statement on its Instagram account on 15 June 2024 mourning the loss of lives, announcing financial support for grieving families, and promising cooperation with local authorities. The statement does not acknowledge any aspect of the company’s potential culpability, let alone how it will ensure the safety of its workforce in the future. Elsewhere, NBTC leadership have rejected any responsibility outright and have denied the existence of overcrowded conditions.

The Kuwait Fire Force has recently announced plans to roll out a mechanism to link fire alarm systems in buildings with the KFF’s central command, with the goal to expedite responses to emergencies. When and how such a mechanism would be implemented is yet to be seen.

Yet, from housing safety to climate change, true reform in Kuwait requires an approach to urban governance that acknowledges and protects the rights of the country’s most essential and marginalised to live safe and dignified lives. It requires a serious and practical deconstruction of how the country governs migration and labour policy, i.e. the kafala system. Officials and decision makers need to engage with migrant workers as allies and constituents (even if they cannot vote), not merely as victims or, worse, security threats who need to be corralled into geographically isolated labour camps. A more critical understanding by both governmental authorities and employers may finally address the many and largely overlapping challenges migrant workers face day in and out.

In March 2024, the Kuwait Municipality reportedly signed onto a housing deal to construct a new 16-building complex in Sabhan that would house approximately 3,000 migrant workers. The plans promise commercial malls, cafés, entertainment services, governmental offices and many more amenities with accessible public. Yet, “labour cities” of this type, while nominally motivated by a desire to improve workers’ conditions, serve primarily to isolate and cordon off migrant workers from the rest of the country’s residents. They do not guarantee safety or dignity.

Ultimately, time will tell if recent events would lead to any tangible and lasting reforms. The fact that it took authorities the loss of so many lives to enforce basic fire safety regulations, should give us pause. Do we value the lives of the most vulnerable only when their charred remains lie in coffins? Do our hearts break only at the knowledge of bereaved parents, spouses, and children? Do we speak up for workers’ rights to merely minimise our liability and save face? The Mangaf fire is no wake-up call. It is a testament to a collective and systemic failure to treat all human lives as equal. And unless this fundamental inequity is meaningfully undone, little can be expected to change.


Image credit: The NBTC workers’ accommodation before the fatal fire, from Google Maps