The coronavirus pandemic is an all-encompassing world-wide problem, and has affected an incalculable number of countries, regions and facets of society. Unfortunately, the most vulnerable people in society are proving to be the worst hit. One particularly vulnerable group in this time of crisis are the migrant workers in Kuwait. A series of Arab celebrities and high-ranking officials publicly out bursting in angry tirades has put the spotlight on the treatment of expatriates in the Gulf region.
A divisive social-media campaign spearheaded by Arab celebrities and high-ranking officials bolstered the issue of migrant workers into the forefront of Kuwaiti coronavirus discourse. Just recently, the famous Kuwaiti actress Hayat Alfahad launched a tirade against the vulnerable group by suggesting that migrant workers should be “sent out” or “put in the desert” now that the crisis is pushing kuwaiti resources to their breaking point. Alfahad stated “If we get sick, there aren’t enough hospitals. If their own countries don’t want them, what are we supposed to do with them? Doesn’t logic dictate that in times of distress, it is better to get rid of these people? Deport them or throw them out. By Allah, they should be thrown out into the desert. I am not against humane treatment, but we have gotten to a point where we are full”. Similarly, in March Kuwaiti MP Safaa al-Hashem called for the deportation of foreign workers who had overstayed their visas in order to “purify” the country from the risk they posed of transmitting the virus. These vicious attacks hit the migrant worker community hard, and despite playing an essential role for the Kuwaiti economy, abuse such as this goes vastly unpunished under Kuwaiti law.
Kuwait’s population accounts for approximately four million people. About 70 percent is made up of foreign nationals, mostly Indian and Filipinos. Despite some legislative changes being made by the Kuwaiti government since 2015, such as implementing a minimum wage for domestic workers, the state has done very little to effectively combat human rights abuses. One major problem is the kafala system, which creates and sustains a society-wide structure of abusive labour practices; as unskilled laborers are dependent on their employee sponsor in order to be admitted to work within the country. In practice, the exploitative system renders laws that are designed to protect migrant workers totally meaningless. The abuse is so severe that many countries, such as Indonesia, Ghana and Uganda have banned citizens from obtaining work visas from Kuwait. Inhumane and degrading treatment such as debt bondages and human and sex trafficking is such an endemic issue that it has as much as an impact as an economic recession. Thus, leaving such protections to legislative instruments is not enough to eradicate the problems that migrant workers frequently face in Kuwait.
Migrant workers in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states such as Kuwait are severely exploited as forced laborers; they are lured into the country on false promises, work under extreme conditions, endure appalling living conditions and sometimes work without wages altogether. This is due to the fact that their passports and cellphones are taken from them by their employers, removing avenues for which they could leave under their own volition. Even if they try to escape, they are an easy target for traffickers. Because of this, migrant workers are essentially modern day slaves in Kuwait. Particularly vulnerable to human trafficking and sexual and physical abuse are women coming to work in Kuwait as domestic workers. Behind closed doors, they often have to endure severe sexual and physical maltreatment.
In recent years, the deaths of a number of domestic workers in Kuwait have garnered international attention. In 2014, a Filipina national domestic worker Lourdes Hingco Abejuela died due to the severity of wounds she had incurred after her employer’s pet lion attacked her. In 2017, video footage emerged that showed an Ethiopian domestic worker falling seven stories high from a video after begging her employer for help. In 2018, the body of Joanna Demafelis, a 28-year-old Filipina national domestic worker was found dead in the employer’s apartment. Forensic evidence determined that she had been tortured before being strangled to death – and that she had died over a year before her body was found. Demafelis’ death sparked a diplomatic crisis between the Philippines and Kuwait; resulting in the Philippines issuing a temporary ban on nationals seeking migrating to work in Kuwait. With the Kuwaiti government reluctant to lose out on its immense Filipino workforce, the legislature passed a law in 2018 requiring employers to allow; Filipino migrant workers the right to possess their own passport, the right to a 12-hour day; a one-hour break during the working day and one day off per week.
Despite this supposed progress however, in 2019 yet another body of Filipina national domestic worker Constancia Layo Dayag was found in a freezer with a cucumber stuffed in her genitals. After this discovery, migrant workers groups urged the Filipino government not to reestablish the 2018 ban as it might provoke an increase of human trafficking in the country. When footage emerged that showed embassy officials in Kuwait rescuing Filipino maids from their abusive employers, Kuwait declared the move an insult to its sovereignty and expelled the Philippine envoy and recalled its own Ambassador in Manila. Yet, with more than 250,000 Filipino migrant workers that make up approximately 60 percent of the domestic workforce in Kuwait, the country remains extremely dependent on the flow of workers from the Philippines. The nations thus initiated a new deal to regulate the employment of the migrant employees in Kuwait.
These incidents are certainly not exceptions. Rather, they reflect the horrendous conditions in which domestic workers and other migrant workers in Kuwait are expected to work and live in. The restrictions necessary to contain the spread of COVID-19 are likely to worsen these conditions. Employers may demand increased cleaning of the house without providing protective equipment. Moreover, they may also require their maids to take care of someone who became infected with the virus. At the same time, with the members of the household having to spend more time inside the house, domestic workers are increasingly exposed to physical and sexual abuse.
The current times leave migrant workers to bear the brunt of the pandemic. The closure of businesses in the Persian Gulf region has hit low-income migrant workers particularly hard as incomes and remittances decline sharply, which means “a loss of a crucial financial lifeline for many vulnerable households”. Furthermore, as stated in a report by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, “tightly packed labour camps, often in unsanitary conditions, some without access to running water” endanger the health of many migrant workers in Kuwait: “these conditions provide the perfect conditions for the spread of COVID-19. Quarantines and other movement and travel restrictions…may inadvertently raise the risk to workers, as well as result in workers suffering severe economic consequences from being unable to work”. Across the Gulf states, migrant workers account for the highest proportions of COVID-19 infections and in Kuwait, the official figures suggest that nearly all cases have been among foreigners. The most vulnerable are the low wage workers. Living in densely populated areas such as Jleeb Al Shuyoukh near the Kuwaiti Airport, an estimated 450,000 people live in condensed living spaces as small as eight square kilometers with sometimes 20 persons in one single room. Here, social distancing becomes virtually impossible.
The spread of the coronavirus is also a reminder of the strained civil society relations persistent in the country. Before COVID-19 was an issue, Kuwait’s migrant population had been scapegoated for a number of societal problems such as crime and traffic jams. Now, with lockdowns and declining oil prices, the public discussion surrounding Kuwait’s migrant population has become increasingly focused on blaming the expatriate population for draining the state’s resources. This is enforced even at the highest level: in daily announcements made by the government, nationality is used as means of identification: During the daily briefing of the Ministry of Health, statistics are broken down by nationality rather than the total number of cases being announced. Similarly, in the daily announcement, individuals violating the curfew are being shamed: Remarkably, individuals are identified as either ‘Kuwaiti’ or ‘Other Nationality.’ This kind of messaging has caused an influx of xenophobic social media posts and public statements against nationalities of migrant workers. This has taken a toll on their physical as well as mental health; with migrant workers already finding themselves in desperate conditions, Al Rai has reported nine suicides and four suicides attempted committed by members of the migrant population in the last four weeks.
The situation of migrant workers in Kuwait during the current coronavirus pandemic has caught the attention of human rights organizations around the world. Vani Saraswathi, associate editor of migrant-rights.org, stated that “there seems to be a disconnect in these countries about how much they need these workers. Their societies would literally fall apart if these workers were not there, but there is very little empathy for their situation.” On April 10, a coalition of 16 NGOs and trade unions, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Migrant-Rights.org, published a letter addressed to the Kuwaiti minister of social affairs and labour. In this letter, they urge the Kuwaiti government to ensure that migrant workers receive adequate protection from COVID-19 by taking actions that protect migrant worker health and public health in general. These actions shall include the provision of an equal “access to adequate housing facilities, including facility to isolate themselves if necessary, as well as adequate water, food and sanitation” to all workers, the distribution of protective equipment “with adequate health and safety requirements including those specific to COVID-19” and a monitoring of employers so that they “do not use the situation as a cover for introducing abusive practices such as unfair deductions or non-payment of wages or unfair dismissal”.
Migrant workers are extremely important to Kuwait’s economy, but without the abolition of the kafala system these workers will continue to be exploited and lack a voice in society. The added coronavirus pandemic will ensure that migrant workers in Kuwait will be the first ones to suffer. In order to prevent this, it is now up to the Kuwaiti government to consider and implement the demands voiced by human rights organizations that are standing up for Kuwaiti’s most vulnerable. Despite the implementation of laws that were designed to improve the living and working conditions of expatriates in Kuwait, the Bahraini government still has a long way to go in order to initiate effective change. Amongst others, this requires an actual enforcement of the laws and the abolition of the kafala system. However, having seen very little change in the recent past, we cannot solely rely on the Kuwaiti government. The international community also needs to pump the pressure to ensure the protection of expatriate workers in Kuwait; so as the laws enacted are more than just an empty promise written on paper.