KUWAIT CITY // With searing temperatures coinciding with the Ramadan fast in August, Kuwait's army of foreign labourers face a double-barrelled challenge to staying healthy in the summer heat.
In theory, a government ban on outdoor work between 11am and 4pm from June to August should protect the country's street cleaners, gardeners and builders from the potentially deadly effects of working in direct sunlight during the hottest part of the day when temperatures reach above 45 degrees. But critics say the ministry of social affairs and labour's failure to implement the ban is allowing companies to put manual labourers at risk.
"In the last two years there were no fines, but this year seven companies got fined," said Meqdad Jumah, 36, an engineer at the ministry's labour inspection department during a recent visit to a building site in the suburb of Bayan. The ministry - which has set up a hotline for residents to report violations - had received a tip-off that labourers were toiling under the sun.
On reaching the site at around 12.30pm, the inspectors found several Asians constructing a new bank building and issued a warning to the contractor. Inspectors said the company would face fines of up to 200 Kuwaiti dinars (Dh2,685) for each employee discovered outside in a return inspection in three days.
Hussein Al Mutairi, 41, a supervisor of the inspection team, said the ministry "closes the file" of fined companies to prevent them from receiving new visas until they pay up. He said the enforcement effort means fewer companies are forcing their employees to work outside.
Mr Jumah said: "Some of the workers say it's all right to work outside because they're Christian or Hindu and they can eat and drink during Ramadan, but I tell them it's still a problem. It's too hot, there's so much sun."
The rules allow for some types of outdoor work, such as refilling cars at petrol stations, when employees can carry out their duties in the shade, he explained.
"If the manager says work, I work; If he says don't work, I don't work," said one of the Asian labourers at the building site, shocked by the sudden attention from the Kuwaiti authorities. His foreman said the labourers were working during the hottest part of the day to finish the building as soon as possible.
"Most of the companies are cooperating," said Sultan Hassan, the controller of labour inspection at the ministry's headquarters in Dajeej. "The bigger companies are following the law; they do most of their work at night."
Mr Hassan said the team's 18 inspectors discovered 1,543 workers violating the ban at 1,431 different locations during the six weeks of the summer.The dangers of working in Kuwait's heat came to public attention in June, when the local media reported that a labourer fell to his death from a communications tower after suffering heatstroke. After the incident, a Kuwaiti human-rights organisation urged the ministry to revise their strategy to ensure companies are following the rules.
"We have many complaints from migrant workers and we have said to the ministry we have a big problem but we're not finding real action," said Abdulrahman Al Ghanim, the head of migrant labour at Kuwait Trade Union Federation. "They don't inspect. We find nothing on the ground. They just sit in their offices."
At the building site in Bayan, Mohamed Saffan, the manager, was not too perturbed by the unannounced visit from the Kuwaiti authorities. After a discussion with the inspectors he said: "From tomorrow nobody is going to be working in the sun. It's a fair decision."
The visit from the ministry caused the company to adjust its schedule to finish the bank by the end of September, he said. "I'll get them to work two shifts at night," Mr Saffan said.