x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Payday for Kuwait's expat workers

In a move unprecedented in the Gulf region, Kuwait has introduced a minimum wage following a summer of violent protests.

Many immigrant workers live in squalor, but the new minimum wage will improve their lives.
Many immigrant workers live in squalor, but the new minimum wage will improve their lives.

KUWAIT CITY // At a skip outside a building that houses cleaning workers, a Bangladeshi man is wrapping foam stuffing from an old sofa into a bundle, which he hopes to sell at the market to supplement his income.

A dozen cleaners wearing identical blue uniforms file past him. They are returning home after a long shift of cleaning toilets and floors, and are looking forward to an afternoon meal of rice and boiled eggs in their cramped quarters. Despite the impression of gloom, the mood in one of the bedrooms shared by four men is surprisingly upbeat. For many of them have received a pay rise. In a move unprecedented in the Gulf region, Kuwait has introduced a minimum wage for low-paid foreign workers following a summer of violent protests by migrant labourers unhappy with poor wages and delayed salaries.

The decision, made by the cabinet, affects only cleaners and security guards. Cleaners, some of whom received as little as eight Kuwaiti dinars (Dh120) a month, will now receive 40 dinars, and security guards 70 dinars a month. It is not known precisely how many people this will affect, but there are 300,000 such workers contracted to the government alone. "Before I earned 30 dinars a month and now it is 40," said Younis, who comes from a village outside the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, but who did not want his last name published. "This is better because I can send an extra two dinars home."

His friend Mohammed, 42, another cleaner who supports 15 relatives in Bangladesh on the same salary, was pleased because his employer now paid him regularly. "Before the strike we got a salary every two or three months, and now it is once a month," he said. Several workers said their lives had improved since July, when a strike by thousands of mainly Bangladeshi cleaners and security guards escalated to riots with police firing tear gas. The violence ended when a cabinet minister promised to increase their wages. About 1,000 migrant workers, however, were deported.

The violence shocked many Kuwaitis who feel overwhelmed by the 2.3 million expatriate workforce - mainly from India, Bangladesh and the Philippines - who represent 80 per cent of the population. An increasing number of critics are now calling for a total overhaul of the system governing low-paid labour. "At this stage I am very satisfied," said Waleed al Tabtabae, a Salafi MP and chairman of the government's human rights committee. "Some labourers have doubled their salaries because of [the minimum wage]. Still, it is not enough. We want to increase the minimum wage and also look at the situation of domestic workers."

The cabinet decision does not have weight of law but companies are implementing it under pressure from the government. However, the government plans to present it as legislation in parliament "as soon as possible", Mr Tabtabae said. To ensure companies comply, they must transfer wages electronically into their employees' bank accounts and provide proof to the ministry of social affairs and labour.

"Image is everything; [Kuwaitis] want to be seen as part of the modern world," said Laurie Clements, the country programme director of the Solidarity Centre, which helps workers organise unions. "Comparatively you could say this place compares well across the Gulf." Unions are legal in Kuwait - nationals have received pay increases and subsidies for food to ease inflation which runs at 10 per cent - but there are none that represent overseas labourers, many of whom are barely literate. A source close to the Indian migrant worker community said strikes occur several times a week at labour camps but are rarely reported in the press.

Maha al Barges of the Kuwait Human Rights Society urged the government to establish a separate ministry of labour to control migration of labourers and monitor their working conditions. "There should be one centralised government agency to deal with them," she said. "The labourers also need to have health insurance, a maximum number of hours for the work day. Some of the houses here, the fathers and sons rape the servant. It is terrible."

Last year, 1,300 female domestic servants took to the streets because they have to endure long working hours, and physical and sexual abuse. The visa sponsorship system, which is similar across the Gulf states, has been severely criticised. Companies are allocated a certain number of visas depending on their size but, due to lack of oversight, register for hundreds of extra visas and sell them to potential employees for as much as 500 dinars, sometimes using agencies in South Asia as middlemen. "Most of them are so poor they sell their land, their houses to come here," said Ms Barges.

When the workers arrive in Kuwait and the promised job does not materialise because the company does not need the extra labour, they end up on the street trying to pay off their debts. Some commit suicide, said Ali al Barjas, head of the complaints committee for the society. "They sell alcohol or they sell drugs. They don't go home because Kuwait is still better than home," he said. Some observers say there must be a realistic but fair expectation of what workers from developing countries can be paid.

"You aren't going to get a construction worker earning as much as a Kuwaiti, it's not going to happen," said Mr Clements. "But there should be a benchmark of goods to determine a comfortable living, like create a basket of essential foods so the government can track the prices after inflation and measure what people's living standards are." Some Kuwaitis say South Asian governments should take more responsibility for their citizens' well-being. But with so much money at stake - last year, Bangladeshis working overseas sent home US$6.1 billion - the embassies are sometimes reluctant to be seen to cause problems.

Back at the building housing the cleaners, the men look confused when they are asked why they do not complain to their embassies. "Embassy? Why?" asked Mohammed, 31, who drives a van. "There is no benefit for us to do this. At least we are making more here than we do back home. We don't want to cause problems." hghafour@thenational.ae