The Arabian Gulf and the Exclusion of Non-Citizens from Universal Labour Rights: Focus on Kuwait

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Numbers Matter.

Many of our most important decisions are logically weighed and decided on by factoring numbers into our most difficult choices—whether we admit it or not.  A decision to attend one university and forgo another might come down to the best financial aid package offer put forward in the admissions letter.  Whether we arrive on time or late for that first, intimidating job interview is captured in those few seconds that were lost fumbling for change at the ticket machine to catch the metro train.  Numbers carry weight and can evoke irrecoverable consequences, so we must respect their great power to change our lives. 

Numbers perhaps matter the most to the vulnerable members of society—those sitting precariously near the poverty line, the illegal and the unaccounted for and victims of injustice.  One simple number can make a great difference in the fate of their lives.  Enticing promises of a better situation are often made with luring numbers.  On the other hand, fear of numbers can also keep people from reaching out and speaking up when they are in a bad situation: fear of loan debts amounts, years of a prison sentence, salary cuts, etc.

Each year, thousands of migrants travel from countries around the world (such as Egypt, India, Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines, Pakistan Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) in hopes of a better economic future working in low-skilled labor posts in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula.  The six Gulf Cooperation Council (or GCC) States include Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.  These immigrants come to work in many sectors that form the backbone of the economy.  Their occupations include construction workers, domestic aid, cleaners, guards, taxi drivers and other forms of basic services. 

However, these migrants are often the victims of verbal and physical abuse, sex crimes, visa and loan money scams, and overall discrimination.  The threat of deportation and the practice of many visa sponsors of confiscating their passports put many of these workers in a situation from which they cannot escape, as paperless prisoners in the country or as indentured servants.  Furthermore, many employers withhold full payments of salaries as a manipulation tactic.  Much of the quick development of these rapidly globalizing and urbanizing desert kingdoms has been made by turning a blind eye to international labor standards.  However, international criticism and attention on the plight of these workers is now forcing these countries to reflect on their policies. 

According to the World Bank, as of 2007 Kuwait ranks second after Luxembourg in the world in terms of gross national income per capita according to purchasing power parity.[i]  Here are some numbers that make a difference in this country:

Real Numbers

·         2/3

The portion of the population in Kuwait that is comprised of non-Kuwaitis, foreign workers and expatriots –the majority of the country’s residents

·         3

The tier rating of Kuwait in the 2008 US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report.[ii]  This is the lowest ranking (1 being the highest), shared by Algeria, Burma, Cuba, Fiji, Iran, Moldova, North Korea, Oman, Papua New Guinea, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Syria.  These countries’ governments “do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.”

Irrational Numbers

·         40 KD (151 USD)

This is the minimum wage per month set for laborers, in a country where the average income per month for a local Kuwaiti family is 2,200 KD (7,565 USD)[iii]

·         50°C (122°F)

The temperature at which all outdoor activity must stop by law, although there are allegations of the government’s Meteorological Division falsifying the readings to underestimate the true temperature[iv]

Imaginary Numbers

·         ???  

         The true number of workplace-related accidents and deaths among migrant workers due to safety negligence and purposeful violations

·         ???  

         The true number of hate-related crimes and discriminatory abuse, especially related to domestic violence, sexual offenses and heckling towards female migrant women

·         ???  

         The true number of suicides per annum of migrant workers in Kuwait, as well as the amount of untreated cases clinical depression

You Count Too!

Knowledge is the first step to making a difference.  In some ways, repeated focus of the western media on Dubai’s migrant problems has eclipsed attention on the greater Gulf region that also shares this labour question.  The most challenging aspect of the problem is that it also takes the support of domestic citizens in these countries to rally for policy change—especially coming from a new, rights-focused youth.  Some starting points for reading up on the rights of migrants and/or issues related to the Gulf include the following websites:

A Project of Mideastyouth :

The Middle East/ North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch:

The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights:

The International Labour Organization Migration Programme:

1 Response on "The Arabian Gulf and the Exclusion of Non-Citizens from Universal Labour Rights: Focus on Kuwait"

  1. Heya! this is Sophia, editor of Migrant Rights. Thanks for linking to us. I agree wholeheartedly that knowledge is the first step towards making a difference. It's a disgrace that the majority of the blue-collar workers in the Gulf don't enjoy even the most basic labour rights - and we need to start by getting more people talking about this situation!