Kuwait's Foreign Labor: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

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A Kuwaiti customer orders sweets at a pastry shop during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, on 16 July 2013, in Kuwait City. (Photo: AFP - Yasser Al-Zayyat)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Kuwait City - On the morning of June 26, Kuwaiti security forces conducted one of their largest raids ever, in the poorer, neglected Kuwaiti governorates of Ahmadi and Hawally. According to the local press, 445 expats were arrested, many of whom will likely face immediate deportation back to their home countries.

This incident was part of a larger crackdown that has been ongoing for the past three months in the tiny oil-rich emirate, where authorities have targeted expat labor, particularly blue-collar workers from South and East Asia.

The crackdown formally kicked off in March when the Minister of Social Affairs and Labor, Thekra al-Rasheedi, announced a plan to reduce the number of foreign expats by half, from 2 million to only 1 million by 2023, culling about 100,000 expats per year.

“It’s part of the ministry’s efforts to regulate the labor market, curb the phenomenon of marginal labor and restore the demographic equilibrium of the country,” she said in a statement to the Kuwait news agency.

So far thousands have been arrested and forcibly deported for an array of violations. The campaign is being coordinated by a number of ministries and security departments, and is being spearheaded aggressively by Assistant Undersecretary for Traffic Affairs Major General Abdul Fattah al-Ali, under the pretext of “cleaning” the country.

This campaign has left Kuwait’s foreign labor force living in the constant fear of deportation.

‘This is Kuwait’

Safwa, an alias granted for her protection, is a 63-year-old Sri Lankan woman who is currently independently employed as a domestic maid, meaning she is not tied to any one Kuwaiti household. Safwa lives right across from one of the buildings targeted by the security forces on June 26, and watched silently from the window of her apartment as tens of men and women were forced onto buses.

Small in stature, shy in word, and hands coarse from decades of labor, Safwa came to Kuwait in the early 1990s, along with thousands of other women from South Asia, hoping to earn a living for herself and her four children back home. Her official classification at the time was “domestic worker.”

Like many female domestic workers in the Gulf, Safwa says she suffered traumatic experiences working in Kuwaiti households, which is why she decided to strike out and work on her own. One family patriarch attempted rape, she says, but she was able to escape with the help of his wife. Then, during a stint as a grocery store cashier, Safwa’s boss ordered her to wear a veil. One day, she was instructed to accompany him to a photo studio for an identity card snapshot. Instead, he took her to an empty apartment. Safwa was able to fight him off, but was emotionally shaken.

“This is Kuwait. When I allowed these situations to happen, life is like hell. But I did not allow it. Cleaning bathrooms gives me more peace of mind. We came to Kuwait to make money, not to do something bad,” she said.

Now Safwa is deeply concerned about her future. Working as a freelance cleaner is a violation of the conditions of her work permit – an Article 18 visa – specifically designated for work as a house tailor. Her transfer from an Article 20 to Article 18 was facilitated by a sympathetic Kuwaiti man, who routinely renews the visa for her pro bono. This is quite rare and fortunate for her.

However today if caught by the security forces, she would be summarily deported.

“I feel bad in Kuwait. So many strange things are happening. Some people have problems and it is scary. We are scared it will happen to us,” Safwa says in a timid voice.

Safwa is not alone in her apprehension. Concerns for the future permeate the expatriate communities in Kuwait, already vulnerable to the dictates of government policy and security crackdowns.

‘Worst Crackdown’

“This is the worst crackdown I have seen. What makes this one different is that in the past the ministries came out with clear procedures about what they were doing. Now, there is silence,” a Southeast Asian journalist, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, tells Al-Akhbar.

The journalist arrived in Kuwait 16 years ago. He began work for one of the few English-language newspapers and writes exclusively on issues pertaining to the expat communities in the country.

While the authorities have officially stated that they are arresting expats for repeated traffic infractions or visa violations, the journalist explains, reports have reached the press and foreign embassies that expats are being arrested and deported on minute technical grounds.

These include: arrests and deportations for the use of Voice-over IP applications like Skype, apartment sharing, transporting people in private cars, as well as being caught by the police in areas outside of their employment zones.

These types of restrictions are significant. Because of their low wages, blue-collar expats are often forced to share apartments and transportation, as well as seek additional work outside their jobs in order to save money to send to their families.

He points to the curious case of a Filipino employee for the Ministry of Defense. His crime was that he transported a friend from an apartment to the airport. He was stopped by the police, charged with commercial private transportation, and promptly deported. He was able to notify the Philippines embassy only after he arrived back in the Philippines.

Furthermore, according to the journalist, foreign NGOs such as the International Labor Organization, which has an office based in Kuwait, have remained silent about the campaign. Kuwaiti unions, civil society, and the Kuwaiti press have urged the authorities to practice restraint, yet there is no significant movement challenging or attempting to end the crackdown.

One lone Kuwaiti protester, Dr. Umran al-Qurashi, demonstrated in front of the court house in Kuwait City in support of the expats. Al-Qurashi is a well-known activist with a controversial history. He has suffered repeated arrests for demonstrating on a variety of issues, and was confined to a mental institution more than ten times by the Kuwaiti courts.

Hot-lines and Clarifications

“There are mixed feelings of fear and anxiety,” David Des T. Dicang, Labor Attaché for the Philippines Embassy in Kuwait, told Al-Akhbar during a phone conversation.

“[The campaign] seems to be wrong in terms of motion. There is a fear of driving together in the same car, even with co-workers, and other things. Even those with legal papers are confused. We have to help them understand that there is no panic as long as they have visa papers and are doing the right thing,” he added.

Dicang disclosed that embassy officials met with the Kuwaiti authorities to clarify the goals of the crackdown, and were only told that they are aimed at curbing illegal work and visa violations. According to Dicang, the authorities did not indicate when the crackdown would end.

In response to the growing unease, various embassies have established a hot-line for expats who have been arrested. Additionally, embassies have been coordinating with community leaders on a weekly basis to provide a support system and disseminate guidelines to “dispel wrong notions regarding the crackdown.”

“We respect the decision for security reasons. We know that the population of expats is much bigger in proportion to our hosts in Kuwait. We know that security-wise, it is their decision to send home those who have violated immigration laws,” the labor attaché asserted.

‘No Guarantees’

“The Kuwaiti police are raiding all the areas and checking IDs and visas,” Ahmad, a 29-year-old Bangladeshi who works as a document filer in a bank, claimed. “Legally, you can check people no problem. But suddenly they are taking people to the police headquarters and deporting them without their passports. The Bangladeshis, Indians, Sri Lankans suffer and the embassies do not help.”

Ahmad followed his brother to Kuwait in 2005 and has been in the country working various jobs ever since. He is one of the lucky few blue-collar worker who is not in violation of his visa papers. Nevertheless, he has been stopped on numerous occasions by the police.

“There are no guarantees. Today or tomorrow I can be deported. I worry when I go to the hospital or co-op. So I just go to work and come back home. It was not like this before,” he said, in between quick gulps from a glass of water.

“I can’t go back. There is no good work and problems in my country. I need money for myself and family, and then I can do something for my country.”

In a raid earlier that day, Ahmed’s friend Mubarak had been scooped up by the police. Mubarak’s papers indicated that he was on an Article 20 visa for domestic workers, but he was working as an electrician for a private company.

According to Ahmed, Mubarak was arrested on his way to pick up his salary; he had been working for three months without pay and was hoping to finally get his due.

“The company did nothing to help him. Will the Kuwaiti government collect his three-month salary and give it to him?” Ahmad asked sarcastically.

Moreover, Ahmad noted that most of the workers in Kuwait have come under the sponsorship of agencies or private Kuwaitis, who then collect money from the expats each year and usually assume them that it is alright to work different jobs.

“Kuwaitis give the visa for the domestic worker and get money for it. And then they say, ‘I don’t need you and you can go work outside.’ Every year, you pay $1,700 to $ 2,100. That’s the fee. Every month our salary is little, we can barely eat. It is very difficult,” he said.

Indeed, this is one of the major issues raised in private discussions about the crackdown. Expats are only able to enter on a visa as long as they have a Kuwaiti individual or company sponsoring them. The very presence of such a large number of foreigners can only be facilitated by local interests, which appear to have been profiting immensely by trading visas and getting a continual fee for renewing them.

“Visa trading has been going on for years. It was out in the open, and only recently went underground,” the journalist said of the practice. “I do believe that it is a matter of time before the police start targeting the traders.”

What has been shielding these ‘visa traders’ until now, he alleged, are unconfirmed reports that some of them enjoy political backing or themselves hold high positions in Kuwaiti society.

“Whatever work I do, good or bad, there is a Kuwaiti behind me. Why doesn’t the government go after them?” Ahmad wondered.

Fear Implies Guilt

“There are a lot of illegal people and there is no work here; it is better for them to work in their country,” argued a senior security official, who heads one of Kuwait’s police stations and requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue.

“If they are here they will go into crime. They are waiting around in the streets. Go see them. They will steal and create problems. If people have needs and no money, they will do bad things. I do think sponsorships are wrong and the expats are paying them, but there is simply no work,” he said.

When asked about the expat community’s fears over the crackdown, he responded bluntly: “If the person is afraid, to me this means they must be doing something wrong. If you have a residency and it is valid, and if you are working in the right place, the police will not do anything to you. There is a clear law. There is no human being on the ground of this country who should be afraid.”

He also insisted that no specific nationality is being targeted, and that the arrests have been a mixed pot that include some Arab nationals.

“Look, we don’t target Americans or Europeans because they do not violate the residency and visa laws and their numbers are not big. But, believe me, if they commit any wrong[doing], they will be held to account,” he said.

He further stressed that the crackdown was limited only to those who have violated or overstayed their visa conditions, nothing more.

For Safwa, it may only be a matter of time before she is swept up in the crackdown.

“Of course I will be sad if I have to leave Kuwait, “ she said softly. “I lived more of my life in Kuwait than in Sri Lanka. I like Kuwait, because I am working. It’s scary now. I don’t know why it’s like this. I don’t understand why they are doing this.”


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