Savage Exploitation of Migrant Workers in the Gulf countries

The recent fatal fire that killed 50 migrant workers — a majority of whom were Indians — in Mangaf area of the Al Ahmadi municipality in Kuwait, is a stark reminder of the inhuman, exploitative conditions faced by Indian workers forced to seek jobs in the Gulf countries.  

GCC_countriesIt is estimated that more than three crore migrant workers are working in the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) with nearly one crore from India alone. The GCC consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Yemen. In many of these countries the number of migrants far exceeds the number of citizens of the country.

The migrant workers are largely from the Indian sub-continent (India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal), from South-East Asia (Philippines, Thailand, etc.) as well as from the African countries. Migrant workers work mainly in the construction sector, sanitation, transportation, hospitality, and health care, as well as in the domestic sector. Their labour is a major contribution to the economic prosperity and development of the GCC countries.

Throughout the GCC countries migrant employment takes place under the kafala system. Under this system, migrant workers are treated as a temporary labour force with no rights. The rules and practices of this system make the worker a virtual bonded labourer.

These workers can only be brought into the country under the sponsorship of an employer. In almost all cases, thesponsor , takes away the worker’s passport making the worker totally dependent on his sponsor. Work and residence visas are tied to the employer, ensuring they have a stranglehold over their employees’ lives. The migrant worker is not permitted to change work or leave the country without explicit written permission of the sponsor.

In most GCC countires, there are no legal and institutional protection for workers hired under the kafala system. Workers are forbidden from participating in any kind of organisation or protest action. If workers protest against their living and working conditions, they are promptly deported.

The kafala system, sets the minimum wage for migrant workers far below the cost of decent living in that country. For example, in Kuwait the minimum wage is only KD 75 when the cost of a decent living is more than KD 200 without including the cost of accommodation. By keeping the minimum wage far below the cost of living, the kafala system permits the employers to have a stranglehold over their workers. These workers become critically dependent on their employers for accommodation, food, transportation and other essentials of life. The kafala system in Kuwait stipulates that the employer engaged in government projects must either provide accommodation to their migrant workers or give them one-sixth to one-quarter extra wage towards the cost of accommodation.

Given the extremely low wages, most migrant workers are forced to live in unsafe and over-crowded accommodations.

Migrant_workers_living_conditions_in_Kuwait
A typical migrant workers accommodation in Kuwait

The seven-storey building in which more than 50 workers were burnt to death in Mangaf, Kuwait recently, accommodated almost 200 workers! Thus almost 30 workers were cramped into each floor.

The Kuwaiti authorities have claimed that they will carry out investigation into the company NBTC, in whose building the workers were burnt to death. NBTC was also the workers’ employer. Some officials have been suspended for failure to maintain building codes. However, the conditions the workers are forced into, under the prevailing kafala system, which is responsible in the first place, for such tragedies, are well-known to the authorities and continue with the full connivance of the authorities. The rulers of the GCC countries use the kafala system to amass huge wealth by super-exploiting the migrant workers. They have absolutely no intention of changing that system.

Just a few years ago, during the COVID-19 pandemic, GCC states imposed severe lockdown restrictions on the migrant workers, trapping them in crowded spaces and not allowing them to access any services easily. Kuwait had some of the most cruel lockdown practices, particularly in areas densely populated by migrant workers such as Jleeb, Mahboula, and Hasawiya. Tens of thousands of workers were deported at the height of the pandemic in April 2020. Tragedies such as the fire in Mangaf are clearly not the first, nor will they be the last!

The Indian government has organised for the transportation of the mortal remains of the Indian workers killed in this incident and announced compensation to the families of those who died or were seriously injured. The Indian government is very well aware of the terrible condition in which the Indian migrant workers are forced to live and work in the GCC countries. However, despite repeated tragedies such as this, it has done nothing to address the inhuman exploitation of its people under the kafala system. For our rulers, Indian workers forced into bondage in GCC countries are not humans but merely a source of remittance of foreign exchange! There is no system whereby the workers can lodge complaints about their working and living conditions with the government back home.

Our workers are forced to accept this slavery in the GCC countries, given the terrible and rising unemployment situation in our country. Their exploitation and bondage are a glaring indictment of the utterly anti-people character of our rulers.

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