Woes of Foreign Workers in Kuwait Hundreds of thousands get half the promised wages

The Daily Star  |  August 25, 2008

August 25, 2008 

By Staff Correspondent

Hundreds of thousands of foreign guest workers including 2.40 lakh Bangladeshis in Kuwait are forced to continue jobs for half the wages their contracts pledge, says a US-based worker rights watchdog report.

National Labour Committee (NLC), a non-government organization working to promote worker rights in the global economy, released the report in New York on August 21.

The report describes how the workers have got to work seven days a week under inhumane conditions with their passports seized by the employers in the Middle Eastern country.

"Workers who ask for their proper wages are beaten and threatened with arrest and deportation. They are housed in squalid, overcrowded dorms with eight workers sharing a 10-by-10-foot room, sleeping on narrow, double-level metal bunk beds," it reads.

The NLC report also mentions Camp Arifjan, a US military base in Kuwait, where at least 310 Bangladeshi workers had to work 11 hours a day and seven days a week as cleaners until their deportation.

It says most of the guest workers earn $34.72 for working 70 hours, whereas they should make at least $63 as per the three-year contracts they had purchased to work in Kuwait.

Many of them work seven days a week for wages of just 14 to 36 cents an hour. It means they are being deprived of up to 84 percent of the 90-cent-an-hour wage they were pledged.

In the first seven months of this year, the Bangladeshi workers at the US base were not paid over $250,000 of their wages, it said, adding that the Kuwaiti companies working with the US military illegally withheld the sums.

Because of underpayment, some workers at the US military base had to take second jobs in order to survive. Sabur, one of them, was working 131 hours a week with just three hours sleep a day.

In early 2008, food prices shot up in Kuwait, pushing the workers further into misery, the labour rights body observed.

On July 27, some 80,000 workers mostly cleaners joined a work stoppage to demand proper wages and respect to their rights.

By and large, the strike was peaceful. Still, the Kuwaiti police attacked the workers at the US military base. They fired teargas shells and kicked and clubbed the workers at their dorms, said the report, the first by an international rights group after the labour strike in late July.

During their five-day detention, the workers were beaten up again. They were deported without $5,000 or more in arrears.

Over the years, the Kuwaiti government did little to enforce its own labour laws or put an end to rampant abuse and exploitation of hundreds of thousands of guest workers. But its response to the labour unrest was harsh and swift, observed the NLC account.

Kuwaiti police beat and arrested hundreds of workers while 1,129 were deported to Bangladesh, it added.

"It would be a horrible turn of events if Operation Desert Storm and all the sacrifices made by US troops have in some way freed Kuwait to traffic in hundreds of thousands of foreign guest workers, who are stripped of their passports, forced to work long hours, cheated of their wages, and then beaten and deported when they ask that their most basic rights be respected," NLC Director Charles Kernaghan told English language daily Kuwait Times.

The NLC says the irony is that Bangladesh contributed 2,300 soldiers, who fought as part of the international coalition to liberate Kuwait.

"Now it is time for the full State Department and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as well as the US Military to press Kuwait to immediately take concrete steps to end human trafficking and to guarantee respect for the core internationally recognized labour rights of the foreign guest workers," it concludes.

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