July 21, 2008

Guest Workers Trafficked to Kuwait

Stripped of their passports, forced to work seven days a week at a U.S. military base, while being cheated of half their wages

Hundreds of thousands of foreign guest workers - among them 240,000 Bangladeshis - have been trafficked to Kuwait, where they are immediately stripped of their passports.  Many work seven days a week for wages of just 14 to 36 cents an hour, which means they are being cheated of up to 84 percent of the  90-cent-an-hour wage they were guaranteed when they purchased their three-year contracts to work in Kuwait.  Workers who ask for their proper wages are beaten and threatened with arrest and forcible deportation.  The workers are housed in sqalid, overcrowded dorms with eight workers sharing each small 10-by-10-foot room, sleeping on narrow, double-level metal bunk beds.

The recent dramatic rise in food costs-the price of many basic goods doubled-has drawn workers ever further into misery.

On July 27 and 28, approximately 80,000 mostly-Bangladeshi cleaning workers joined a work stoppage demanding their proper wages and an end to other abuses.  There was some limited rioting when the companies refused to negotiate.  In response, the Kuwaiti police beat and arrested hundreds of workers and, to date, 1,129 workers have been forcibly deported to Bangladesh.

Guest Worker Demands

  • Payment of 50 KD a month ($188, or 90 cents an hour);
  • Free health insurance as per the work contract they signed;
  • One day off a week;
  • Improved dorm conditions;
  • Dismissal of abusive, violent supervisors and managers;
  • Companies must pay for the workers' residency and work permits with no wage deductions;
  • Earned vacation leave after two years of work;
  • Limited paid sick days;
  • After two years of employment, workers should receive free airfare to return home;
  • The government of Kuwait must take responsibility to guarantee that all back wages owed the forcibly deported guest workers are paid, including wages illegally withheld, payment to make up for improper wages and wages that would have been earned during the remainder of the workers' three-year contracts;
  • Workers who were forcibly deported without being able to collect their personal belongings must be fairly compensated for the value of their possessions.

The workers' demands are modest, straightforward and in line with the work contracts they paid for and signed in Bangladesh.

The U.S. State Department Office to Combat Human Trafficking has done everything it can to pressure the Kuwaiti government to end human trafficking, return the workers' passports and guarantee that the legal rights of the workers will be respected.

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

Seventy-seven-hour Work Week at U.S. Military Base:

Mr. Sabur, who is 26 years old and from Bangladesh, started working at the U.S. military base Camp Arifjan in Kuwait in January 2008.  He had to pass through three security check points manned by Kuwaiti police before he could enter the base.  Along with 300 other guest workers, his job was to clean the base.  The workers cleaned tanks, rocket launchers and missiles as well as office and living spaces, including the bathrooms. He worked the night shift from 6:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. the following morning seven days a week.  Given the 11-hour shift, seven days a week, Mr. Sabur was putting in a 77-hour work week.  He was allowed a one hour break at midnight to eat his supper.

For the 70 hours of work, he was paid just $34.72 a week, or 50 cents an hour, which is  45 percent short of the 90-cent-an-hour wage he was guaranteed when he purchased his contract to work in Kuwait.  Even without including overtime premium or night shift differential, he should have earned at least $63 for the 70 hour work week, and not the $34.72 he was paid.  Mr. Sabur was cheated of $28.28 each week in wages due him, and $857.17 for the seven months of 2008 that he worked on the U.S. military base.  This is an enormous amount of money for these poor workers.  Mr. Sabur said that the U.S. troops themselves were always very kind and decent to him.

Mr. Sabur began working in Kuwait on May 19, 2006 for the Kuwait Waste Collection and Recycling Company, which has 2,000 guest worker employees.  His passport was immediately confiscated by company management.  Mr.Sabur had to pay 185,000 taka-$2,696.79-to an employment recruiting agency in Bangladesh to purchase his three-year contract to work in Kuwait.  His family sold everything they could-land, animals, tools, jewelry-so their son would have the money to go to Kuwait.  They were still 30,000 taka ($437.23) short, which they had to borrow from a neighbor.  In the Bangladeshi countryside, the interest rate to borrow money in the informal market is at least eight percent a month.  Essentially, the initial $437.23 loan doubles each year if it is not paid off.  This is why the hundreds of thousands of guest workers in Kuwait are in a trap, racing against time to pay off their debts.

Because he was being cheated of his lawful wages at the Arifjan U.S. military base, Mr. Sabur was forced to take a second job with the Ummal Hammal company, cleaning schools nine hours a day, at least six days a week.  Mr. Sabur worked from 5:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the school and only had time to quickly eat lunch and sleep for just three hours before starting his 6:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. shift at the U.S. military base.  Mr. Sabul was working 131 hours a week and trying to get by on just three hours of sleep a day!

Mr. Sabur and his colleagues were housed in a dilapidated six-story building in the Mahboula area where eight workers were crowded into small 10-by-10-foot room, sleeping on double-level bunk beds.

To prepare their food, 24 workers shared a single gas range with three burners.  The water supply to the dorm was irregular and limited.  On some days, the workers were allowed less than a gallon of water each-to drink, bathe and cook with.

Before joining the U.S. military base in January 2008, Mr. Sabur worked cleaning roads and buildings for the Kuwaiti government under contract with the same Kuwaiti Waste Collection and Recycling company.  While cleaning Kuwaiti government property, he was paid just 28 cents an hour and $13.37 a week, which is 70 percent short of the 90 cents an hour and $43.40 a week he was supposed to earn when he signed his contract. 

The Kuwaiti Waste Collection and Recycling Company also illegally withheld his first three months wages.  During his first three months in Kuwait-despite working cleaning government property-he had to borrow money from his fellow workers just to survive.

Near the end of 2007, Mr. Sabur asked his supervisor, Mr. Osman, to please pay the proper wages according to his contract.  The supervisor responded by beating him.  All across Kuwait, guest workers are frightened of being beaten and deported if they ask for their basic rights.  Like Mr. Sabur, workers have little choice but to keep quiet.  "Workers don't usually open their mouths," Mr. Sabur explained. 

But in January 2008, food prices began to soar in Kuwait, similar to what was happening worldwide.  Many of the basic foods the workers relied upon to survive doubled in price.  A quart of vegetable oil went from 80 cents in 2006 to $1.69 in mid-2008, a 211 percent increase.  The cost of rice also doubled, from 27 cents a pound in 2006 to 54 cents in 2008.  The cost of lentils is up 213 percent, from 60 cents a pound in 2006 to$1.28 now.  Beef increased from 94 cents to $1.88 per pound.  The cost of chicken is up 150 percent, having risen from $1.02 a pound in 2006 to $1.54 today.  The price of eggs is up 400 percent, while potatoes are up 300 percent, to 51 cents a pound.

Even before the surge in food costs, the workers were spending $37.62 to $41.38 per person each month just to eat.  Collectively, they were buying food items in bulk and cooking for themselves.

With the typical guest worker in Kuwait earning just $75.23 a month, this means that after deducting the average $39.50 the workers spend in food, they are left with just $35.86 a month to meet all other expenses and pay off their debts.

This is what ignited the strike when an estimated 80,000 mostly Bangladeshi cleaning workers joined a work stoppage on July 27-28 to demand their full wages and respect for their rights.  Workers from India, Sudan and Egypt also joined the stoppage.  On the 27th of July, workers gathered in front of their various company offices, expecting that management would at least seriously negotiate with them.  When there was no response at all, in frustration, some small groups of protestors rioted, smashing windows and damaging cars.

The response by the government was harsh and swift.  For years the government of Kuwait did not lift a finger to enforce its own labor laws or take a single step to end the rampant abuse and exploitation of the hundreds of thousands of guest workers trafficked to Kuwait.  The work stoppage and the limited violence led to mass arrests and beatings by the Kuwaiti police, with over 1,000 strikers forcibly deported to Bangladesh. 

Mr. Sabur did not participate in the protests, but he and his co-workers did join the work stoppage and did not leave their dorm on July 27.  At 3:00 p.m., Kuwaiti police entered the dorm by smashing the door open and breaking the lock.  Along with other workers, Mr. Sabur was badly beaten, struck on the back and legs with wooden batons the police were wielding.  He was struck 11 times and then kicked.  He was bruised all over his body.

The police then took Mr. Sabur and many of his co-workers to jail, where they remained imprisoned for five days.  Mr. Sabur was also beaten in prison.  They were prohibited from taking any of their belongings from the dorm.  They were unable to even change their clothes.  After five days, Mr. Sabur and the other workers were forcibly deported to Bangladesh.  Many workers got off the plane still bruised and with their clothing torn and stained with blood.

Mass Exploitation in Kuwait

Hundreds of thousands of Foreign Guest Workers Trafficked to Kuwait Systematically Cheated of their Wages

In Bangladesh, workers paid $2,697 to $4,373 to recruitment agencies to purchase three-year contracts to work in Kuwait.  The workers were guaranteed a minimum wage of 50 KD (Kuwaiti Dinar) a month, or $188.09.  (1 Kuwaiti Dinar = $3.76 U.S.)

Guaranteed Wage:  $188 a Month

90 cents an hour ($0.90425)
$7.23 a day (8 hour shift)
$43.40 a week (48 hours)
$188.09 a month
$2,257.02 a year

But no one was paid this wage!

Much more common was to be paid just 20 KD a month ($75.23).

Typical Guest Worker Wage-Cheated of 60 Percent of Rightful Wage

Paid just $75.23 a  Month

36 cents an hour
$2.89 a day (8 hours)
$17.36 a week (48 hours)
$75.23 a month
$902.81 a year


Some Workers Cheated of 84 Percent of the Wages Guaranteed them,

Paid Just 8 KD ($30.09) per Month

14 cents an hour
$1.16 a day (8 hours)
$6.94 a week (48 hours)
$30.09 a month
$361.12 a year

A significant number of workers were paid 18 KD ($67.71) per month, which is 64 percent lower than their contract in Bangladesh guaranteed.

Cheated of 64 Percent of their Wages

Paid just $67.71 per month

32.5 cents an hour
$2.60 a day (8 hours)
$15.63 a week (48 hours)
$67.71 a month
$812.53 a year

Following the massive strike of approximately 80,000 guest workers contracted to clean government properties, the Kuwaiti government is now saying it will institute a 40 KD ($150.47) a month minimum wage for cleaners.  This proposed new wage is still 20 percent below what the workers were guaranteed when they purchased their contracts to work in Kuwait.

Nor would this new minimum wage come anywhere even remotely close to being a subsistence wage.

New Proposed Below-Subsistence Wage

40 KD ($150.47) a Month

72 cents an hour
$5.79 a day (8 hours)
$34.72 a week (48 hours)
$150.47 a month
$1,805.62 a year

Blood Money:

When Mr. Sabur paid $2,696.79 to an employment agency in Bangladesh to purchase his three year work contract in Kuwait, he was guaranteed a wage of 90 cents an hour, $43.40 a week and $2,257.02 a year.  During his 26 months of work in Kuwait-including on a U.S. military base-before he was beaten, imprisoned and deported, Mr. Sabur never earned anywhere near the 90 cent-an-hour wage he was assured of.

The government of Kuwait owed Mr. Sabur at least $5,181 in back wages legally due him.  From May 2006 through July 2008, Mr. Sabur was underpaid by $2,736.  The cleaning company also illegally withheld his first three months' wages, which should have been paid at $188.09 a month, for a total of $564.27.  When Mr. Sabur was forcibly deported he still had ten months left on the work contract he paid for.  He is owed those ten months' wages of $1,880.90.   In Kuwait, while working under contract for the Kuwaiti government, Mr. Sabur was cheated of at least $5,181.17 in wages rightfully due him.  And this figure does not include the national holidays the workers were denied or their vacation time, which was supposed to be guaranteed after two years of work, nor the fact that they were cheated of their health insurance and paid no overtime premium.

Mr. Sabur is just one person among the estimated 240,000 Bangladeshi guest workers who are toiling in Kuwait.  And Mr. Sabur's case is by no means unique.  Imagine if all 240,000 workers are being similarly cheated of their rightful wages, this would mean that collectively the Bangladeshi workers have been robbed of $1.2 billion!

There is no way the exact amount of back wages owed will ever be known, but the exploitation and robbing of the Bangladeshi guest workers in Kuwait surely amounts to blood money, given that hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars are being transferred from some of the poorest (yet hardest working) people anywhere in the world to one of the richest countries in the world.

Kuwait is the world's seventh largest oil exporter and the third richest Arab country.

Something is Drastically Wrong:

In January 1991, when the United States military lead an international coalition in Operation Desert Storm, it took less than six weeks to liberate Kuwait from the grip of an Iraqi occupation.  The liberation came at a price.  The U.S. spent $7 billion on the campaign.  But the real cost came with the 294 U.S. deaths in Operation Desert Storm and the 458 Americans who were wounded.  Moreover, according to the Department of Veterans' Affairs, 183,000 U.S. Veterins of the Gulf War are now permanently disabled!

This was a heavy cost to pay.  The U.S. military has also signed a defensive pact through 2011, which is being extended every ten years to guarantee the security of the Kuwaiti people and government.  An estimated 22,000 U.S. troops remain on the ground in Kuwait, along with military advisors.

It would be a horrible turn of events if operation Desert Storm and all the sacrifice by the U.S. troops that it entailed have in some way freed Kuwait to traffic in hundreds of thousands of foreign guest workers, who are stripped of their passports and forced to work long hours while being cheated of their wages, and who are beaten and deported when they ask that their most basic rights be protected.

In another cruel irony, Bangladesh contributed 2,300 soldiers, who fought bravely in Desert Storm as part of the international coalition to liberate Kuwait.  (In fact, 9,728 Bangladeshi soldiers are currently deployed around the world, making Bangladesh the second largest contributor of troops to international peacekeeping operations.)

Everyone knows what is going on:

Exploitation and abuse of hundreds of thousands of foreign guest workers goes on in broad daylight over the course of many years

There are many brave Kuwaiti journalists who have reported on the abuse of the guest workers.

Kuwait Times, “Stop Disgracing Kuwait’s Name,” by Badaya Darwish, July 1, 2008

“The workers are striking because they are not getting paid for many months.  And what payment are we talking about?  KD 18!!! [$67.71]  I’m ashamed to even write this figure.  They were actually contracted for KD 40 [$150.47], 40 too is disgraceful for a rich country like Kuwait.  But the contractors, they give them no option once they arrive in Kuwait—18 KD, take it or leave it.  And the poor souls accept it.  And that’s if they get it.”

Other quotes from the Kuwait Times:

“It is common for employers to demand the passports of workers at the beginning of employment.”

“Some wages are withheld for nine months.”

Guest workers are housed in.... “overcrowded squalid conditions.”

Editorial in Al Waton, July 30, 2008

“Companies that recruit cheap labour impose ruthless exploitation of expatriate workers.  These firms are sucking the blood of simple laborers and do not provide them with proper living conditions.”

“If workers make demands on the boss, he can simply inform the police that the worker is dismissed and so no longer has any legal right to remain in the country; wages owed to workers are sometimes used to pay for the travel costs of their own deportation.”

“We believe that both the government and the National Assembly are both partly responsible for what is happening to these laborers, taking into consideration that both powers are linked with recruitment firms through certain interests.”

(Also, the large cleaning companies are owned by very wealthy Kuwaiti families.)

The Arab Times reported:

“Even the Kuwaiti government confirmed that most workers were paid around 20 KD a month and live in poor conditions.”

More from the Kuwait Times:

“Labor law blamed for workers’ plight—Paltry, delayed salaries induce crimes.”

The combination of weak labor laws and the lack of any attempt at enforcement on the part of the government has given the companies a green light to flout the law and abuse workers at will, and with complete impunity.

It Doesn't Have to Be this Way:

Kuwait is not poor.  Quite the opposite:  It is the world's seventh largest oil exporter.  Kuwait's GDP is expected to grow 6.8 percent this year to $172.4 billion.  Kuwait's trade surplus is running at $84 billion this year.  Government revenues for the current fiscal year (April 1, 2008 through March 31, 2009) are also projected to grow by 40 percent, to reach approximately $129 billion.  Even after all conceivable expenses, the Kuwait government should end the year with a fiscal surplus of $66.21 billion.

Kuwait does not need to exploit desperately poor foreign guest workers.  They have the money to treat all workers in Kuwait with a modicum of dignity.

Ninety percent of Kuwait's private sector workers are non-Kuwaiti.  Sixty-three percent-or 2.3 million people out of a total population of 3.4 million-are expatriates.  Hundreds of thousands of foreign guest workers have been trafficked to Kuwait from Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines.

In 2007, Ambassador Mark Lagon and the U.S. State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons demoted Kuwait to "Tier 3"-the lowest level, for being among those countries doing the least to prevent the trafficking of human beings.

The government of Kuwait however, does take care of its own people.  When inflation skyrocketed in 2008-(it's expected to reach 13.5 percent by year's end)-the government moved quickly.  In June 2008, any Kuwaiti public sector employee who was earning $45,000 a year or less, received a $188 a month wage increase.  For those who had been earning $45,000 a year, this meant receiving a $2,257 increase, bringing their new annual wage to $47,397.  The government was well aware that Kuwaitis earning just $45,000 were struggling in the face of inflation, especially given the soaring food costs.

However, when it came to the foreign guest workers in Kuwait, who were earning an average of just $903 a year and who were surely suffering due to the soaring cost of food, there was no similar concern by the government, despite the fact that the guest workers were earning less than two percent of what "low income" Kuwaitis were earning.  The compounded inflation rate between 2006 and the end of 2008 is expected to reach 23.3 percent, and is causing the guest workers tremendous hardship.

Kuwait belongs to the United Nations, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) among other international organizations.  One can understand the total lack of interest on the part of the WTO in the plight of the foreign guest workers trafficked to Kuwait, but the lack of forceful response by the International Labor Organization to help protect these guest workers is very disturbing.

Strikes Continue

As of Sunday, August 18, thousands of guest workers at two Kuwaiti cleaning companies have begun a work stoppage protesting the non-payment of wages (some workers have not been paid for two months), demanding an end to illegal wage deductions and improvement in workers’ living conditions.

Mr. Mukul

Mr. Mukul, also from Bangladesh, was just 20 years old when he and his family borrowed and paid 250,000 taka ($3,644) for his three-year contract to work in Kuwait.  Upon his arrival in Kuwait in June 2006, he was stripped of his passport and joined the more than 22,000 Bangladeshi workers employed by the Al Abrag Cleaning Company, which had a government contract to clean Kuwaiti government office buildings, post offices, schools, state hospitals and public roads.  According to the contract he paid for and signed in Bangladesh, Mr. Mukul, like all the others, was guaranteed a wage of at least 90 cents an hour.  He was also supposed to receive free health care, at least one day off a week, national holidays and vacation time.

But these promises were all a fantasy.  He was paid just 36 cents an hour, $17.36 a week, and $75. 23 a month to clean government post offices.  Like all the other Bangladeshi workers, he was cheated of 60 percent of the wages due him, while working for the Kuwaiti government.  Mr. Mukul was being shortchanged of 54 cents an hour and $26 a week, a huge sum for these poor workers who were also struggling to pay off the substantial debts they had incurred to come to Kuwait in the first place. 

If Mr. Mukul missed a day due to sickness, he was docked $7.52, amounting to the loss of two-and-a-half days' pay.  Like the other guest workers, Mr. Mukul knew that he would be beaten and perhaps deported if he asked for his lawful wages.

Mr. Mukul joined the work stoppage on July 27 but did not participate in any rioting or violence.  Nonetheless, Kuwaiti police raided his dorm, smashing the door, firing tear gas and beating the workers with clubs.  Mr. Mukul was kicked and beaten with a club.  He was forcibly deported without his possessions or back wages.  Mr. Mukul also had a year left on the three-year contract he paid for.  In Bangladesh, there is no way he can earn enough to pay back the thousands of dollars he still owes on his Kuwait contract.

It could be even worse.  Some Bangladeshis who purchased work contracts arrived in Kuwait only to find out they had no job.  Some workers had to wait three to five months before they could find employment, which often required them to pay additional bribes to middlemen.  During this whole period, they had to borrow more money in order to eat.  Everyone had to surrender their passports and every company withheld a minimum of a month's wages.  Moreover, when these foreign guest workers first arrived in Kuwait in 2006, it often took nine months for them to be given their residency permits, without which they were not free to move around.  If they were stopped by the police without a valid residency permit, they could be imprisoned.

At the Al Kuwait and Al Dana cleaning companies-also working under contract with the Kuwaiti government-many workers were paid just 14 cents an hour and $6.94 a week-which means they were being cheated of 84 percent of the wages rightfully due them!  There were even some workers who had not been paid for eight or nine months' work!  For all practical purposes, they were being held as slave laborers.

At the Al Dana company, many workers reported that they were forced to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, cleaning Kuwaiti military bases, earning just 41 cents an hour--$34.72 for toiling an 84-hour week.  These workers were cheated of 57 percent of the wages due them.