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On Kuwait’s sponsorship system U-turn 19, October 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, Opinion.
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The FT has a good article discussing Kuwait’s u-turn on abolishing their kefala sponsorship system. The day after it was announced by the Labour Minister that Kuwait would get rid of the system by February 2011, the announcement was rescinded by the same Ministry.

The key issue is that abolishing the system directly affects swathes of Kuwaitis. Currently, nationals of Gulf States can set up a massively lucrative businesses importing workers from abroad. Given the lack of oversight and the culture sadly prevailing across much of the GCC, wages are regularly unpaid, holidays canceled, gratuities reneged upon and far longer hours of work demanded. Yet, as I noted in a recent post about Qatar’s kefala system, businessmen voting to get rid of this system is like Turkeys voting for Christmas: unlikely.

The repeal of the whole system would redress the balance in employer-employee relations significantly and – essentially – hit (in this case) Kuwaiti businessmen in their pocket. When Bahrain announced that they were abolishing their kefala system their business lobby erupted with anger. The same happened in Kuwait and the same in Qatar. Instead, loop-hole-ridden, half-hearted reforms are enacted that are a shadow of what was initially promised.

It clearly does not matter to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia that they are on the third and worst tier of the U.S. State Department’s watch list for human trafficking: is it truly unfair to say that by definition the majority of Kuwaiti businessmen care more about their profits than the human rights of the workers they import? Alas I’m not sure that that is such an outlandish statement.




Kuwait’s labour problems and the US Embassy in Iraq 25, October 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Kuwait.
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One of the Foreign Policy blogs and now The Times of London have picked up on a story about the shoddy workmanship of a Kuwaiti firm hired to build parts of the behemoth US Embassy in Baghdad. Both articles lament that the poor construction means that the work will essentially have to be done again at great expense.

The $130 million repair bill is, for me, of little interest being from the UK where all projects run over budget and need large repair bills after the fact. Instead, the Foreign Policy blog – The Cable – discusses some of the working practices employed by the Kuwaiti firm in undertaking this project. It quotes the former American foreman of the project, John Owens, who quit the project after witnessing exactly what doing manual work for a Kuwaiti firm entails: i.e. “sub-human living conditions” and the workers having their passports taken away. “I’ve never seen a project more fucked up,” is how he eloquently sums it up.

There should be no surprise about this at all. There is a good reason that Kuwait is on the third and worst tier in the America ranking of human trafficking violators.* What this highlights, to me at least, is that if a Kuwaiti firm that gets such a prime, lucrative, important and prestigious contract as building America’s largest ever Embassy in such a critical location, and yet they still employ disgusting tactics of near-slave labor standards, what on earth does this say about the rest of the workers back in Kuwait? For those working out in Jahra, the ‘slummy’ bit of Kuwait, building a nondescript block of flats with no international intrigue or renown, how are their conditions?

* Don’t be fooled by Kuwait’s apparent improvement under Bush’s premiership: that was done as a political gesture and did not reflect any changes on the ground whatsoever. See the 2004 report where Kuwait and Saudi Arabia(!) were moved up to tier 2 (and not even the tier 2 watch list) in a truly appalling example of political interference and naked self-interest.