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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.

Saudi crackdown on migrant labour problems 14, July 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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Saudi Arabia is to introduce fines of up to 1 Million Saudi Rials (around $266,000) and lengthy jail terms of up to 15 years for human trafficking. Their definition of this is suitably wide-ranging and includes ‘holding a person under control for sexual abuse, forced labour, involuntary begging, slavery or slavery-like practices, and enforced organ removal or medical experimentation.’

This is good news. Saudi Arabia is currently in the lowest tear possible on the US State Department’s list of human traffickers. It is an insidious and dirty problem affecting swathes of the Middle East. Any kind of legislation that hints that Saudi is getting tougher with abusers is welcome. However, I would wager that it will be a long time – if ever – before a Saudi citizen is imprisoned for anything like 15 years. In a country where wasta is king, I can simply not see that happening. Is a Saudi court really going to convict a Saudi citizen where some poor, battered Philippine maid gives evidence? I – alas – can’t see it but fervently hope that I am proved wrong sooner rather than later.