Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Kuwait's New Private Sector Labor Law Still Neglects 1/3 of its Population

Kuwait's new labor law became official on February 21 following its publication in the government-produced Kuwait Gazette Al Kuwait Al Youm, marking a new, significant, and uncomfortably overdue step forward taken by the Kuwaiti Government to protect its private sector workers. Shockingly, no reforms were made to the country’s previous archaic and historic labor law in over 45 years, promoting a racially-discriminate law that tended to only favor Kuwaiti employers/sponsors and neglected the rights of the majority of Kuwait’s workforce outsourced from abroad.

The new law includes updated provisions that address issues of salaries, working hours, public holidays, paid leave, sick leave and suitable end of service payments was approved by the National Assembly in 2009 and approved by His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, the Amir of Kuwait for endorsement.

Despite these highly anticipated gains, housemaids and domestic drivers are absent from this law’s jurisdiction, and even today, despite encouragement from local enthusiasts and an indication that such a law is forthcoming, there is still no legislation that addresses the rights of these domestic workers in private homes.

Such a law is said to be forthcoming but delayed since its jurisdiction will fall under the
Ministry of Interior, given the sensitivity of addressing legal disputes that emerge in the privacy of the homes of Kuwaiti citizens. Many are hopeful that this law will be presented in Parliament within the next six months, hopefully ending the perpetual cycles of abuse and illegal withholding of wages and documentation that leave an estimated 800,000 housemaids vulnerable to coercion. I will underscore that there are 800,000 maids working in Kuwait within a total population that is just under three million.

Many remain skeptical as to how these new provisions will profoundly impact or improve conditions in the private sector and question whether the new law will actually be implemented. According to an anonymous journalist interviewed by the
Kuwait Times, employers can still easily devise schemes to puncture loopholes in the new law and avoid paying indemnities or other forms of remuneration payable to workers. For example, an employer can transfer workers to a different division within their company or simply fire them and find new workers to avoid paying salaries. For detailed information on the new labor law’s provisions, click here to be taken to the Arab Times Online.

Kuwait still struggles to responsibly accommodate its expatriate population, which currently amounts to over
65% of the country’s total population. A renewed focus on its previously dormant labor law demonstrates the Kuwaiti Government’s interest in reform; however, 45 years of neglect indicate that continued reform will be an arduous process that will require expanded legislation to better address vulnerable contracted and domestic workers that are excluded from current jurisdiction, a legal mechanism to confront perpetrators of human trafficking, and the abolishment of Kuwait’s sponsorship system.

Recent news sources have revealed that new legislation to protect Kuwait's domestic workers is now in the works. Kuwait's Minister of Social Development, Mohammad al-Afassi
revealed that a new law would be issued as early as this coming May. A new interest in passing legislation that addresses Kuwait's domestic labor force, affecting housemaids, drivers and landscapers follows international pressures, NGO lobbying, and heightened criticism over the grievances that were not addressed in the new private sector labor law.

The Kuwait Times profiled several
interviews with domestic housemaids, asking them what they believed would be the most important clauses the new labor law should include. One worker insisted that matters dealing with domestic workers should be addressed by civilian authorities, and not the "scary and unfriendly" uniformed representatives of the Ministry of Interior. Two other housemaids highlighted the need for one day off during the workweek. They stated that they had been working for their current employers for 5 years and were only allowed one day off a year under their current contracts!

The vulnerability of domestic workers and the lack of freedoms they are awarded under the current laws has been exposed recently with heightened statistics on
suicide rates in the country. There is currently no option for employees to switch employers without consent, and low or sometimes non-existent salaries in exchange for their work make it impossible for most to repay the debts they owe for their work visas.

One Kuwaiti official has suggested
reducing the number of domestic workers who are allowed to enter Kuwait and shortening the current validity periods of worker visas to shift current demographic ratios and potentially prevent human trafficking.

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