On June 24, 2015, Kuwait passed legislation to promote the rights of over 660,000 migrant workers within its borders, seeking to address the abuses that many of those individuals face. The legislation comes five years after the government passed Law No. 6 on labor law in the private sector, which specifically left the rights of domestic workers out. While the new legislation falls short of the standards under the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention, many consider it the most progressive piece of domestic workers’ labor law among the Gulf States.
Kuwait’s recent legislation signals an awareness of the criticism that the Gulf States have been facing due to their failure to prevent and redress well-documented abuse of domestic workers. According to Kuwait’s 2015 Universal Periodical Review submitted to the UN Human Rights Council, foreign workers amount “to more than two-thirds of the population, representing more than 164 different nationalities,” many of whom perform domestic work. The abuse of domestic workers is frequently attributed to the kafala sponsorship system, which grants employers “substantial control over workers.”
Under this system, practiced by the majority of Gulf States, a migrant worker’s sponsor directly controls his immigration status and freedom to change employment for the duration of the employment contract. Such framework is contrary to Article 3 of the Domestic Workers Convention, which calls on the States Parties to respect, promote, and realize domestic workers’ “freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining” and to eliminate “of all forms of forced or compulsory [labor].” Kuwait has yet to ratify the Convention. According to the Migrant Forum in Asia, the kafala system “often leads to the securitization of migrants should they attempt to challenge its restrictions or escape from abuse and exploitation.” In response, the ILO Committee of Experts in 2014 urged the government of Kuwait to ensure that its labor laws do not “place or maintain the workers concerned in a situation of increased vulnerability to discrimination and abuse, as a result of disproportionate power exercised by the employer over the worker.”
A 2010 Human Rights Watch Report documented some of those abuses which included the non-payment of wages, long working hours with little or no rest, physical and sexual abuse, and no judicial venues to seek legal redress. Recently, those abuses prompted India’s Ministry of External Affairs to issue a statement regarding the treatment of the 90,000 Indian workers in Kuwait, warning others to be careful in seeking employment in the country.
While a number of other Gulf States, including Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, have joined Kuwait in adopting similar legislative measures on domestic workers’ rights in order to mitigate the abusive system of kafala, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman continue to completely omit domestic workers from their labor-related protective laws. However, there are indications that Kuwait’s efforts have begun a move towards progress, with the United Arab Emirates enacting an initiative to protect migrant workers which will take effect in January 2016. While this initiative will not address domestic workers’ rights in particular, it will allow migrant workers to seek more effective means of addressing situations in which they lack compensation, suffer abuse, or wish to terminate their employment.
While Kuwait’s new legislation seems to represent a positive step, the country still retains the kafala system. Another significant concern about the law is its existing ambiguity that can adversely affect migrant domestic workers. Despite the fact that the legislation provides a number of previously nonexistent protections, it is unclear how this information will reach uninformed workers or those currently living in abusive situations. Furthermore, even if workers are aware of the safeguards, it is unclear what legal venues they will have to report violations of the new legislation.
Despite its shortcomings, the law reflects Kuwait’s effort to stand by its ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights by enacting what will be the most progressive legislation in the Gulf States on the rights of domestic workers. While it may not rise to the standards set forth by the ILO, it will afford domestic workers significant protections, such as a 12-hour working day, a day off once a week, 30-day paid leave, and overtime pay. There is still work for the Kuwaiti Parliament to take in ensuring the dignity of domestic workers, but its most recent legislation signals not only the willingness, but also an initiative to ensure that the country’s domestic workers equally enjoy the fundamental human rights, particularly the freedom of movement and compensation for work performed.