The Kuwait Tragedy Exposes Migrant Worker Exploitation In GCC – OpEd

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Kuwait experienced one of the most tragic labour camp disasters on June 12. A massive fire in Mangaf claimed the lives of 49 workers, mostly Indians, and left many others injured, marking it the deadliest building fire in Kuwait’s history. This catastrophe has sparked calls for accountability from real estate owners and employers who endanger lives by overcrowding foreign labourers in unsafe living conditions to cut costs. 

The blaze broke out in early morning of Wednesday, while most of the 196 male occupants of the seven-storey building were asleep. Thick black smoke caused by the fire led to the suffocation of many victims, as confirmed by officials from the interior ministry and fire department. The foreign ministry described the fire as ‘tragic,’ noting it claimed the lives of 49 Indian nationals residing in Kuwait. The confirmation has already come regarding the death of 23 Keralites and a few from Tamil Nadu, both South Indian states. The number of casualties may increase, according to sources.   

The apartment building housed labourers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, and other countries. The building, which reportedly violated several safety regulations, was leased to KG Abraham, a Kuwait-based Malayali businessman. KG Abraham is the partner and managing director of the NBTC Group, one of the largest construction companies in the Gulf region, which owns the Kuwait building. 

Kuwaiti Deputy Premier and Defense and Interior Minister Sheikh Fahad Al-Yousef Al-Sabah promptly visited the site and the hospitals treating the injured. He ordered the arrest of the building’s Kuwaiti owner and the Egyptian guard, insisting they not be released without his approval. The minister declared the fire a catastrophe and announced that municipal teams would inspect all buildings and enforce regulations without prior warning. The Public Authority of Manpower will also begin addressing the overcrowding of expatriate workers and safety violations from tomorrow.  

The exact cause of the fire remains unclear, though some local media speculated a gas leak on the building’s ground floor. Investigations by the Kuwait Fire Department revealed that inflammable materials used as partitions contributed to the dense smoke, and many victims suffocated while trying to escape because the stairs were filled with smoke and the rooftop door was locked. The investigation team found around two dozen gas cylinders on the ground floor, further complicating the firemen’s efforts, which resulted in injuries to five firefighters. 

On Thursday, First Deputy Prime Minister, Defense Minister, and Interior Minister Sheikh Fahad Yusuf Al-Sabah led a comprehensive inspection campaign targeting illegal properties across various areas in Kuwait.  In response to the incident, Minister of Public Works and Municipality Affairs Noura Al-Mashaan instructed Kuwait Municipality’s director to suspend top officials related to the incident. Consequently, four officials from Ahmadi Municipality were suspended, and an investigation into violations in the affected building and others in the area was ordered. 

This fire is reported to be the worst in Kuwait’s history and the second deadliest disaster in the country. The public has taken to social media, demanding stringent measures against violators and those involved in human trafficking. A former minister urged the incident to trigger a thorough review of corruption related to trafficking in unskilled workers and housing violations. A former lawmaker blamed the legalization of illicit human trafficking and government negligence for the tragedy, calling for strict enforcement of the law and practical solutions to prevent future disasters. A legal expert criticized the negligence of authorities and the greed of businessmen, questioning who will protect expatriates from exploitation. Another scholar highlighted the incident as a reflection of landlords’ greed and the government’s failure to enforce regulations.  

The majority of Kuwait’s population, which exceeds four million, consists of foreigners. Many of these individuals come from South and Southeast Asia, working primarily in the construction and service industries. According to the latest statistics from the Public Authority for Civil Information (PACI) of Kuwait, as of December 2023, the population of Kuwait reached 4.859 million, comprising 1.546 million citizens and 3.3 million expatriates.  Indians make up 21% (1 million) of Kuwait’s total population and 30% (approximately 900,000) of its workforce. Keralites constitute more than 50% of the Indian expats. Indian workers dominate both the private and domestic sectors. Among Indian professionals in Kuwait, the medical sector stands out. Indian doctors and paramedics are highly regarded for their expertise, helpfulness, and empathetic attitude. The medical community includes around 1,000 Indian doctors, 500 Indian dentists, and approximately 24,000 Indian nurses. 

Migrant Worker Abuses

Human rights organizations and media have long highlighted the dire living and working conditions of low-wage migrant workers in the GCC’s construction sector. For example, a  few years ago, Human Rights Watch issued guidelines to protect these workers, urging international and domestic companies in Gulf Cooperation Council countries to adopt standards that respect migrant workers’ rights and prevent abuses like trafficking and forced labour. Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director, emphasized the need for construction firms to safeguard their workforce amid rampant exploitation in GCC countries. The “Guide to Doing Ethical Business in the GCC” details specific standards for companies operating in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to ensure workers’ rights and reduce the risk of labour abuses. Based on over a decade of research, the guidelines address issues such as recruitment fees, timely wage payments, passport confiscation, accommodation, and health and safety, and recommend independent third-party monitoring for effective implementation.

Despite recent legal reforms in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, migrant workers in GCC countries still face hazardous working conditions, long hours, unpaid wages, and cramped, unsanitary housing. Except for Bahrain, GCC governments prohibit migrant workers from forming unions. Workers often incur significant debts to pay recruiters, despite laws requiring employers to cover these fees, which are poorly enforced. The exploitative kafala system restricts workers from changing employers without consent, and passport confiscation is common. Legal remedies are limited, and employers rarely face prosecution for labour law violations. Authorities frequently detain and deport striking workers. Businesses must adhere to international human rights standards and can act without waiting for new laws. Human Rights Watch urges companies in the GCC to commit publicly to upholding migrant workers’ rights and verify their compliance, focusing on employment practices, health and safety, living conditions, and labour disputes.  Last year, Human Rights Watch highlighted the indispensable role of migrant workers in combating extreme heat in GCC countries, yet these workers face severe exploitation and unsafe conditions. 

Despite recent positive legal reforms, the majority of the construction labour force in the Gulf Cooperation Council states remains vulnerable due to hazardous working conditions, unpaid wages, and unsanitary housing. Many migrant workers incur significant debts to secure jobs and are subjected to the exploitative kafala system, which ties their visas to employers and restricts their ability to change jobs. Employers often confiscate workers’ passports and fail to provide adequate safety protections, while authorities rarely prosecute labour law violations. Human Rights Watch urged businesses in the GCC to commit to upholding migrant workers’ rights and implement international standards to protect them from abuse, especially as climate change exacerbates the risks of extreme heat in the region.

In sum, the devastating fire in Mangaf serves as a stark reminder of the dangerous conditions many migrant workers undergo in Kuwait and across the Gulf region. This tragedy has pointed to the urgent need for systemic change, including rigorous enforcement of safety standards and better living conditions for expatriates. The Kuwaiti government’s swift response, including arrests and inspections, is a step in the right direction, but long-term solutions require a commitment to addressing the root causes of such disasters, including corruption, overcrowding, and negligence. Human rights organizations have long highlighted the vulnerabilities of low-wage migrant workers in the GCC’s construction sector, calling for adherence to international standards that protect these workers’ rights. This incident should galvanize a collective effort among governments, businesses, and civil society to prioritize the well-being of migrant workers and to ensure that their contributions to the region are met with dignity and respect. As Kuwait and the migrant-sending countries mourn this tragic loss, all GCC countries must also seize the opportunity to enact meaningful reforms that prevent future tragedies and uphold the safety and dignity of all workers. 

K.M. Seethi

K.M. Seethi, ICSSR Senior Fellow, is Academic Advisor to the International Centre for Polar Studies (ICPS) and Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, India. He was earlier Professor of International Relations and Dean of Social Sciences, MGU.

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