From Kuwait’s total population of 4.6 million people, over 3 million are migrant nationals from overseas territories. This is not uncommon in the Persian Gulf region as their economies are largely based on foreign work and oil production. What is of particular interest, however, is the typical make up of foreigners who seek work in these oil-rich countries.
Out of the 1.77 million expats with valid residency visas, over 50%, roughly 845,000 migrants, are illiterate or have basic levels of schooling. Out of these figures, around 795,000 workers are defined as ‘modern illiterate’, with minimum levels of basic education. These workers usually originate from impoverished countries in Asia, Africa and poorer Arab countries – bringing in millions of housemaids, chefs, construction workers, hoteliers, and more, often outnumbering the native population.
On the other hand, around 1,800 PhD holders and 4,900 Master’s degree holders tend to come from developed countries and are ready to contribute to jobs mainly in healthcare and other private-sector jobs such as finance.
In the current context, the asymmetric distribution of a small but educated migrant workforce centred around desirable and high-earning positions, and a large population of low-skilled, poorly educated and poorly paid overseas workers, employed in construction or domestic work, creates a modern caste system where low-skilled workers are limited to vulnerable job categories and are open to exploitation, whereas high-skilled employees enjoy the full benefits of Kuwaiti society. This differentiation between migrants and expats is inherently instilled in Kuwaiti labour relations.
Some commentators may argue that it is unfair to be so harsh on Kuwait, especially in light of the current labour reforms to protect workers from overseas. However, research from Human Rights Watch suggests that the protections granted are still weaker than those offered under Kuwaiti labour law, and the lack of enforcement mechanisms, sanctions for unfair practices such as the confiscation of passports, and failures to ensure the provision of adequate living conditions for these workers shows that very little has been, in fact, done to improve the lives of immigrants in Kuwait.
While construction workers face negligent and reckless risks in their daily employment, domestic helper positions are just as vulnerable within homes in Kuwait. As these jobs are mainly held by women, they endure an additional level of hardship to support their families by way of remittances. Domestic workers also tend to be overrepresented by Filipino women in Kuwait.
In December 2019, a Filipino woman, Jeanelyn Villavende was brutally raped and beaten to death by her Kuwaiti employers, and a few months before, the employers of Joanna Demafelis were found guilty of her murder and hiding the body inside a freezer. The abuses and general disregard for the lives of these Filipino domestic workers have even seen theatrical instances of death, like when a woman was attacked and mauled by an illegally kept lion inside her employer’s home.
These rampant abuses against Filipino domestic workers’ physical integrity and lack of adequate protections have seen interventions from the Philippines diplomatic envoy to Kuwait. In January 2020, the Filippino embassy participated in the covert rescue mission of Delia Solomon, who was at risk of being arrested for illegally “absconding” from her abusive employers. This sparked an international row between both countries, resulting in the expulsion of the Philippines ambassador to Kuwait and the publication of denigrating and accusatory headlines in Kuwaiti media, suggesting the maid was rescued because “she didn’t get to eat eggs.” More recently, in early 2020, Philippines President, Rodrigo Duterte, imposed a deployment ban of Filipino workers to Kuwait for a month.
With the power of hindsight, it was primordial for the Philippines government to intervene and protect its citizens from physical abuse and exploitation. However, the knee-jerk reaction to impose a deployment ban misses on several key issues. First, the inability of Filipino workers to enter Kuwait by legal channels opens up dangerous opportunities for illegal human trafficking, found in places like social media platforms, which poses a real risk to these workers’ lives. Secondly, the structural inefficacies of the Filipino economy, alike many others in developing nations, unable to support the necessary jobs to keep their nationals employed there, forces them to leave their home countries and support their families via remittances, a key issue as pointed out by the UN. In addition, the lack of inflow of Filipino domestic workers, in turn, forced Kuwait not to change its legal frameworks to grant more comprehensive protections to overseas workers, but to seek a new source of cheap employment elsewhere in Ethiopia instead.
This display of “chop-and-shop” for migrant population portrays an arguable disdain for the economic contributions of foreign migrant work and a clear reluctance to raise their status equal to citizens; regardless of their demographic proportion. Tripping up their ability for social advancement and ensuring they remain in precarious labour positions, vulnerable to exploitation in abuse, displays, in essence, how inevitably necessary they are for the national economy, and how deliberately ignored they are in Kuwaiti polity. Additionally, their row with the Philippines shows a willingness to keep a tight lid on any mistreatment from reaching the international community, even relying on the press to downplay and misinform the extent of abuses.
Now, the coronavirus pandemic. The inevitable elephant in the room. Kuwait has reported over 24,000 positive cases at the end of May, yet a low level of casualties. Nevermore, the plunge of the Kuwaiti economy, with the slow down of oil sales and the enforced national lockdowns, has highlighted the tangible dependency on migrant labourers. However, the same migrant workers that underpin the Arab economies, also are at greater risk than any others of COVID-19. Reports suggest that nearly all cases have been among foreigners, many of whom live in overcrowded labour camps.
Nevertheless, this greater risk has not been met with equal solidarity. In fact, Eman Alhussein, fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington D.C., suggests that coronavirus has unleashed all these issues, bringing the problems of inequality to the forefront of society. Migrant workers, at the mercy of abusive employers, visa sponsors, and recruitment agencies, face a very different reality from nationals, of which roughly two-thirds work for their national governments alongside all their inherent protections.
Commentators and politicians are pleading the government address the systemic issues of a “migrant-propelled” shadow economy. Ahmad al-Fadhli, television host, said recently: “Is it their fault? No, it’s the fault of those who brought them here”, pointing the finger at traffickers and visa sponsors. Typically though, xenophobic rhetoric is on the rise, as migrants are accused of spreading the virus and burdening national healthcare services. Hayat al-Fahad, a famous Kuwaiti actor came under fire when she claimed that migrants should be expelled “into the desert.”
Finally, many migrants have accepted these economic hardships and have asked to go back to their native countries, however hurdles in the forms of mounting debts to visa sponsors and fines for residency violations have impeded their returns. Furthermore, many of their home countries’ governments lack the adequate resources to organise mass repatriations and subsequent quarantines, and are therefore resisting efforts to bring back their diaspora, with the exception of a few determined states.
In summary, while structural inequalities between overseas migrant workers and Gulf region nationals continue to widen, those at the bottom continue to bear the brunt of the pandemic, the economic downfall as well as constant harassment and abuse. Working low-earning jobs under precarious contracts places migrant workers in vulnerable positions, especially women who also face the hurdle of domestic isolation. This inequality has now resulted in the notion of ‘social-burdening’ for nationals who see their weak national welfare services strained in dealing with the increased demand due to the viral outbreak. These issues have brought heightening sentiments of xenophobia among nationals and has highlighted the inability of both Kuwait and their home countries’, or perhaps unwillingness, to ensure their safety and wellbeing during this extremely harrowing time.