Migrant Exploitation in GCC: Reminders from the Kuwait Tragedy.

The tragic fire in Kuwait, which claimed 50 lives, once again highlighted the vulnerability of migrant workers in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. On June 12, Kuwait experienced one of its most devastating labour camp disasters. A massive blaze in Mangaf took the lives of dozens of migrants from South and Southeast Asia and left many others injured, making it the deadliest building fire in Kuwait’s history.

The tragedy has stirred calls for accountability, demanding that real estate owners and employers be held responsible for endangering lives by overcrowding foreign labourers in unsafe living conditions to cut costs.

The fire department’s investigation team announced that the blaze was caused by an electrical short circuit in the building guard’s room, which then spread to other areas. The fire broke out early Wednesday morning, when most of the 196 male occupants of the seven-story building were asleep.

The guard’s room, located on the ground floor, was identified as the origin point. According to security sources, 179 workers were inside the building when the fire erupted, while 17 were outside. Among the residents, 175 were Indians, 11 Filipinos, and the rest were from Thailand, Pakistan, and Egypt. Most of the victims hailed from South India, particularly Kerala.

Media speculated about a gas leak on the ground floor of the building. Investigations by the Kuwait Fire Department revealed that flammable materials used as partitions contributed to the dense smoke, causing many victims to suffocate while attempting to escape, as the stairs were filled with smoke and the rooftop door was locked. The investigation team discovered around two dozen gas cylinders on the ground floor, which further complicated the firefighters’ efforts and resulted in injuries to five firefighters.

The building, which reportedly violated multiple safety regulations, was leased to KG Abraham, a Kuwait-based Malayali businessman. KG Abraham serves as the partner and managing director of the NBTC Group, one of the largest construction companies in the Gulf region, and the owner of the Kuwait building.

Kuwaiti Deputy Premier and Defense and Interior Minister Sheikh Fahad Al-Yousef Al-Sabah instantly visited the fire site and hospitals treating the injured. He ordered the arrest of the building’s Kuwaiti owner and the Egyptian guard, ensuring they remain in custody without his approval. Declaring the fire a catastrophe, he mandated immediate inspections of all buildings without prior notice and tasked the Public Authority of Manpower with addressing overcrowding and safety violations starting the next day.

Later, Sheikh Fahad led a comprehensive crackdown on illegal properties across Kuwait. In response, Minister of Public Works and Municipality Affairs Noura Al-Mashaan directed the suspension of top officials linked to the incident, resulting in four Ahmadi Municipality officials being suspended and an investigation launched into building violations.

Meanwhile, Kuwait Municipality announced that over the past 10 months, it had shut down 568 irregular basements, issued 1,639 citations, blocked 596 properties, and cleared 189 basements of unlicensed items.

This fire, reported as the second deadliest disaster in the country, has sparked a public outcry on social media. People are demanding stringent measures against violators and those involved in human trafficking. Many are calling for a thorough review of corruption related to trafficking unskilled workers and housing violations.

They blame the tragedy on legalized human trafficking and government negligence, urging strict law enforcement and practical solutions to prevent future disasters. Critics are questioning the negligence of authorities and the greed of businessmen, asking who will protect expatriates from exploitation, and highlighting the government’s failure to enforce regulations.

Indians comprise 30 per cent of Kuwait’s workforce

The majority of Kuwait’s population, which exceeds four million, consists of foreigners, many from South and Southeast Asia, primarily working in construction and service industries. According to the latest statistics from the Public Authority for Civil Information (PACI), as of December 2023, Kuwait’s population reached 4.859 million, including 1.546 million citizens and 3.3 million expatriates.

Indians represent 21% of Kuwait’s total population (1 million) and 30% of its workforce (approximately 900,000). Over 50% of Indian expatriates are from Kerala. Indian workers dominate both the private and domestic sectors. In the medical sector, Indian professionals are particularly prominent and well-regarded for their expertise, helpfulness, and empathy. The medical community in Kuwait includes around 1,000 Indian doctors, 500 Indian dentists, and approximately 24,000 Indian nurses.

Are the institutional mechanisms in both migrant-host and migrant-sending countries adequate to handle emergencies like the recent tragedy in Kuwait? Delays in communication and information exchange can exacerbate such situations, potentially resulting in significant loss of life. Timely intervention by appropriate agencies is crucial in these cases.  According to KP Fabian, former Ambassador to Qatar and Iran, there is a lack of communication and coordination among labour-exporting countries.

India, as a leading nation in South Asia and a prominent voice of the Global South, has a responsibility to address the problems faced by migrant labourers globally. Ambassador Fabian argues against the notion that labour-exporting countries cannot collaborate due to competition, emphasising that this idea is incorrect. He questions what initiatives India has taken to address these global issues for migrant labourers and highlights the importance of pre-crisis preparedness, rather than merely post-crisis intervention.

Migrant rights

For years, human rights organisations and media have highlighted the harsh conditions faced by low-wage migrant workers in the GCC’s construction sector. Human Rights Watch issued guidelines urging companies in GCC countries to adopt standards that respect migrant workers’ rights and prevent abuses such as trafficking and forced labour.

The Guide to Doing Ethical Business in the GCC details standards for ensuring workers’ rights, addressing issues such as recruitment fees, wage payments, passport confiscation, accommodation, and health and safety, recommending independent monitoring for effective implementation.

Despite recent legal reforms, migrant workers in many GCC countries still undergo hazardous conditions, long hours, unpaid wages, and cramped, unsanitary housing. Except for Bahrain, GCC governments prohibit migrant workers from forming unions, and workers often incur significant debts to pay recruiters despite laws requiring employers to cover these fees. Legal remedies are limited, and employers rarely face prosecution for labour law violations.

Authorities frequently detain and deport striking workers. Businesses are often urged to adhere to international human rights standards and verify compliance with employment practices, health and safety, living conditions, and labour disputes.

Despite some legal reforms, the majority of the construction labour force in the GCC remains vulnerable, often incurring significant debts and facing exploitation. Employers frequently confiscate passports and fail to provide adequate safety protections, while labour law violations are rarely prosecuted.

The Mangaf fire once again reminded of the dangerous conditions faced by migrant workers in Kuwait and other Gulf countries. This tragedy draws attention to the imperative need for strict safety standards and better living conditions.

While the Kuwaiti government’s swift response is a positive step, long-term solutions must address corruption, overcrowding, and negligence. Human rights organisations and workers’ movements urge adherence to international standards to protect migrant workers’ rights. This incident should prompt governments, businesses, and civil society to prioritise the well-being and dignity of migrant workers, ensuring their safety and respect across the GCC.