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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 89
August 30 , 2008

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Human Rights analysis

Legal rights of the Bangladeshi workers in Kuwait

Hundreds of thousands of foreign guest workers among them 240,000 Bangladeshis have been trafficked to Kuwait, where they are immediately stripped of their passports. Many work seven days a week for wages of just 14 to 36 cents an hour, which means they are being cheated of up to 84 percent of the 90-cent-an-hour wage they were guaranteed when they purchased their three-year contracts to work in Kuwait. Workers who ask for their proper wages are beaten and threatened with arrest and forcible deportation. The workers are housed in squalid, overcrowded dorms with eight workers sharing each small 10-by-10-foot room, sleeping on narrow, double-level metal bunk beds.

The recent dramatic rise in food costs the price of many basic goods doubled has drawn workers ever further into misery. On July 27 and 28, approximately 80,000 mostly-Bangladeshi cleaning workers joined a work stoppage demanding their proper wages and an end to other abuses. There was some limited rioting when the companies refused to negotiate. In response, the Kuwaiti police beat and arrested hundreds of workers and, to date, 1,129 workers have been forcibly deported to Bangladesh.

Seventy-seven-hour work week at U.S. military base: Mr. Sabur, who is 26 years old and from Bangladesh, started working at the U.S. military base Camp Arifjan in Kuwait in January 2008. Along with 300 other guest workers, his job was to clean the base. He worked the night shift from 6:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. the following morning seven days a week. Given the 11-hour shift, seven days a week, Mr. Sabur was putting in a 77-hour work week. He was allowed a one hour break at midnight to eat his supper.

For the 70 hours of work, he was paid just $34.72 a week, or 50 cents an hour, which is 45 percent short of the 90-cent-an-hour wage he was guaranteed when he purchased his contract to work in Kuwait. Even without including overtime premium or night shift differential, he should have earned at least $63 for the 70 hour work week, and not the $34.72 he was paid. Mr. Sabur was cheated of $28.28 each week in wages due him, and $857.17 for the seven months of 2008 that he worked on the U.S. military base. Mr. Sabur began working in Kuwait on May 19, 2006 for the Kuwait Waste Collection and Recycling Company, which has 2,000 guest worker employees. His passport was immediately confiscated by company management. Mr. Sabur had to pay 185,000 taka $2,696.79 to an employment recruiting agency in Bangladesh to purchase his three-year contract to work in Kuwait. His family sold everything they could land, animals, tools, jewelry so their son would have the money to go to Kuwait. They were still 30,000 taka ($437.23) short, which they had to borrow from a neighbor. In the Bangladeshi countryside, the interest rate to borrow money in the informal market is at least eight percent a month. Essentially, the initial $437.23 loan doubles each year if it is not paid off. This is why the hundreds of thousands of guest workers in Kuwait are in a trap, racing against time to pay off their debts.

Because he was being cheated of his lawful wages at the Arifjan U.S. military base, Mr. Sabur was forced to take a second job with the Ummal Hammal company, cleaning schools nine hours a day, at least six days a week. Mr. Sabur worked from 5:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the school and only had time to quickly eat lunch and sleep for just three hours before starting his 6:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. shift at the U.S. military base. Mr. Sabul was working 131 hours a week and trying to get by on just three hours of sleep a day!

Mr. Sabur and his colleagues were housed in a dilapidated six-story building in the Mahboula area where eight workers were crowded into small 10-by-10-foot room, sleeping on double-level bunk beds. To prepare their food, 24 workers shared a single gas range with three burners. The water supply to the dorm was irregular and limited. On some days, the workers were allowed less than a gallon of water eachto drink, bathe and cook with.

Before joining the U.S. military base he worked under contract with the same Kuwaiti Waste Collection and Recycling company. While cleaning Kuwaiti government property, he was paid just 28 cents an hour and $13.37 a week, which is 70 percent short of the 90 cents an hour and $43.40 a week he was supposed to earn when he signed his contract.

The Kuwaiti Waste Collection and Recycling Company also illegally withheld his first three months wages. During his first three months in Kuwait despite working cleaning government property he had to borrow money from his fellow workers just to survive.

Near the end of 2007, Mr. Sabur asked his supervisor, Mr. Osman, to please pay the proper wages according to his contract. The supervisor responded by beating him. All across Kuwait, guest workers are frightened of being beaten and deported if they ask for their basic rights.

With the typical guest worker in Kuwait earning just $75.23 a month, this means that after deducting the average $39.50 the workers spend in food, they are left with just $35.86 a month to meet all other expenses and pay off their debts.

This is what ignited the strike when an estimated 80,000 mostly Bangladeshi cleaning workers joined a work stoppage on July 27-28 to demand their full wages and respect for their rights. Workers from India, Sudan and Egypt also joined the stoppage. On the 27th of July, workers gathered in front of their various company offices, expecting that management would at least seriously negotiate with them. When there was no response at all, in frustration, some small groups of protestors rioted, smashing windows and damaging cars.

The response by the government was harsh and swift. For years the government of Kuwait did not lift a finger to enforce its own labor laws or take a single step to end the rampant abuse and exploitation of the hundreds of thousands of guest workers trafficked to Kuwait. The work stoppage and the limited violence led to mass arrests and beatings by the Kuwaiti police, with over 1,000 strikers forcibly deported to Bangladesh.

Mr. Sabur did not participate in the protests, but he and his co-workers did join the work stoppage and did not leave their dorm on July 27. At 3:00 p.m., Kuwaiti police entered the dorm by smashing the door open and breaking the lock. Along with other workers, Mr. Sabur was badly beaten, struck on the back and legs with wooden batons the police were wielding. He was struck 11 times and then kicked. He was bruised all over his body. The police then took Mr. Sabur and many of his co-workers to jail, where they remained imprisoned for five days. Mr. Sabur was also beaten in prison. They were prohibited from taking any of their belongings from the dorm. They were unable to even change their clothes. After five days, Mr. Sabur and the other workers were forcibly deported to Bangladesh. Many workers got off the plane still bruised and with their clothing torn and stained with blood.

Blood money: When Mr. Sabur paid $2,696.79 to an employment agency in Bangladesh to purchase his three year work contract in Kuwait, he was guaranteed a wage of 90 cents an hour, $43.40 a week and $2,257.02 a year. During his 26 months of work in Kuwait including on a U.S. military base before he was beaten, imprisoned and deported, Mr. Sabur never earned anywhere near the 90 cent-an-hour wage he was assured of.

The government of Kuwait owed Mr. Sabur at least $5,181 in back wages legally due him. From May 2006 through July 2008, Mr. Sabur was underpaid by $2,736. The cleaning company also illegally withheld his first three months' wages, which should have been paid at $188.09 a month, for a total of $564.27. When Mr. Sabur was forcibly deported he still had ten months left on the work contract he paid for. He is owed those ten months' wages of $1,880.90. In Kuwait, while working under contract for the Kuwaiti government, Mr. Sabur was cheated of at least $5,181.17 in wages rightfully due him. And this figure does not include the national holidays the workers were denied or their vacation time, which was supposed to be guaranteed after two years of work, nor the fact that they were cheated of their health insurance and paid no overtime premium.

Mr. Sabur is just one person among the estimated 240,000 Bangladeshi guest workers who are toiling in Kuwait. And Mr. Sabur's case is by no means unique. Imagine if all 240,000 workers are being similarly cheated of their rightful wages, this would mean that collectively the Bangladeshi workers have been robbed of $1.2 billion!

There is no way the exact amount of back wages owed will ever be known, but the exploitation and robbing of the Bangladeshi guest workers in Kuwait surely amounts to blood money, given that hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars are being transferred from some of the poorest (yet hardest working) people anywhere in the world to one of the richest countries in the world.

It doesn't have to be this way: Kuwait does not need to exploit desperately poor foreign guest workers. They have the money to treat all workers in Kuwait with a modicum of dignity. Ninety percent of Kuwait's private sector workers are non-Kuwaiti. Hundreds of thousands of foreign guest workers have been trafficked to Kuwait from Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Mr. Mukul, also from Bangladesh, was just 20 years old when he and his family borrowed and paid 250,000 taka ($3,644) for his three-year contract to work in Kuwait. Upon his arrival in Kuwait in June 2006, he was stripped of his passport and joined the more than 22,000 Bangladeshi workers employed by the Al Abrag Cleaning Company, which had a government contract to clean Kuwaiti government office buildings, post offices, schools, state hospitals and public roads. According to the contract he paid for and signed in Bangladesh, Mr. Mukul, like all the others, was guaranteed a wage of at least 90 cents an hour. He was also supposed to receive free health care, at least one day off a week, national holidays and vacation time. But these promises were all a fantasy. He was paid just 36 cents an hour, $17.36 a week, and $75. 23 a month to clean government post offices. Like all the other Bangladeshi workers, he was cheated of 60 percent of the wages due him, while working for the Kuwaiti government. Mr. Mukul was being shortchanged of 54 cents an hour and $26 a week, a huge sum for these poor workers who were also struggling to pay off the substantial debts they had incurred to come to Kuwait in the first place.

If Mr. Mukul missed a day due to sickness, he was docked $7.52, amounting to the loss of two-and-a-half days' pay. Like the other guest workers, Mr. Mukul knew that he would be beaten and perhaps deported if he asked for his lawful wages.

Some Bangladeshis who purchased work contracts arrived in Kuwait only to find out they had no job. Some workers had to wait three to five months before they could find employment, which often required them to pay additional bribes to middlemen. During this whole period, they had to borrow more money in order to eat. Everyone had to surrender their passports and every company withheld a minimum of a month's wages.

At the Al Kuwait and Al Dana cleaning companies also working under contract with the Kuwaiti government many workers were paid just 14 cents an hour and $6.94 a week which means they were being cheated of 84 percent of the wages rightfully due them! There were even some workers who had not been paid for eight or nine months' work! For all practical purposes, they were being held as slave laborers.

At the Al Dana company, many workers reported that they were forced to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, cleaning Kuwaiti military bases, earning just 41 cents an hour - 34.72 for toiling an 84-hour week. These workers were cheated of 57 percent of the wages due them.

Source: This is the abridged version of a report by National Labor Committee, a US based Labour Rights Organisation.


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