The Oil Lands

Anyone taking Societies of the World 44: Human Trafficking, Slavery and Abolition in the Modern World this semester will tell you that the days of coerced labor and extreme violations of human dignity are far from over. My visit to Kuwait this January gave me further insight into this depressing reality that is all too common in the Gulf region. The fusion of oil wealth and traditional mores has allowed for a modern day system of slavery, and until the development an alternative fuel, or the exhaustion of the region’s oil, no amount of advocacy will be able to put an end to it.

To give Kuwait some credit, the social welfare system for citizens is highly impressive. Unlike nations where mineral wealth is exploited, creating a wealth divide between a ruling minority and an impoverished majority, Kuwait redistributes its wealth to the citizens. Along with guaranteed employment, free medical services, occasional “debt forgiveness” policies, retirement income, marriage bonuses, and free education, Kuwaiti citizens also receive frequent monetary payment from the government simply for being citizens. In February of 2011, for example, the government gave each citizen 1,000 Kuwaiti Dinars (approximately $3,500) and each family a free monthly food basket. The caveat in this case is the term citizen. “Original Kuwaiti nationals” are those who settled, or haves ancestors who settled, in Kuwait prior to 1920. The Kuwaiti government makes it virtually impossible for any one else to become a citizen.

As a result of Kuwaitis being paid to do nothing, the workforce is comprised of individuals from those nations that failed to become wealthy on oil deposits. However, these immigrants, who are permanently tied to an alien status and socially isolated due to a lack of Arabic or English knowledge, must also endure harsh immigration laws referred to as the “sponsorship system.” Non-Kuwaitis wishing to work in the country are required to have an employer sponsor, who is then responsible for facilitating legal paperwork between the expatriate and the government. The sponsor must also determine whether the former is acting within Kuwait’s legal framework. Expatriates are unable to leave their jobs without permission from their employers, thus enabling employee abuse and exploitation. Kuwait announced plans to abolish the sponsor system by February 2011, but Rose, an immigrant from the Philippines and employee at a small bakery in Kuwait City affirms that such a system is still very much intact. Rose frowns and looks down sadly as she says to me, “they do not see us as equals.” A few seconds later, as if on queue, a Kuwaiti woman interrupts our conversation and summons Rose from her cupcake business, so she can find her a pen. According to Kuwait Times, the sponsorship system is still in place because the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor claims “clear steps” have not been taken or proposed and former members of Parliament wish to maintain it.

“What is the point of writing about this struggle,” asked Noel, a mall stand employee and immigrant from India, “No one can help us. This is a country just for the Kuwaitis.”  Noel explains that when Bangladeshi immigrants “raised their voices” to United Nations representatives about monthly wages of 15 Kuwaiti Dinars (approximately $50), the Kuwaiti government put a ban on visas for Bangladeshis. In 2008, the Kuwaiti government deported several Bangladeshis who protested against monthly wages as lows as eight Kuwaiti Dinars (approximately $30) a month. Despite unfair wages and working conditions, Noel says, immigrants continue coming to Kuwait for their “daily bread.” The real victims are the immigrants who work in Kuwaiti households. These immigrants, most commonly women, along with being subject to the lowest pay also often endure physical and sexual abuse and face difficulty escaping the grasps of their “sponsors.” Rose agrees that treatment is worst in the houses. Kuwaiti employers count the household’s food, she explains, and maids are beaten if anything is missing. They are often allowed only three or four hours of sleep. If they are able to, many domestic servants often attempt to escape to the Philippine embassy where they are either sent back to the Philippines or given the opportunity to contact their sponsor and ask for another employer.

Fawaz Al-Alami, former Saudi negotiator with the World Trade Organization, argues human rights abuses are a natural occurrence and not reason enough to abolish a system of national population control. I am not arguing that Kuwait and other Gulf Nations should simply grant citizenship to anyone who wants it, but this system is inherently abusive. Immigrants in every country undoubtedly face hardships, but the combination of a institutionalized notion of a superior race, the sponsorship system, and virtually no effective laws or government monitoring policies to relieve immigrant workers of these abuses bring the concept of human rights abuse to a new level. The worst part is the Kuwaiti government will tout the generosity of allowing immigrants into their nation. But it is highly unlikely that a single Kuwaiti citizen knows how to mop a floor, let alone comprise an actual labor force that the country can rely on.

Shazmin Hirji, ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Matthews Hall.

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