As many companies face security restrictions and illegal permits are confiscated, many expats find themselves without a job, therefore unable to stay in Kuwait. Image Credit: Supplied

Kuwait City: By the end of 2020, around 100,000 expatriates are set to leave Kuwait as the government investigates numerous fake companies and cracks down on illegal permit trading, Al Qabas reported.

“In the last few months there has been an intensified security operation, which led to 450 companies being referred for investigation and 300 cases have been filed,” a source told Al Qabas.

The source went on to point out that during the investigation it was revealed that around 100,000 workers are registered in these fake companies, therefore not actually working for them. This has forced them to pay large amounts of money for a residency and work outside the scope of the company.

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As many companies face security restrictions and illegal permits are confiscated, many expats find themselves without a job, therefore unable to stay in Kuwait.

“Although the crackdown is overdue, it is a step in the right direction. However, many expats are paying the price as they leave Kuwait not knowing if they are coming back and in most cases without receiving their salaries for months,” Nourah Al Sulaiman, Ensaniyat Project Manager, told Gulf News.

Ensaniyat is a youth-led initiative launched in 2017 in Kuwait and Qatar as part of migrant-rights.org’s on-ground advocacy. Ensaniyat aims to foster long-term change in attitudes towards labour migration and migrant workers by raising the consciousness of the next generation of decision makers and employers.

During the investigation, it was revealed that between 2018 and 2019 these fake companies earned around 66 million Kuwaiti dinars as they brought in around 30,000 workers and charged them around 1,500 Kuwaiti dinars per permit.

“The issue is that migrant workers have fallen victim to unclear recruitment and migration frameworks leaving many surprised to find out the jobs they were promised do not exist and the agency they have been dealing with has not been transparent,” Al Sulaiman pointed out.

Illegal permit holders

It was estimated that in April there were around 100,000 non-permit holders residing in Kuwait.

In recent months, the issue of illegal permit holders has garnered increased attention due to various factors from, the economic effect of COVID-19 to the recent arrest of the Bangladeshi MP.

Mohammad Shahid Islam, the Bangladeshi MP, was charged in June for human trafficking, money laundering and bribery. It has been reported that 20,000 Bangladeshi workers were brought to Kuwait, under Islam’s various cleaning and contracting companies, which earned him for more than 50 million Kuwaiti dinars. The workers were charged around 2,000 Kuwaiti dinars by Islam in exchange for a residency permit.

Kuwait Bangladesh
Mohammad Shahid Islam, a Bangladeshi MP, was charged in June for human trafficking, money laundering and bribery.

“These workers come to Kuwait thinking that they have a job waiting for them. But once they arrived they found that they were no jobs and no accommodation,” Al Sulaiman explained.

The practice of illegal permit trading has led to many issues within Kuwait from the demographic imbalance, where expats make up 70 per cent of the population, to the Kafala system.

Kafala system

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the Kafala system was established in the 1950s with an economic objective to provide temporary labour. Those mainly affected by the Kafala system are migrant workers as their immigration status is legally tied to an employer or sponsor (Kafeel) throughout the duration of their contract. Two-thirds of the 4.3 population in Kuwait are migrant workers.

“What happens regularly is that sponsors bring workers into the country, although they do not need their services. So what they do is tell the worker you can stay in Kuwait but you have to pay me every month for the permit,” Al Sulaiman said. “Basically they are left to find a job on their own and arrange their own accommodation. But they still have to worry about paying back the sponsor.”

Back in 2016, Maria Grazia Giammarianaro, a UN special rapporteur on people-trafficking, prompted Kuwait to annul the Kafala system as it “creates a situation of vulnerability which favours abusive and exploitative work relationships,” she said.

“Expats come to Kuwait thinking that they are going to be working in positions such as sales, nursing and marketing only to find out they are working as a domestic worker or in a low paying job,” Al Sulaiman said. “This is because of the lack of transparency by recruiting agencies.”

Al Sulaiman added, “Then there is also a stigma that workers coming from abroad are illiterate and uneducated.”

No work, no pay

While migrant workers have suffered during the COVID-19 crisis, many expats working for private businesses and companies have also been affected. Many people have been without money as they have been affected by the no-work-no-pay policy that most companies operate by, although the policy is deemed illegal under Kuwaiti law.

Al Sulaiman spoke to many expats that have been affected by the policy.

One story she shared was about a restaurant that has not been paying its workers since April. Then in July she was told by one of the employees that they began paying them 10 days’ worth of salaries, plus an extra 30 Kuwaiti dinars.

“This happened because the restaurant was being sold to another person and in order to change ownership you need to show all the paperwork to the Ministry of Social Affairs so they wanted to show that they have been paying them,” Al Sulaiman explained.

Last month, around 150-200 restaurant workers, working for a well known Lebanese chain, held a protest claiming they have not been paid for the past 3 months, according to Arab Times.

Voluntary departure

Due to the economic impact of COVID-19, it is likely that many expats will leave Kuwait on their own as many have lost their jobs or have not been paid since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Many people have not been receiving their rights even before COVID-19, but the pandemic just exacerbated everything and shed light on what is actually happening,” Al Sulaiman said.

Although the Kuwait airport was closed to arrivals, limited flights were operating since March for those that were looking to leave Kuwait. Since March 16, over 158,000 expats have left Kuwait on a total of 993 flights.

Amnesty programme

In April, the Ministry of Interior initiated an amnesty programme that allowed non-permit holders to leave the country with no penalty. The government also paid for their tickets.

“Many people ended up leaving Kuwait as part of the amnesty programme and they left without receiving their salaries so some people are in debt to the recruiting agency back home while others do not have enough money to rebuild their home or support their families,” Al Sulaiman explained.

Between April and June, 26,000 non-permit holders left Kuwait as a result of the amnesty program.

“What is going to happen when these people go back to a country that is already dealing with a high rate of unemployment. How are they going to make any money?” Al Sulaiman said.