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Justice for migrant workers

Kuwait / Freedom for Justice / 25 jan 2018

Two-thirds of Kuwait’s population are migrant workers. Travelling predominantly from South and South-East Asia, most migrate to Kuwait to work in construction or as domestic workers. Migrant workers are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Under the kafala or sponsorship system in Kuwait, their legal residence and immigration status is tied to their employer and in 95% of the cases their employer takes away their passport. This makes escaping an abusive or exploitative employer extremely difficult. Even where laws exist to protect migrant workers, many are not able to exercise their rights, because they are unaware of them or have no way to claim them. The majority of construction workers are charged illegal recruitment fees and the majority of domestic workers do not know that they are entitled by law to have 1 day off a week. As a result, exploitative situations are common, forced labour is widespread and many female domestic workers in particular face multiple forms of abuse. Migrant workers have little access to justice or redress, facing multiple barriers if they wish to hold their abusers to account in a court of law.

Project 189 works to protect, promote and improve the rights of migrant workers in Kuwait. They create awareness campaigns to promote migrant workers’ legal rights to the general population and deliver training to migrant workers on their legal rights. They also provide pro-bono legal representation in court, legal advice and translation services in addition to providing transportation to offices to support cases and/or complaints. They have so far provided legal advice to approximately 200 migrant workers and have helped free victims of trafficking and exploitation.

Through their project ‘SARA’ (Social Accountability for Recruitment Agencies) Project 189 worked directly with recruitment agencies and employers in Kuwait to strengthen adherence to international labour standards for domestic workers. The project included awareness raising workshops with 75 employers and the production of an online resource hub for domestic workers. There is a huge challenge ahead to change the attitudes of employers, as the workshops revealed practices such as withholding passports, long working hours, lack of a weekly day off, or preventing workers from going out was the norm and strongly justified.

By working directly with migrant workers and their employers, Project 189 can make a substantial difference to the working conditions of individuals while also changing wider attitudes through raising awareness of migrant workers’ rights. Project 189 also connects migrant workers, creating a space for people to socialise, develop skills and discuss their hopes and dreams. Their recent photography project allowed domestic workers to learn basic photography skills and discuss their past and dreams for the future. As one participant Charito said, “Living far from my family is not easy. Despite all the hardship and trials, I am still here, standing alone, with my courage and inspiration to make my dreams come true.”

The life of a migrant worker will always carry the hardship of living far away from loved ones. Many domestic workers watch their employers’ children grow up while missing the milestones in their own children’s childhoods. But this hardship is unnecessarily increased when migrant workers have to suffer inhumane working hours, confinement indoors and in some cases verbal and physical abuse. Project 189 works tirelessly to ensure that migrant workers are treated with the respect and decency that they deserve, so that they can achieve their dreams. 

Project 189 is a finalist for #WalkTogether Prize for Courage as part of The Grassroots Justice Prize.