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Marginal laborers, a staple of Kuwait’s economy

Manoj (not his real name) has been working as a porter for the last 10 years, and he is thankful for the opportunity of living a decent life with this job. He hails from Rajasthan in India and has two small children. “I got married five years ago, so every year I’ve got to go back to my country. I play with the kids for two months, then return back here to work,” he said. His work needs a lot of patience, especially if he wants to make a specific amount of money daily.

“If I earn KD 7 to KD 8 every day, I am happy. This is my average. Sometimes I only make KD 5, but sometimes I get more than KD 10 a day, especially on weekends,” Manoj said. The job is sometimes hard, as he has to carry heavy bags if shoppers spend two or three hours in Mubarakiya. He works from 10 am to 2 pm, then from 4 pm to 10 pm daily without a day off. There are dozens of porters roaming around in Mubarakiya, making customers feel relaxed when shopping in the traditional market.

Manoj targets customers when they are buying from shops or carrying bags or baskets. “I see everyone here as potential customers, especially those who are carrying bags. I always approach people carrying bags – this is the easiest way to get customers. I don’t wait to be called – I offer my services. This is what I do when starting the day. Even if we have many porters now in Mubarakiya, there are many customers who need our services,” he said.

For one hour of work, he usually gets KD 1, but sometimes more. “Once I only carried a customer’s three bags, but I was given KD 5. People here are generous, especially Kuwaitis and Europeans,” said Manoj.

To reach Kuwait in order to earn a living, Manoj and many other porters in Mubarakiya pay KD 600 to KD 700 to recruiters back in India as well as sponsors here for a two-year work visa. According to Kuwait’s private sector labor law, foreigners should only work for their kafeel (sponsor), and any employee caught working elsewhere can be penalized and deported. But visa trading is common and tens of thousands of low wage earners work in this way.

Part-time work is allowed by Kuwait law, but only under certain conditions. Workers must secure necessary approval from their sponsor and authorization from Kuwait’s Manpower Public Authority. But most either can’t or don’t.

Despite this, there is a constant demand for marginal labor. Menial jobs remain in demand in Kuwait and many ‘marginal’ laborer may supplement meagre salaries by doing odd jobs or freelance work in order to survive. Kuwait is home to 2.9 million expatriates, who make up 70 percent of the country’s 4 million population.

Most marginal workers are from impoverished countries like Bangladesh, Egypt or India.
Babu, from Bangladesh, works full time but also picks up extra work in a local souq after hours. “I come to work in Mubarakiya at 7 pm because I have regular work in the morning. I am a tea boy in an office of a ministry. I work here till 10 pm. At the ministry, I work from 8 am to 5 pm. I get a salary of KD 60 per month, which is not enough to live on. So I rent this trolley for KD 3 daily; only if I work I will pay the KD 3. If there’s no work, I don’t paid. Sometimes it’s hard, but I need to work for my family,” Babu said.

Babu was hired by a contracting company as a cleaner in 2014. “During my first years in Kuwait, I usually worked 12 hours as a street cleaner. I had no choice but to do the job because they gave us the visa. I worked for two years there, before I got this job in the ministry. They transferred me to the ministry in 2016,” he said.

In the morning when there are no calls from his regular customers, 35-year-old Lukman sits in an open area near the Hawally governorate building or between Al-Bahar Mall and Al-Rehab Complex. His aim is to sell his expertise and services – mainly repairing cabinets, making extra rooms and beds or making the kitchen look better. Lukman’s expertise is one of the most-sought services in Kuwait, as skilled workers like him are not easily available and there is no specific office to find and hire them.

“I get calls maybe four or five times a week from my regular customers. Some are from referrals or people whom I have met. I make at least KD 15 daily. If I get no calls or if I am not expecting any, you’ll find me here waiting for customers,” he told Kuwait Times.

At five or six in the morning, workers can be found sitting on street curbs in Bneid Al Gar, Hawally, Salmiya, Farwaniya, Khaitan, Shuwaikh and other areas. They gather and wait until a vehicle pulls up and offers a job. They negotiate until a deal is reached, then one, two or maybe several workers hop in and are taken by the driver to their job for the day. This might be at a construction site, a private house or a farm in Wafra. These are the day laborers of Kuwait.

Lukman is a father of a three-year-old boy. His wife and son live in Egypt, and he also goes back home annually. “I go home to be with my family every year. This is now my fourth year in Kuwait. I pay KD 40 for my room nearby and if there is no work, I just stay home,” he added. Lukman pays around KD 600 a year for his residency visa. He has no boss, but the moment he is hired, the new customer immediately becomes his boss – at least till his day ends.

By Ben Garcia


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