Pandemic renders workers more vulnerable than ever

Kuwait Times published a story this week that highlights just one
of the problems many expatriate workers have faced for years,
and even more so during the COVID-19 crisis. The article, published
on Tuesday, September 22, narrates the story of company
employees who were told to work from home during the lockdown,
but according to them, they were never paid for months of work.
While Kuwait’s labor law provides protection to private sector
workers against non-payment of salary, companies often resort to
tricks to circumvent the law and violate employees’ rights in the name
of cutting costs and saving money. In the most recent example, one of
the workers quoted in the article says that his employer asked him to
hand over his ATM card in order for the company to deposit his salary
in the bank, and withdraw it a short while later.

This practice is common in Kuwait. Employers retain employees’
bank cards so that they can transfer salaries and then quickly
retrieve the money. On paper it looks like they are following the law,
since the salaries are transferred. But in reality, the employee never
sees the cash.

When employees report cases of salary non-payment to the Public
Authority of Manpower against their employer, the authority contacts
the company in question and requests bank statements of its workers
to make sure that all staff are paid on time. If the company is found to
have failed to pay its employees, the manpower authority suspends its
file in the system, making them unable to process any labor-related
transactions unless they honor their staff’s contractual obligations.
Here is where the trick comes into play: to avoid this scenario, the
company in question would regularly deposit the salaries in employees’
bank accounts, and then require staff to return the money back,
often threatening them with termination and other retaliatory measures
should they refuse to cooperate.

Knowing that this is arguably the worst time to be without a job as
the pandemic has ravaged the economy and rendered job openings
almost nonexistent in a majority of fields, expatriate workers are left
with no other option but to comply. Termination means end of sponsorship
and their legal status in Kuwait, something no one living here
can afford at a time when the economy is still reeling under the effects
of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are no official statistics for the number of workers who have
lost their jobs in Kuwait during the crisis, but unofficial estimations
indicate that private companies have already terminated hundreds of
thousands of employees, a vast majority of whom are expatriates, or
have taken other measures such as cutting employees’ salaries and
forcing many to take unpaid leaves. The coronavirus crisis had raised
much debate on whether employees are entitled to wages during the
state-mandated closure of private establishments as a precautionary

In fact, the government had proposed a draft law stipulating that
businesses affected by the anti-coronavirus measures, including those
who had to completely or partially shut their businesses, can agree
with employees to reduce their salaries throughout the suspension
period up to 50 percent. The draft law was not approved in parliament,
however. And many businesses that were closed by the government
directives also received subsidies from the government during the
period of closure.

Despite the fact that the lockdown and curfew have ended, the
financial repercussions of COVID-19 still linger. Companies are still
losing money, and many people who have lost their jobs are still struggling
to find new ones. With no end in sight to the pandemic and
seemingly no hope that more labor-friendly laws would be introduced
in the near future, expat workers find themselves vulnerable to labor
abuse perhaps even more than ever today.

By Ahmad Jabr

[email protected]

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