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Kuwait Fire: Good Wages but Poor Work Conditions – An Indian Migrant's Conundrum

Kuwait Fire: Indians constitute 21% of Kuwait and 30% of its total workforce. Yet many live in poor conditions.

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Out of the 49 people killed on Wednesday, 12 June, after a fire broke out in an apartment building in Kuwait, 45 were Indians.

The seven-storey building housed nearly 200 people in the Mangaf area, south of Kuwait City, an area heavily populated with migrant workers. Most of them worked as engineers and technicians for a private construction firm called NBTC Group, which has KG Abraham, a businessman from Kerala, as its managing director.

A majority of the deceased aged between 20 and 50 years were from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and Uttar Pradesh. The Kerala government on Thursday, 13 June, confirmed that 24 of the deceased were from the state.

Apart from the incident triggering calls for action against real estate and company owners violating laws to house large numbers of foreign labourers in extremely unsafe conditions in Kuwait, it brought back the focus on one main aspect – the large number of Indians who form a major part of the workforce in the West Asian country.

Why do Indian workers migrate to Kuwait in search of employment? What are the jobs they take up? And what are their living conditions like? The Quint explains.

Kuwait Fire: Indians constitute 21% of Kuwait and 30% of its total workforce. Yet many live in poor conditions.

The burnt building where a fire broke out killing at least 41 people, in Mangaf, Kuwait.

(Photo: PTI)

Kuwait Fire: Good Wages but Poor Work Conditions – An Indian Migrant's Conundrum

  1. 1. From Doctors to Domestic Workers: Kuwait Dependent on Indians

    From doctors, engineers and chartered accountants, to drivers, carpenters, masons, domestic workers, and delivery executives – Kuwait heavily depends on the Indian workforce.

    According to the latest statistics released by the Public Authority for Civil Information (PACI) of Kuwait, the population of the West Asian country stood at 4.85 million as of December 2023.

    Of this, labourers and workers comprised 61% (close to 3 million) of the total population and 75% of the country's total expat population.

    As the largest expatriate community in Kuwait with a million-strong diaspora, Indians constitute 21 percent of the total population and 30 percent of its total workforce.
    Kuwait Fire: Indians constitute 21% of Kuwait and 30% of its total workforce. Yet many live in poor conditions.

    Indians constitute 21 percent of the total population and 30 percent of its total workforce.

    (Image: Namita Chauhan/The Quint)

    As per the website of the Indian Embassy in Kuwait, the country, known for its oil reserves, saw a rapid increase in the Indian migrant population in 1970-80s, all of whom played a vital role in its development.

    A 2016 study by the International Labour Organization (ILO) on labour migration to the Gulf region indicated that, "workers, even those belonging to the low-skilled category, earn higher wages if they have relevant experience in the domestic labour market."

    Many opt for Gulf countries not only because of their high demand for unskilled workers but also because their wages are significantly higher than that in India, Kerala-based migrants rights activist Rejimon Kuttappan told The Quint.
    "Many workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar go to Gulf countries as blue-collar workers to work in construction... large-scale migration is due to unemployment. Plus, in foreign countries, the workers get to save a lot more and send back home than they do in India. Assuming a worker gets Rs 20,000-25,000 a month, he will send a maximum of only Rs 8,000. But they live in labour camps and poor working conditions..."
    Kuttappan explained to The Quint

    Released in December 2023, the Ministry of External Affairs' Standing Committee Report on cooperation between India and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) noted that the region is an important source of inward remittances to India.

    "The last figures for remittances abroad from the diaspora and the overall Indians have been more than $120 billion, which is a significant figure. It has been a jump from the previous figure of $87 billion, which was in 2021. In 2022, we saw more than $115 billion, which is there."
    MEA' Standing Committee Report

    According to The Arab Times, Indians working in Kuwait sent home almost $6.67 billion in 2023 in remittances.

    Usman Jawed, a research consultant and migrant rights advocate at FairSquare, a non-profit organisation, told The Quint:

    "To understand why large number of people move to Gulf countries, one must understand the labour market in India and over there. In sending countries, there's a problem of chronic underemployment and unemployment... When people move, they know the risks that are involved, but they internalise and accept it. This happens only because they have nothing to return to, or what you have to return to is much worse."
    Expand
  2. 2. 1,400 Indians Died in Kuwait in 2022-2023: MEA

    The Indian government, working in tandem with states where migrant workers travel from (Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh), fixed Minimum Referral wages (MRW) for migrant workers in Kuwait, as per the ILO regulations.

    According to the Indian Embassy of Kuwait, as of 2022, the minimum wages ranged between $300 and $1,350 across 64 categories of work.

    In response to a query in Parliament in December 2022, then Minister of State for MEA V Muraleedharan had said that MRW for employment in Gulf countries were adjusted downwards due to the COVID situation, "to protect our employment in the Gulf." However, by 2022, it returned to the same level as it was in 2019-20.

    Time and again workers face labour and workers' rights violations as they follow an exploitative employer-employee labour contract system.

    These workers often live in poor conditions in cramped rooms in labour camps or semi-constructed buildings, like the one in Mangaf.

    "While salary is ensured, freedom of movement and other rights are often compromised."
    Rejimon Kuttappan

    A Right to Information (RTI) filed by IndiaSpend revealed that Indian migrant workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are in a difficult situation, facing various labour and human rights violations.

    Between June 2019 and 2023, 23,020 complaints have been filed by workers in Kuwait, the highest among all the Gulf countries, the RTI showed. The Indian embassy in Kuwait lists non-payment of wages, unfair working conditions, and harassment as the most common complaints from Indian migrant workers.

    In addition, a total of 1,439 Indians, mostly migrant workers, died in Kuwait between 2022 and 2023, MEA said in Parliament on 2 February.

    On 13 June, Kuwait's Fire Force announced that the fire was caused by an electrical short circuit, state-run KUNA news agency reported. Allegations have also been raised about code violations by the building owners.

    "This incident has been reported as an accident... there are accidents that happen by design and avoidable, and some are not. This was an avoidable situation and these deaths are definitely by design... It is not to pinpoint or blame one person, but to blame the system through which workers are not just exploited in the economic sense, but also some of their basic civil and political rights are violated."
    Usman Jawed to The Quint
    Expand
  3. 3. Kuwait Fire Incident Brings Back Focus on Emigration Bill

    A day after the incident, Minister of State for External Affairs Kirti Vardhan Singh reached Kuwait to oversee the assistance to those injured.

    In addition, Kuwait's Deputy Premier ordered the arrest of the Kuwaiti landlord and the Egyptian guard of the building and warned officials not to release them without his permission, local reports said.

    However, as soon as news of the Kuwait tragedy spread, several politicians and experts called on the government to amend the Emigration Act, 1983, to ensure decent conditions of work and security for the Indian migrant workers.

    Stating that the incident is a reminder of the "terrible privations Indian migrant workers undergo," three-time MP Tharoor said:

    Every migrant who moves to Gulf countries does so after obtaining clearance through the eMigrate portal. In addition, the Draft Emigration Bill 2021 seeks to amend the Emigration Act, 1983, with a view to address the issues faced by the emigrants about social security and healthcare.

    Rejimon Kuttapan pointed out that the Ministry of External Affairs "should give some importance to labour issues. Currently they focus on trade and other issues," he alleged.

    "The fire incident took place in a staff accommodation and not a labour camp... but news says that there are violations in the building... even if such a tragedy can happen in a rented building, imagine the conditions of labour camps? Despite being the largest migrant-sending and remittance-receiving country, India governs migration with a 40-year-old Emigration Act..."
    Rejimon Kuttapan

    Kuttapan believed that the lack of an updated Emigration Act led to the lack of a Standard Operation Procedure (SOP) "needed when this situation arrives, whether its a tragedy like this, or anything else."

    Usman Jawed concurred, saying, "It would be ideal if we could ensure that insurance is a precondition for migration, especially to the GCC countries. An insurance that covers all eventualities."
    Kuwait Fire: Indians constitute 21% of Kuwait and 30% of its total workforce. Yet many live in poor conditions.

    Mangaf: Ambassador of India to Kuwait Adarsh Swaika visits the Al-Adan hospital where Indian workers who got injured in a fire that broke out in a building have been admitted, in Kuwait

    (Photo: PTI)

    India also offers Pravasi Bharatiya Bima Yojana (PBBY) insurance policy to all Indian emigrant workers in Kuwait with a coverage of Rs 10 lakh in case of accidental deaths or permanent disability. It also bears legal expenses in case of disputes.

    However, Kuttappan said that this scheme was only applicable to those "migrating to certain countries, who have the Emigration Check Required (ECR) passport."

    Note: The government of India categorises passport holders into two categories based on their educational qualifications and professional skills.

    "Most of those who died are those who fall under the 'Emigration Check Not Required' (ECNR) category, and are those who are well-educated and belong to middle class. Due to the presence of the old law, they won't receive the Rs 10 lakh under the insurance policy. But how is it fair? Had we updated the law, definitely these families would've benefited from this money... we need to update the Act and ensure that both passport categories have equal protection," Kuttappan said.
    Expand

From Doctors to Domestic Workers: Kuwait Dependent on Indians

From doctors, engineers and chartered accountants, to drivers, carpenters, masons, domestic workers, and delivery executives – Kuwait heavily depends on the Indian workforce.

According to the latest statistics released by the Public Authority for Civil Information (PACI) of Kuwait, the population of the West Asian country stood at 4.85 million as of December 2023.

Of this, labourers and workers comprised 61% (close to 3 million) of the total population and 75% of the country's total expat population.

As the largest expatriate community in Kuwait with a million-strong diaspora, Indians constitute 21 percent of the total population and 30 percent of its total workforce.
Kuwait Fire: Indians constitute 21% of Kuwait and 30% of its total workforce. Yet many live in poor conditions.

Indians constitute 21 percent of the total population and 30 percent of its total workforce.

(Image: Namita Chauhan/The Quint)

As per the website of the Indian Embassy in Kuwait, the country, known for its oil reserves, saw a rapid increase in the Indian migrant population in 1970-80s, all of whom played a vital role in its development.

A 2016 study by the International Labour Organization (ILO) on labour migration to the Gulf region indicated that, "workers, even those belonging to the low-skilled category, earn higher wages if they have relevant experience in the domestic labour market."

Many opt for Gulf countries not only because of their high demand for unskilled workers but also because their wages are significantly higher than that in India, Kerala-based migrants rights activist Rejimon Kuttappan told The Quint.
"Many workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar go to Gulf countries as blue-collar workers to work in construction... large-scale migration is due to unemployment. Plus, in foreign countries, the workers get to save a lot more and send back home than they do in India. Assuming a worker gets Rs 20,000-25,000 a month, he will send a maximum of only Rs 8,000. But they live in labour camps and poor working conditions..."
Kuttappan explained to The Quint

Released in December 2023, the Ministry of External Affairs' Standing Committee Report on cooperation between India and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) noted that the region is an important source of inward remittances to India.

"The last figures for remittances abroad from the diaspora and the overall Indians have been more than $120 billion, which is a significant figure. It has been a jump from the previous figure of $87 billion, which was in 2021. In 2022, we saw more than $115 billion, which is there."
MEA' Standing Committee Report

According to The Arab Times, Indians working in Kuwait sent home almost $6.67 billion in 2023 in remittances.

Usman Jawed, a research consultant and migrant rights advocate at FairSquare, a non-profit organisation, told The Quint:

"To understand why large number of people move to Gulf countries, one must understand the labour market in India and over there. In sending countries, there's a problem of chronic underemployment and unemployment... When people move, they know the risks that are involved, but they internalise and accept it. This happens only because they have nothing to return to, or what you have to return to is much worse."
ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

1,400 Indians Died in Kuwait in 2022-2023: MEA

The Indian government, working in tandem with states where migrant workers travel from (Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh), fixed Minimum Referral wages (MRW) for migrant workers in Kuwait, as per the ILO regulations.

According to the Indian Embassy of Kuwait, as of 2022, the minimum wages ranged between $300 and $1,350 across 64 categories of work.

In response to a query in Parliament in December 2022, then Minister of State for MEA V Muraleedharan had said that MRW for employment in Gulf countries were adjusted downwards due to the COVID situation, "to protect our employment in the Gulf." However, by 2022, it returned to the same level as it was in 2019-20.

Time and again workers face labour and workers' rights violations as they follow an exploitative employer-employee labour contract system.

These workers often live in poor conditions in cramped rooms in labour camps or semi-constructed buildings, like the one in Mangaf.

"While salary is ensured, freedom of movement and other rights are often compromised."
Rejimon Kuttappan

A Right to Information (RTI) filed by IndiaSpend revealed that Indian migrant workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are in a difficult situation, facing various labour and human rights violations.

Between June 2019 and 2023, 23,020 complaints have been filed by workers in Kuwait, the highest among all the Gulf countries, the RTI showed. The Indian embassy in Kuwait lists non-payment of wages, unfair working conditions, and harassment as the most common complaints from Indian migrant workers.

In addition, a total of 1,439 Indians, mostly migrant workers, died in Kuwait between 2022 and 2023, MEA said in Parliament on 2 February.

On 13 June, Kuwait's Fire Force announced that the fire was caused by an electrical short circuit, state-run KUNA news agency reported. Allegations have also been raised about code violations by the building owners.

"This incident has been reported as an accident... there are accidents that happen by design and avoidable, and some are not. This was an avoidable situation and these deaths are definitely by design... It is not to pinpoint or blame one person, but to blame the system through which workers are not just exploited in the economic sense, but also some of their basic civil and political rights are violated."
Usman Jawed to The Quint

Kuwait Fire Incident Brings Back Focus on Emigration Bill

A day after the incident, Minister of State for External Affairs Kirti Vardhan Singh reached Kuwait to oversee the assistance to those injured.

In addition, Kuwait's Deputy Premier ordered the arrest of the Kuwaiti landlord and the Egyptian guard of the building and warned officials not to release them without his permission, local reports said.

However, as soon as news of the Kuwait tragedy spread, several politicians and experts called on the government to amend the Emigration Act, 1983, to ensure decent conditions of work and security for the Indian migrant workers.

Stating that the incident is a reminder of the "terrible privations Indian migrant workers undergo," three-time MP Tharoor said:

Every migrant who moves to Gulf countries does so after obtaining clearance through the eMigrate portal. In addition, the Draft Emigration Bill 2021 seeks to amend the Emigration Act, 1983, with a view to address the issues faced by the emigrants about social security and healthcare.

Rejimon Kuttapan pointed out that the Ministry of External Affairs "should give some importance to labour issues. Currently they focus on trade and other issues," he alleged.

"The fire incident took place in a staff accommodation and not a labour camp... but news says that there are violations in the building... even if such a tragedy can happen in a rented building, imagine the conditions of labour camps? Despite being the largest migrant-sending and remittance-receiving country, India governs migration with a 40-year-old Emigration Act..."
Rejimon Kuttapan

Kuttapan believed that the lack of an updated Emigration Act led to the lack of a Standard Operation Procedure (SOP) "needed when this situation arrives, whether its a tragedy like this, or anything else."

Usman Jawed concurred, saying, "It would be ideal if we could ensure that insurance is a precondition for migration, especially to the GCC countries. An insurance that covers all eventualities."
Kuwait Fire: Indians constitute 21% of Kuwait and 30% of its total workforce. Yet many live in poor conditions.

Mangaf: Ambassador of India to Kuwait Adarsh Swaika visits the Al-Adan hospital where Indian workers who got injured in a fire that broke out in a building have been admitted, in Kuwait

(Photo: PTI)

India also offers Pravasi Bharatiya Bima Yojana (PBBY) insurance policy to all Indian emigrant workers in Kuwait with a coverage of Rs 10 lakh in case of accidental deaths or permanent disability. It also bears legal expenses in case of disputes.

However, Kuttappan said that this scheme was only applicable to those "migrating to certain countries, who have the Emigration Check Required (ECR) passport."

Note: The government of India categorises passport holders into two categories based on their educational qualifications and professional skills.

"Most of those who died are those who fall under the 'Emigration Check Not Required' (ECNR) category, and are those who are well-educated and belong to middle class. Due to the presence of the old law, they won't receive the Rs 10 lakh under the insurance policy. But how is it fair? Had we updated the law, definitely these families would've benefited from this money... we need to update the Act and ensure that both passport categories have equal protection," Kuttappan said.
ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

After reviewing the incident, PM Narendra Modi announced Rs 2 lakh ex-gratia from the PM Relief Fund to the families of the victims. This amount, however, is very less, opined Jawed.

"The ex gratia announced might just be 2-3 months worth salary of these victims. That's not enough. Plus, there is no hint of recognising that there is something systematically amiss in this whole situation... no one is acknowledging the systemic issue... This is just an exercise of streamlining and rationalising the '83 Act. It is not informed by any learning that we have had of these 40 years of this system. It's important to design an act that will better protect your workers."
Usman Jawed to The Quint

Jawed told The Quint that Indian workers make up one-third of the total workforce in GCC countries. "If that is not leverage for our country to protect its workers, then I don't know what is... governments like ours should have a common minimum understanding and negotiate better conditions for workers. India should play a huge role in this and the test is whether we can protect our citizens abroad," he opined.

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