Domestic labor recruitment offices ring alarm bell
KUWAIT CITY, Jan 6: One of the positive repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic was the activation of e-government services and completion of online transactions to facilitate procedures for both clients and employees in a bid to contain the spread of COVID-19 virus, reports Al-Rai daily. However, the steps taken to combat the spread of COVID-19 crisis resulted in the perpetuation and exacerbation of a violation that existed before the crisis.
It is related to the exploitation of domestic workers, as the sponsors end up having full control of the fate of their domestic workers and turning the situation into something similar to “house arrest” for them. A number of domestic labor recruitment offices rang the alarm bell about this new threat to Kuwait’s reputation in front of the international community.
A new phenomenon began to surface, which is domestic workers being forced to work in homes by their sponsors and prevented from leaving, or transferring to another sponsor, in light of the great shortage that the local market suffers from due to the suspended air travel.
From the beginning of last November, the daily has been shedding light on the issue of domestic labor exploitation, and opened a file that is no less dangerous than the new phenomenon, which is that there are fake offices that circumvent the law, and provide domestic workers for amounts of up to KD 400 per month per worker, by exploiting the high demand for domestic workers. In addition, a commission is collected by the offices from the people besides the salary of the domestic worker.
However, instead of addressing and finding solutions, the situation appears to have worsened. The new phenomenon then began to emerge, which is forcing workers to continue working without renewing their contracts, after making it possible for sponsors to renew their domestic workers’ residency online.
Although the government procedures and controls in place in this regard stipulate that the residency of the domestic worker should not be renewed except in his presence and with his approval, the procedure prior to COVID-19 crisis neglected that part. After the “automation” of the residency renewal systems was implemented, the sponsor is able to renew his domestic worker without the latter’s approval , which has opened the door wide for “ forced labor.”
This automation process has generated three problems – not requiring the existence of a contract to renew residency (since before COVID-19), failure to ensure the worker’s presence during the renewal or transfer process, and consecrate the violation by not having to electronically take the worker’s approval during the renewal process.
The solutions to the aforementioned problems are – attaching the work contract signed by the worker when renewing the residency, comparing his signature on the contract with his signature on the passport through electronic linkage, and contacting the domestic worker and ensuring he agrees to the renewal and is not subjected to any pressure.
In his role, Bassam Al-Shammari, the owner of a domestic labor recruitment company, warned of the negative repercussions of the electronic renewal of domestic workers’ residency permits, as it has opened the door wide for sponsors to force domestic workers to work against their will, indicating that this may portray a negative image of Kuwait to the international community.
He explained that the renewal of residence permits has been made available online due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus and the direction of state agencies to automate their systems. However, the renewal process does not differentiate between those holding residency for domestic workers (Article 20) residency, those working in the position of domestic workers, and other types of residencies.
The distinction in the type of residence visa is a fundamental matter, especially since the work contract of domestic workers is a fixed-term contract and can only be renewed with the consent of the domestic worker himself, and in his presence before the concerned authorities to acknowledge approval and renewal of the residency.
The variables imposed by the COVID-19 crisis – from restricting air traffic to suspending issuance of entry visas – have prompted more than half of the total domestic workers in the country (estimated at 745 thousand) to face the problem of forced renewal of their work contracts, especially with the cessation of recruitment for new workers, and the inability to travel or leave the country when they wish to.
In other words, the cessation of recruitment pushed the sponsors to restrict the freedom of domestic workers to choose, and instead continue working after the end of their work contracts, due to the lack of an alternative, so that the weaker party would bear the result of renewing the work period without his consent through online residency renewal services that do not require a new work contract from the embassy.
Al-Shammari stressed that the repercussions of restricting the freedom of domestic workers is starting to become evident to many recruitment offices, as they receive dozens of complaints daily from workers, against whose will their residencies are renewed, leaving them with no other option. He insisted that the current system in force allows the sponsor to renew the residency of the domestic worker without the need to visit the concerned authorities, which invalidates the procedure if it is carried out without the consent of the domestic worker himself, and ensures the domestic worker was not coerced to agree to the renewal.
This cannot be achieved unless he is physically present at the relevant government agency. Al-Shammari affirmed, “The failure of the domestic worker to attend to agree or disagree to the renewal process in front of the concerned authorities was previously overlooked prior to the COVID-19 crisis. This is contrary to the circulars and laws regulating work in this regard, but with the application of the online renewal process, this idea has been inscribed.”
He explained that the matter has other repercussions, as online renewal by the sponsor makes him have absolute power without oversight, especially since there is no guarantee that he will fulfill the dues of the domestic worker for the period of work that ended before the renewal, as well as provide his agreed leave.
This problem arose as a result of two main reasons – first, the transfer of supervisory authority and the overlapping of specializations, as the powers and authority to supervise this sector were transferred from the Ministry of Interior to the Public Authority for Manpower. Second, legal adaptation of electronic transformation, as the electronic transformation process is a good step that enriches the life of Kuwaiti society as a whole, but is not being associated with legal controls that pertain to each sector separately, which is a legal loophole that will result in greater problems in the near future. The other legal problems that domestic workers are currently going through with regard to collecting their dues have entered a vicious circle, as it is not possible for workers to leave without obtaining all their dues, and there are sponsors who refuse to pay these dues.
Al-Shammari revealed the case of a domestic worker staying in the shelter center. She has to receive one month’s salary of KD 125 from her sponsor. When her sponsor refused to pay, she stayed in the shelter center where she has now been staying for about three months. She is not allowed to travel before her rights are fulfilled, which may take more time