Kuwait yesterday became the first of the Arab Gulf states to set a minimum wage for domestic workers: they must now be paid at least 60 dinars ($198) a month.
A law on domestic work approved by the Kuwaiti parliament last year specified a 12-hour working day with a weekly day off, plus 30 days' paid annual leave and end-of-contract payments of 30 day's wages for each year worked.
Taking days off, holiday pay and severance pay into account, the minimum wage is around 80 cents per working hour or $2,754 a year – abysmally low considering that average earnings in Kuwait are almost $41,000 a year. Even so, the long overdue decision to set a minimum wage is an important step forward.
According to the Migrant Rights organisation, 90% of Kuwaiti households employ domestic workers. There are estimated to be 600,000 in Kuwait – mostly from Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Indonesia and the Philippines. The total across all the GCC states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) is thought to be about 2.4 million.
Although GCC countries have begun modernising their labour laws (and still have a long way to go), they have generally been reluctant to give domestic workers the same protection as other workers.
In Oman, Qatar and the UAE, existing labour laws do not apply to domestic workers. In Saudi Arabia, domestic workers can be required to work up to 15 hours a day, while the limit for other types of workers is just eight hours.
Bahrain did include domestic workers in its 2012 labour law, granting them annual holidays and access to mediation in the event of disputes but it fell short in other ways, with no provision for weekly rest days, a minimum wage or limits on working hours. However, Bahrain has said it is monitoring the developments in Kuwait and may eventually follow suit.
When Kuwait's law on domestic work was adopted by parliament last year (Arabic text here), Human Rights Watch described it as a breakthrough but pointed out a number of shortcomings which set domestic workers apart from other types of worker:
The labour law [for other workers in the private sector] provides for a 48-hour work week, or eight hours a day, and an hour of rest after every 5 hours of work. But the domestic workers law provides for a maximum 12-hour working day with unspecified “hours of rest” and one day off a week. The labour law also has detailed provisions for sick leave, under article 69, including 15 days at full pay, whereas the domestic worker law simply requires employers to provide medical treatment.
The domestic worker law also falls short by failing to set out enforcement mechanisms, such as labour inspections. It prohibits employers from confiscating workers’ passports, a common abuse, but fails to specify penalties. The new law does not guarantee the right to form a union.
Last year the International Labour Organisation carried out a study of employers' attitudes towards domestic workers in Kuwait and suggested that legal reform will bring only limited benefits unless there are also changes in the way ordinary Kuwaitis treat them. The ILO's report highlighted four key points:
1. Domestic workers living and working in Kuwait are part of a social system under which, even if existing laws were changed to protect them, they would still be vulnerable to exploitation due to the social fabric of Kuwait.
2. Practices such as withholding passports, working more than 12 hours a day, denying days off and prohibiting or limiting communication to the outside world through a telephone are common among employers and not perceived as unusual. Among some employers, these were not even questionable.
3. In general, domestic workers are not perceived as workers by Kuwaiti employers. The system that regulates domestic work, such as the kafala system and the hiring process through the agencies, is a major factor that allows exploitative and discriminative practices to be seen as the norm.
4. It is important for domestic workers to be protected through legislation, but it is just as important for these laws to be translated into the attitudes and practices of employers. This is the key determining factor for improving the working and living conditions of domestic workers in Kuwait.