Kuwait mulls bill to punish abuse of workers

After US criticism and protests by workers


Kuwait may bring in tough penalties for employers abusing foreign workers and maids as a result of criticism by the United States and violent protests by Asian workers demanding better pay and conditions.

Parliament's human rights committee has introduced a bill stipulating jail terms of up to 15 years for offences including forced labor, abusing workers or sexually exploiting maids, according to a copy obtained by Reuters.

Ali al-Baghli, head of the Kuwait Society for Human Rights, said there was a good chance the law would be passed.

"It is a good idea to present a local law that prohibits human trafficking because Kuwait's reputation has reached a low level," he said.

In June, a U.S. State Department report on forced labor and the sex trade placed oil producer and OPEC member Kuwait in the 'worst offender' category, alongside fellow Gulf states Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman.

Last week, hundreds of mainly Bangladeshi cleaners and workers staged demonstrations to demand better pay and working conditions, saying they could not live on their salaries after employers or agents deducted housing, medical and meal costs.

The protests turned violent as demonstrators overturned cars and ransacked offices. Hundreds of Bangladeshis were arrested and deported but the government promised to improve workers' rights and introduce a minimum salary.

On Monday, the government set a minimum monthly net wage of 40 dinars ($150) for workers of state-contracted cleaning companies and 70 dinars for firms providing civilian security staff, the official state news agency KUNA said.

Some protesters said they received as little as 8 dinars a month and that they were mistreated by employers, an allegation the government acknowledged was a main reason for the protests.

"The trade in people is a crime which humanity has witnessed and suffered from for centuries and it is still being practiced in a new way till today," the bill said.

The bill has to be approved by parliament, government and the Gulf Arab state's emir before taking effect.

Foreigners make up about two-thirds of Kuwait's 3.2 million population.

Women from Asian countries including Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines work as maids and nannies across the Gulf, and many complain of rights abuses.

In 2006, the United Arab Emirates passed the Arab world's first law aimed specifically at combating trafficking in people, followed in January this year by Bahrain.