Within sight of the city's prestigious landmark, the Kuwait Towers, stands Shahin Rahman outside what he calls home - an outside lock-up he shares with three other workers, all Bangladeshi and all living on wages of less than $100 a month.

 

Yet, while the poverty and poor conditions of thousands of expatriate workers like him have long been a source of concern to human-rights groups, it was only after the violent storming and looting of the Bangladesh embassy last weekend by angry unpaid workers that the issue finally made the headlines.

 

On 24 April, up to 800 Bangladeshi workers stormed their country's embassy and wrecked several offices and cars belonging to diplomats. Two embassy employees were injured and Kuwaiti police had to intervene to end the confrontation.

 

Nine Bangladeshis, suspected of organising the incident, are still being interrogated by Kuwaiti security officials.

 

"They had not been paid for months," Rahman, explaining the workers' actions, says.

 

"They had asked the embassy for help, but nothing had happened. They didn't know where else to turn, so finally their patience snapped."

 

Unpaid wages

 

The workers were employees of the Nibraj Cleaning Company, a Kuwaiti firm, which workers claimed had not paid their wages for five months. 

Cars and property were damaged
in the embassy storming

 

The company denied this, with the assistant secretary for labour affairs saying later that the firm had only failed to pay salaries for two months and had agreed to pay all outstanding wages by the end of April.

 

Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi ambassador Nazrul Islam Khan said: "I suspect a conspiracy" behind the attack on the embassy, a suspicion later backed up by the foreign ministry in Dhaka, which has dispatched a three-person inquiry team to Kuwait to look into the incident.

 

The storming of the embassy - and a current strike by Sri Lankan cleaners, also over non-payment of wages - has highlighted the plight of many expatriate workers in Kuwait. It has also led to widespread calls for a reform of the current system of employment.

 

While Bangladeshis make up about 170,000 of Kuwait’s expatriate population, workers from India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and a handful of other south Asian and far eastern countries are also numerous. Of the country’s 2.3 million, population, around half are non-nationals. Most of these workers are employed in manual and service-sector jobs, or as domestic servants.

 

"Conditions are very bad for these people," says Nassir al-Abdly, chairman of the Kuwait society for developing democracy and editorial secretary for the daily newspaper Al Qabas.

 

Government contracts

 

"The way it works is this: Certain people get contracts from government ministries to get labourers, usually from Asia, as cleaners and so on. Between the ministry and the employer, their salaries are fixed at, say, KD150 ($510). However, usually the employer pays the worker KD30 ($102). The profit is split between the others."

The storming of the embassy
highlighted the workers' plight

 

Many expatriate workers tell a similar story, claiming that they were promised much higher salaries than those they end up receiving.

 

"I was told I would get KD120 ($408) a month," says Rahman. "I get KD30 ($102). From that, I must pay for my accommodation and send home money to my family. After all, that is why I came here."

 

While these wages are tiny in Kuwait, one of the world’s richest nations, they are still more than many workers could expect to earn in their home countries.

 

"Some people have sold their land back home to come here," says Maha Barges al-Barges of the Kuwaiti Human Rights Association.

 

"In one case we know of, a man had to pay KD700 ($ 2394) to come here and be given work. Who arranged this? We don’t know."

 

The trade in workers is organised unofficially, with each worker sponsored by a Kuwaiti citizen, rather than any state body.

 

"People are brought here in the employer's name," adds al-Barges. "This is very dangerous, as it makes the employer God."

 

Sponsorship

 

On arrival, the employer collects the worker's passport. Losing the employer's sponsorship can, therefore, mean losing all the documentation necessary to stay legally in the country – or to leave it.

Nearly 1.1 million foreigners live
and work in oil-rich Kuwait

 

"In the Indonesian embassy," continues al-Barges, "there are some 300 people living there – some lost their jobs, or fell out with their employers. Some say they were attacked or raped.

 

"Whatever the case, they left their sponsor and so cannot stay in Kuwait, but cannot leave either. Meanwhile, neither they nor their government has the money to repatriate them, so there they stay, in the embassy. The Kuwaiti Red Crescent tries to look after them, feeding them and trying to help."

 

The poverty that the system reduces many workers to is also in stark contrast to the wealth around.

 

Last year, Kuwait posted a budget surplus of more than $10 billion, thanks to rising oil prices and boosted production.

 

Along with a boom in the rest of the economy, this has pushed up demand for workers as giant office blocks and residential compounds spring up around the city.

 

Yet, in their shadows, the living conditions of those that build them are often atrocious.

 

Stiff penalties

 

In the district of Bneid al-Qar, in downtown Kuwait City, south Asian men gather on street corners outside ramshackle apartment houses, the streets covered in trash. Collecting this is, in fact, one way to supplement wages.

 

"I can get about KD1 ($3.40) a day from the things I find," says Ahmad Azad, from Pakistan. During the day, he works on a building site.

 

"There are three more of us sharing this room," says Rahman.

 

"Sometimes, though, people live up to 10 in a room. The conditions are very bad. In Bangladesh, we are not rich, but there we have clean water and vegetables from gardens. Here we live all together and it is very bad."

 

Yet, the signs are that the incidents of the past few days have not gone unnoticed by the Kuwaiti authorities.

 

On 27 April, the Minister of Social and Labour Affairs, Faisal al-Haji, warned companies that if they did not pay wages they would face stiff penalties.

 

"The ministry will not hesitate to impose maximum penalties against businessmen, who do not abide by the law," he said.

 

Al-Haji and Health Minister Shaikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah have also been summoned by the parliamentary human rights committee to discuss the conditions of expatriate workers next week. Meanwhile, there has been a chorus of demands from the Kuwaiti press for an improvement in conditions.

 

Exceptions

 

Many also point out that not all expatriate workers have such a negative experience.

 

Change in the private sponsorship
law for workers is widely felt

"People who have worked for us have become like members of the family," says al-Barges. "If they want to move on, change employer or leave the country, of course, many Kuwaiti employers will try to help them."

 

But one demand shared by human-rights groups and many ordinary Kuwaitis is an end to the current system of private sponsorship and its replacement by a more transparent official system.

 

"No self respecting country these days has a sponsorship system," says al-Abdly. "We need a government employment or labour exchange to solve this problem. Otherwise, it is like slavery."

 

Meanwhile, in the shanties of Bneid al-Qar, Rahman is pessimistic about change.

 

"They say we will get insurance, more rights. But they’ve said that for a long time. I guess we will have to just wait and see", he said.