More than 250 Bangladeshi workers have been deported on specially chartered flights out of Kuwait and hundreds more are expected to be sent home in the next few days.
The deportation follows violent demonstrations and a three-day strike last week by South Asian laborers demanding better pay and work conditions in this oil-rich Gulf state.
What began as an internal dispute involving one company over the non-payment of salaries, flared into a general strike by thousands of Asian cleaning workers calling for a complete overhaul of the industry, in which some of the poorest people in world pay as much as $3,500 to middlemen in Bangladesh to secure jobs in Kuwait. Upon arrival, however, the promised salary often shrinks by more than half, as a host of expenses for visa processing and health insurance are deducted from their salaries.
"In Bangladesh, they say they'll pay 50 Kuwaiti Dinars ($188), but the company only gives KD 20 a month ($75)," says Nazrul (not his real name), standing outside the dilapidated seven-story apartment complex in the south of Kuwait City where he and several thousand other Bangladeshi workers live.
A Bangladeshi diplomatic source says that contracts are agreed to in Bangladesh but then other papers in Arabic are signed upon arrival in Kuwait.
"They are signing for their ill-fortune," he says. "They are signing many papers they do not understand."
The same diplomatic source explained that the sub-contractors who employ these workers in various government ministries receive up to KD 140 ($536) for each employee per month but only KD 20 ($75) is passed on to the workers – and nothing if the workers fall ill.
More than 200,000 Bangladeshis live in this country of 3.2 million, where foreigners account for two-thirds of the population.
In the recent riots, protesters destroyed cars and other property. Several company representatives trying to convince the men to end their strike were severely beaten – one man was thrown several floors from an apartment building and is in critical condition.
Police finally broke up the protests using tear gas and batons, arresting up to a thousand protesters both here and at other locations in the country.
Labor movements for foreign workers are non-existent in Kuwait and in the past, worker representatives have been deported for organizing strikes.
While the plight of poorly paid Asian workers in Kuwait and across the Gulf region is well-documented, it has been exacerbated of late by recent sharp increases in the price of food. Rice – the staple food of most lower-income Asians – has more than doubled this year. Also, the falling value of the US dollar has eroded the amount of money these workers can send to their families, who are often entirely dependent on remittances from sons and daughters working across the Gulf region.
Inside the fetid, crumbling apartment complex, Nazrul says that police had barged into the building and summarily arrested hundreds of men, many of whom were on strike but not protesting at the time, pointing to a door the police officers had kicked in.
On Tuesday, a Kuwait Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs spokesperson announced that it would meet some of the workers demands –such as introducing a minimum monthly wage of KD 40 ($150) and fining companies who break contract agreements.
But similar promises were made following protests in 2005.
Three years later, Nazrul and his fellow workers are still waiting for a change.