The Lede
Berlin-Germany - May 19, 2014 -- International Trade Union Confederation - 3rd ITUC World Congress 'Building Workers’ Power' -- Photo: © / ITUC
Berlin-Germany - May 19, 2014 -- International Trade Union Confederation - 3rd ITUC World Congress 'Building Workers’ Power' -- Photo: © / ITUC

India, Kuwait Should Be Ashamed: International Trade Union Chief

Rejimon Kuttappan

In an exclusive interview to The Lede, the chief of the International Trade Union Confederation, Sharan Burrow slammed both governments
Responding exclusively to The Lede’s story on over 5000 Indian migrant workers stranded in Kuwait for the last 18 months without any pay, proper food and shelter, Sharan Burrow, chief of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITCU) said that both the governments of India and Kuwait should be ashamed.

“The government of India and Kuwait should be both ashamed for allowing human beings to be stranded without hope,” she said. “The Kuwaiti government should pay the wages and expedite flights home. They can take responsibility for suing the company,” she added.

Over 5000 Indian blue-collar workers at Kharafi National Company, including 3614 who are yet to receive their unpaid salary amounting to Rs 169 crore have been stuck in Kuwait for the last 18 months without any proper food, shelter and money for even for their daily needs.

End Kafala

According to the ITUC chief, Qatar has agreed to end the Kafala system and implement proper compliance systems. “All Gulf states must follow Qatar,” Burrow added.
Kafala is a bonded-labour system followed in majority of the Arab countries, especially in six Gulf countries. Majority of the workers are in a grave situation and some 45 workers are on a strike in the company headquarters itself demanding unpaid salary.

“We are not even able to call our family in India. We are getting only a little food for survival. Sometimes, even drinking water is a problem. Over the last 18 months, everyone has taken hand loans from friends and known ones. Telephone cards cost us a lot. So, the frequency of calling home has come down to once in 20 days,” a group of workers told The Lede.

Ownership Dispute

According to a highly placed source in Kuwait, an ownership dispute over the Kharafi National Construction company, the largest construction company in Kuwait, has led to partial closure of operations and consequently, migrant workers being stranded.

Businessman Nasser Al-Kharafi and Kuwait Parliament Speaker Jassem Al-Kharafi, both brothers were in charge of the company. After both passed away, their sister Faiza Mohammed Al-Kharafi took charge of the company. Faiza is married to Ali Mohammed Thanian Al-Ghanim, a member of the biggest business family in the Middle East, the Al-Ghanim Industries.

Al-Ghanim is one of the largest privately owned companies in the Persian Gulf region, with presence predominantly in Kuwait. A multinational company with operations in 40 countries, Al-Ghanim Industries is a multibillion-dollar conglomerate with more than 30 businesses.

Faiza and Al-Ghanim’s son Marzouq Al-Ghanim is the current Speaker of the Kuwait Parliament. Meanwhile, Loay Jassem Mohammed Al-Kharafi, son of the late Speaker Jassem Al-Kharafi, became the CEO of the company. Loay has married into the royal family of Kuwait. A power tussle between Marzouq Al-Ghanim and Loay Jassem Mohammed Al-Kharafi is the prime reason behind the unresolved situation affecting thousands of workers.

“Will the government entities act strongly if royals and sheikhs are in the company management? They won’t. This is the reason behind why the issue got prolonged,” the source said.

During the last few months, two Ministers of State with the Indian External Affairs Ministry had visited the Kuwaiti government officials and workers to resolve the issues.

Last week, MoS External Affairs General VK Singh made a visit and has assured workers that the issue would be resolved soon.

Fresh Offer

Meanwhile, the company has issued a notice to workers stating that employees who would like to leave the country without indemnity can register their names in the camp office and that the company would arrange ticket and pay penalty. Workers though, are reluctant to accept the offer.

“What about our unpaid salary. Why did we stay back for these many months? They want to send us empty-handed. We are not going to accept this. We want the money for what we worked,” workers told The Lede.

Diplomatic Intervention 

A senior official at the Indian Embassy in Kuwait said that the diplomatic intervention seen in this issue was unprecedented among Gulf countries.

“However, we are not very hopeful about workers getting their unpaid salary. But at the same time, we are seeing some positive intervention from Kuwait Human Rights Commission. Let’s hope for the best,” the official said, adding that they are being very much cautious in stopping recruitment to the company so that fresh workers do not come and land in trouble.

“We have taken some extra steps to stop recruitment to the company. Requests come in different names. But when we check the papers thoroughly, we can find the people behind the ‘new’ company are the same ones from Kharafi. We are now even checking signatures to protect workers,” the official added.

Kuwait is also struggling financially following the dip in oil price since 2014. Kuwait’s general budget has registered a USD 6.43 billion deficit in the first half of the financial year 2017-2018.

Meanwhile, similar workers’ issues are reported in Saudi Arabia too. According to Shaheen Sayyed, a social worker in Kuwait, around 170 Indian workers are stranded without a way to exit from Saudi.
In a letter to the Indian embassy in Riyadh, Shaheen said 83 employees had received a favourable verdict from the labour court which had also ordered the employer to make their full and final settlement and sent them to India. “The workers are physically and mentally disturbed and two of them have expired,” she informed the Embassy.

The Indian Embassy in Riyadh has also responded to the letter written by Sayyed asking for contact numbers of the aggrieved workers ‘to enable us to talk to them and help them out.’ “Needless to say that the Embassy/Consulate will extend all possible help to our distressed citizens,” the Embassy said.