Kuwait is a constitutional, hereditary emirate ruled by the Al-Sabah family. While there is also a democratically elected parliament, the amir holds ultimate authority over most government decisions. The last parliamentary general election was held in 2016 and was generally free and fair with members of the opposition winning seats. By-elections were held in March for two seats vacated by opposition members of parliament who had left the country after being sentenced to prison.
Police have sole responsibility for the enforcement of laws not related to national security, and the Kuwait State Security (KSS) oversees national security matters; both report to the Ministry of Interior, as does the Kuwait Coast Guard. The armed forces are responsible for external security and report to the Ministry of Defense. The Kuwait National Guard is a separate entity responsible for critical infrastructure protection, support for the Ministries of Interior and Defense, and the maintenance of national readiness. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: reports of torture; arbitrary detention; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including criminalization of libel, censorship, and internet site blocking; interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on freedom of movement; trafficking in persons; criminalization of consensual adult male same-sex sexual conduct; and reports of forced labor, principally among foreign workers.
The government took steps in some cases to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses, whether in the security services or elsewhere in the government. Impunity was a problem in corruption cases.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, although these rights were violated. The courts convicted more than one dozen individuals for expressing their opinions, particularly on social media. The law also imposes penalties on persons who create or send “immoral” messages and gives unspecified authorities the power to suspend communication services to individuals on national security grounds.
Freedom of Expression: The Press and Publications Law establishes topics that are off limits for publication and discussion, and builds on the precedent set by the penalty law. Topics banned for publication include insulting religion, in particular Islam; criticizing the amir; insulting members of the judiciary or displaying disdain for the constitution; compromising classified information; insulting an individual or his or her religion, sorcery, and publishing information that could lead to devaluing of the currency or creating false worries about the economy. The government generally restricted freedom of speech in instances purportedly related to national security, including the glorification of Saddam Hussein, and referring to the “Arabian Gulf” as the “Persian Gulf.”
Local activists reported they were regularly contacted by state security services and Ministry of Information officials after they published opinions deemed contrary to the government view. Activists also reported being contacted for the same reason by the Kuwaiti Embassy when they were residing abroad. In October the foreign minister stated he had directed “Kuwait’s diplomatic missions [abroad] to firmly pursue people offending Kuwait or its leaders.” As of November the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had received 52 such complaints from various embassies in Kuwait: 43 against bloggers and social media users, and the remainder against local newspapers and TV networks, according to press reports. The same reports indicated that Kuwaiti embassies overseas had reportedly filed 25 cases against bloggers and TV networks in host countries, accusing them of offending Kuwait, according to the ministry. Government authorities did not always take immediate action in the cases of social media posts to which they objected made by citizens while overseas, but under the law the government may take action once the author returns to the country. Under existing law there is broad latitude in the interpretation of what constitutes a crime when voicing dissent against the amir or the government, and activists can face up to seven years in prison for each count of the offense.
In May the Court of Appeals upheld a verdict sentencing 22 citizens, including media figures and political activists, to three years’ imprisonment for repeating the “anti-Amir” speech made by former opposition leader Musallam al-Barrak in 2012. The court also ordered each defendant to pay a bail of 3,000 KD ($10,000).
The courts continued to sentence political activists to harsh prison sentences for charges of speaking out against the amir, government, religion, or neighboring states. In one case a citizen was sentenced to 86 years in prison for voicing his antigovernment opinion on social media, and in another case a citizen received 75 years. Both citizens fled the country before the verdicts were handed down.
Political activist Sagar al-Hashash, who was out of the country in self-imposed exile, has been convicted multiple times (including twice during the year) on various charges that included defaming the amir, speaking out against the judiciary, or insulting neighboring countries such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Most recently, al-Hashash was sentenced to five additional years imprisonment for defaming the amir, bringing his total sentence to 92 years.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. All print media were privately owned, although the media’s independence was limited. The government did not permit non-Islamic religious publishing companies, although several churches published religious materials solely for their congregations’ use. The law allows for large fines and up to 10 years in prison for persons who use any means (including media) to subvert the state. The Ministry of Commerce and Industry may ban any media organization at the request of the Ministry of Information. Media organizations can challenge media bans in the administrative courts. Newspaper publishers must obtain an operating license from the Ministry of Information. Broadcast media, made up of both government and privately owned stations, are subject to the same laws as print media. In November a governmental committee tasked to investigate allegations of missing public funds ordered that their investigation remain confidential and prohibited the publication of any news about the investigation in all print, audio, and video media.
In October a civil court ruled that the Ministry of Interior must pay 60,000 KD ($200,000) to a journalist as compensation for assault by police while covering protests in 2010.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Ministry of Information censored all imported books, commercial films, periodicals, videotapes, CDs, DVDs, and other materials per the guidelines enumerated for speech and media. In May statistics issued by the Ministry of Information showed 3,766 books were banned from being imported between 2016 until 2018. Media outlets exhibited a range of opinions on topics relating to social problems, but all apparently self-censored, avoiding critical discussion on topics such as the amir, foreign policy, and religion, to avoid criminal charges or fines or to keep their licenses. Discussions of certain sensitive topics, such as the role of women in society and sex, were also self-censored. Authorities censored most English-language educational materials that mentioned the Holocaust and required educational material either to refer to Israel as “Occupied Palestine” or to remove such references entirely, although authorities did not censor these topics in news media. Widely available satellite dishes and virtual private networks allowed unfiltered media access.
Throughout the year publishers reportedly received pressure from the Ministry of Information, resulting in the publishers often restricting which books were available in the country. One author appealed to lift the ban on his book; the appeal was pending at year’s end. According to the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs reviewed books of a religious nature.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law mandates jail terms for anyone who “defames religion,” and any Muslim citizen or resident may file criminal charges against a person the complainant believes has defamed Islam. Any citizen may file a complaint with the authorities against anyone the citizen believes defamed the ruling family or harmed public morals.
National Security: The law forbids publication or transmission of any information deemed subversive to the constitutional system on national security grounds. The government prosecuted online bloggers, political activists, and social media outlets under the Cybercrime Law, the Printing and Publishing Law, and the National Security Law. On January 2, security forces arrested journalist and writer Aisha al-Rasheed under the Cybercrime Law following online posts about corruption of government officials. On January 6, the Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered her release on bail.
The cybercrime law criminalizes certain online activities, to include illegal access to information technology systems; unauthorized access to confidential information; blackmail; use of the internet for terrorist activity; money laundering; and utilizing the internet for human trafficking. As of December the Cybersecurity Department at the Ministry of Interior had received 4,000 complaints and the government had 288 pending cases under the cybercrime law.
The government’s E-Licensing program, processed under the government’s e-media law and not the aforementioned cybercrime law, requires bloggers and websites that provide news in the country to register with the Ministry of Information and apply for a license or face a fine. No such fines were issued during the year.
The government continued to monitor internet communications, such as blogs and discussion groups, for defamation and generalized security reasons. The Ministry of Communications blocked websites considered to “incite terrorism and instability” and required internet service providers to block websites that “violate [the country’s] customs and traditions.” The government prosecuted and punished individuals for the expression of political or religious views via the internet, including by email and social media, based on existing laws related to libel, national unity, and national security. The government prosecuted some online bloggers under the Printing and Publishing Law and the National Security Law. In March journalist Abdallah al-Hadlaq was sentenced to three years in prison for offending Shia and “fanning” sectarianism. In April the criminal court sentenced blogger Abdullah al-Saleh to five years in prison in absentia for insulting Saudi Arabia on social media and “spreading false news.”
The government filtered the internet primarily to block pornography and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) material, and sites critical of Islam. Kuwait’s Communication and Information Technology Regulatory Authority was reported to have blocked 342 websites during the year.
In August, Kuwait and Egypt signed a memorandum of understanding for the arrest and extradition of social media users who commit “cybercrimes” that affect Egyptian and Kuwaiti national security.
The law provides for the freedoms of opinion and research, but self-censorship limited academic freedom, and the law prohibits academics from criticizing the amir or Islam.
The Ministry of Interior reserved the right to approve or reject public events and those it considered politically or morally inappropriate. In March the Ministry of Interior summoned owners of three venues that were scheduled to host week-long Bidoon cultural events. Ministry officials required the venue owners to sign statements promising they would not host any Bidoon cultural week events. The events were subsequently canceled.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for freedoms of peaceful assembly and association for citizens, but noncitizens and Bidoon are prohibited from demonstrating.
In July the Ministry of Interior announced that police were permitted to shoot at protesters’ legs if their safety is threatened, or if a fugitive was running away from authorities (the order explicitly said police could not shoot to kill under these circumstances).
Bidoon activists have reported that if they try to assemble peacefully or organize campaigns to gain equal rights, authorities regularly harass them. Some Bidoon activists indicated they were detained for questioning by authorities each time they planned campaigns or protests. In July the KSS arrested 15 Bidoon activists for organizing a peaceful sit-in at al-Hurriya Square in al-Jahra town near Kuwait City.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government placed restrictions on this right. The law prohibits officially registered groups from engaging in political activities.
In July, Kuwait extradited eight Egyptian nationals at the request of the Egyptian government. Kuwaiti authorities announced the dissidents were being sought by the Egyptian government for their membership in the Muslim Brotherhood. NGO reports indicated that the eight Egyptians had been legally residing in Kuwait at the time of their extradition and did not commit any crimes in Kuwait. NGOs suggested the eight faced serious risks of torture and persecution in Egypt.
The government used its power to register associations as a means of political influence. The Ministry of Social Affairs can reject an NGO’s application if it deems the NGO does not provide a public service. Most charity closings resulted from improper reporting of fundraising activities, which included not getting permission from the ministry or failing to submit annual financial reports. Dozens of unlicensed civic groups, clubs, and unofficial NGOs had no legal status, and many of those chose not to register due to bureaucratic inconvenience, including inability to meet the minimum 50-member threshold. The Ministry of Social Affairs continued to reject some new license requests, contending established NGOs already provided services similar to those the petitioners proposed. Members of licensed NGOs must obtain permission from the ministry to attend international conferences as official representatives of their organization.
In May following the submission of a large number of applications from inactive NGOs to take part in activities abroad, the Ministry of Social Affairs’ NGOs Department set new regulations for NGO members to take part in conferences, lectures and seminars held outside the country, including limiting the maximum number of participants to two per NGO; ensuring the conference theme is part of the goals of the concerned organization’s establishment; and notifying the ministry at least one month in advance.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution generally provides for freedom of internal movement, but numerous laws constrain foreign travel.
Because there is no path to citizenship, all legal noncitizen workers are considered foreign residents rather than migrants.
Foreign Travel: Bidoon and foreign workers faced problems with, or restrictions on, foreign travel. The government restricted the ability of some Bidoon to travel abroad by not issuing travel documents, although it permitted some Bidoon to travel overseas for medical treatment and education, and to visit Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj. The Ministry of Interior has not issued “Article 17” passports (temporary travel documents that do not confer nationality) to Bidoon except on humanitarian grounds since 2014. In August the Ministry of Interior said it would indefinitely suspend the issuance of “Article 17” passports.
The law also permits travel bans on citizens and noncitizens accused or suspected of violating the law, including nonpayment of debts, and it allows other citizens to petition authorities to impose one. This provision was sometimes imposed arbitrarily and resulted in delays and difficulties for citizens and foreigners leaving the country. The Ministry of Justice announced in July that it would not impose travel bans on those who owed “small amounts” (defined as 300 KD or $1,000). In December the Ministry of Justice announced that 65,888 travel bans were placed on Kuwaitis and foreigners during the year.
Citizenship: By law the government is prohibited from revoking the citizenship of an individual who was born a citizen unless that individual has taken a second nationality. Additionally, the government can revoke the citizenship of naturalized citizens for cause and can subsequently deport them. The justifications for such revocations include: felony conviction for “honor-related and honesty-related crimes,” obtaining citizenship dishonestly, and threatening to “undermine the economic or social structure of the country.” In March the cabinet approved the regranting of citizenship to former opposition figure Saad al-Ajmi. Al-Ajmi’s citizenship had been revoked by the government under Article 11 of the 1959 Kuwaiti Nationality Law and was restored only after he renounced other nationalities and submitted a written apology to the amir. According to the government, 376 individuals were granted citizenship during the year, and 106 had their citizenship revoked.
In May 2018 the Court of Cassation affirmed that it is not permissible to withdraw citizenship from any citizen without a legitimate reason, stressing that a final court ruling must justify any withdrawal of citizenship. There were, however, cases in which natural born citizens had their citizenship revoked, even when courts found it illegal.
Persons who had their citizenship revoked, and any family members dependent on that individual for their citizenship status, became stateless individuals. Authorities can seize the passports and civil identification cards of persons who lose their citizenship and enter a “block” on their names in government databases. This “block” prevented former citizens from traveling or accessing free health care and other government services reserved for citizens.
The law prohibits the granting of citizenship to non-Muslims, but it allows non-Muslim male citizens to transmit citizenship to their descendants.
The government may deny a citizenship application by a Bidoon resident based on security or criminal violations committed by the individual’s family members. Additionally, if a person loses citizenship, all family members whose status was derived from that person also lose their citizenship and all associated rights.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government generally cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to persons of concern.
Access to Basic Services: The government enacted policies making healthcare and education more expensive for foreign workers than for citizens. Human rights organizations reported the immediate effect of this policy was that many foreign workers and their families receiving medical treatment chose to be discharged from hospitals rather than receive treatment they could no longer afford.
According to the latest government figures, there were approximately 88,000 Bidoon in the country, while Human Rights Watch estimated the Bidoon population at more than 100,000. The law does not provide stateless persons, including the Bidoon, a clear path to acquire citizenship. According to the government, however, 813 Bidoon were granted citizenship between 2018 and 2019. The judicial system’s lack of authority to rule on the status of stateless persons further complicated the process for obtaining citizenship, leaving Bidoon with no access to the judiciary to present evidence and plead their case for citizenship.
In 2018 the Central Agency for Illegal Residents, tasked with overseeing Bidoon affairs, had tens of thousands of citizenship requests by Bidoon under review. Although Bidoon are by law entitled to government benefits including five-year renewable residency, free healthcare and education, and ration cards, community members have alleged it was often difficult for them to avail of those services due to bureaucratic red tape.
According to Bidoon advocates and government officials, many Bidoon were unable to provide documentation proving ties to the country sufficient to qualify for citizenship. The government alleged that the vast majority of Bidoon concealed their “true” nationalities and were not actually stateless. Agency officials have extended incentive benefits to Bidoon who disclose an alternate nationality, including priority employment after citizens, and the ability to obtain a driver’s license. As of March 2018 approximately 12,700 Bidoon had admitted having a claim on another nationality.
Bidoon leaders alleged that when some members of the Bidoon community attempted to obtain government services from the Central Agency, officials would routinely deceive them by promising to provide the necessary paperwork only if the Bidoon agreed to sign a blank piece of paper. Later, Bidoon reported, the agency would write a letter on the signed paper purportedly “confessing” the Bidoon’s “true” nationality, which rendered them ineligible for recognition or benefits as Bidoon.
According to contacts some Bidoon underwent DNA testing purportedly to “prove” their Kuwaiti nationality by virtue of blood relation to a Kuwaiti citizen. Bidoon are required to submit DNA samples confirming paternity to become naturalized, a practice critics said leaves them vulnerable to denial of citizenship based on DNA testing. Children of Bidoon fathers and Kuwaiti mothers are frequently rendered stateless, as the law does not allow women to transmit nationality.
Some Bidoon and international NGOs reported that the government did not uniformly grant some government services and benefits to Bidoon, including education, employment, medical care, and the issuance of civil documents, such as birth, marriage, and death certificates. Since the government treats them as illegal residents, Bidoon do not have property rights. In February press reports indicated that the Interior Ministry would not hire Bidoon in its uniform services until the National Assembly passed legislation on the Bidoon’s civil and social rights.
Bidoon advocates reported that many Bidoon families were unable to obtain birth certificates for their children due to extensive administrative requirements, which restricted the children’s ability to obtain government-issued identification cards, access adequate medical care, attend school, and be counted in official statistics. In April, Bidoon activists arranged a protest over tuition increases for all private schools in the town of al-Jahra, which is home to a large number of Bidoon residents. In June the Ministry of Education said it would refuse to pay the salaries of Bidoon teachers with expired civil identification documents (IDs) until they received new identification cards. Reports also indicated that the Central Agency for Illegal Residents asked some banks to close the accounts of Bidoon who did not provide the necessary documentation to renew their identification cards. In August the Ministry of Education suspended admission of Bidoon students, alleging lack of space in schools and advised Bidoon parents to consider enrolling their children in private school instead.
Many adult Bidoon lacked identification cards due to the many administrative hurdles they face, preventing them from engaging in legal employment or obtaining travel documents.
The restriction on identification cards also resulted in some Bidoon children not being able to register for public school and instead working as street vendors to help support their families. Since citizen children were given priority to attend public school, many Bidoon children whose families could afford it enrolled in substandard private schools.
The government previously amended the existing law on military service to allow the sons of soldiers who served in the military for 30 years and the sons of soldiers killed or missing in action to be eligible to join the military. According to the head of the Interior and Defense Parliamentary Committee, more than 27,000 Bidoons were awaiting enlistment.
Ayed Hamad Medath committed suicide on July 7, which human rights advocates pointed out occurred after the government denied him civil documentation needed to access employment, education, and other public services. During protests that occurred after Medath’s death, the State Security agency arrested at least 15 Bidoon activists between July 11 and 14. Those arrested included prominent human rights defender Abdulhakim al-Fadhli during a raid on his home in which authorities confiscated al-Fadhli’s and his family’s cellphones and computers. Authorities had arrested al-Fadhli several times in previous years for his peaceful activities advocating for the rights of the Bidoon community.
Some of the detained Bidoon activists engaged in a 12-day hunger strike beginning August 22 to protest the plight of their community. The hunger strike was called off because of deteriorating health of the activists. On September 10, the Criminal Court held its first hearing on the case against the Bidoon for organizing unlicensed protests and sit-ins. The court postponed the trial until September 17 and subsequently released five defendants on bail. Two additional public hearings were held on November 12 and November 26. On November 4, two separate Bidoon men committed suicide.
The detainees faced numerous charges, including joining a banned organization aimed at undermining basic systems and overthrowing the regime of the country; spreading false news; insulting friendly countries; misusing a phone; organizing and participating in gatherings and rallies without a license; and incitement to murder. All the defendants denied all charges.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law protects the right of Kuwaiti workers to form and join trade unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes, with significant restrictions. The government, however, did not always respect these rights.
The law does not apply to public-sector employees, domestic workers, or maritime employees. Discrete labor laws set work conditions in the public and private sectors, with the oil industry treated separately. The law permits limited trade union pluralism at the local level, but the government authorized only one federation, the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF). The law also stipulates any new union must include at least 100 workers and that at least 15 must be citizens.
The law provides workers, except for domestic workers, maritime workers, and civil servants, a limited right to collective bargaining. There is no minimum number of workers needed to conclude such agreements. The government did not effectively enforce the law. Based on available information, it was unclear whether penalties were sufficient to deter violations.
Public-sector workers do not have the right to strike. Citizens in the private sector have the right to strike, although cumbersome provisions calling for compulsory negotiation and arbitration in the case of disputes limit that right. The law does not prohibit retaliation against striking workers or prevent the government from interfering in union activities, including the right to strike. In November hundreds of workers at Kuwait International Airport held a one-hour strike to demand better working conditions and compensation for daily exposure to pollution and noise. In December cleaners at the Ministry of Education protested missing wages dating back to July.
According to the PAM, there were 2.75 million workers in the country. Only 17.7 percent of the total workforce were citizens. Most citizens (78 percent as of 2018) worked in the public sector, in part because the government provided lucrative benefits to citizens, including generous retirement funding.
The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and employer interference with union functions. It provides for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Nevertheless, the law empowers the courts to dissolve any union for violating labor laws or for threatening “public order and morals,” although a union can appeal such a court decision. The Ministry of State for Economic Affairs can request the Court of First Instance to dissolve a union. Additionally, the amir may dissolve a union by decree.
The government enforced applicable laws, with some exceptions, and procedures were generally not subjected to lengthy delay or appeals.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits and criminally sanctions forced or compulsory labor “except in cases specified by law for national emergency and with just remuneration.” The law allows for forced prison labor as a punishment for expressing certain political views, and in cases of seafarers who breach discipline. Although the law prohibits withholding of workers’ passports, the practice remained common among sponsors and employers of foreign workers, and the government demonstrated no consistent efforts to enforce this prohibition. The government did not effectively enforce the law. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.
Employers confined some domestic and agricultural workers to their workspaces by retaining their passports and, in the case of some domestic workers, locked them in their work locations. Workers who fled abusive employers had difficulty retrieving their passports, and authorities deported them in almost all cases. The government usually limited punishment to administrative actions such as assessing fines, shutting employment firms, issuing orders for employers to return withheld passports, or requiring employers to pay back wages. In June the Public Authority for Manpower announced it had shut down 1,600 companies that had received government contracts, for failing to pay workers on time.
In January a number of laborers demonstrated in front of the Ministry of Public Works to protest against the withholding of four months’ back pay. The laborers were employed by a company contracted by the ministry for maintenance services. Similar protests were reported in April against a company that contracted with the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs. It was later reported that the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs distributed all back salaries.
In September a company owner was sentenced by the Court of Appeals to seven years in prison on charges of visa trading. In June a criminal court sentenced a Kuwaiti female lawyer to five years in jail over charges of forced labor and trafficking in persons.
Some incidents of forced labor and conditions indicative of forced labor occurred, especially among foreign domestic and agricultural workers. Such practices were usually a result of employer abuse of the sponsorship system (kafala) for noncitizen workers. Employers frequently illegally withheld salaries from domestic workers and minimum-wage laborers.
Domestic servitude was the most common type of forced labor, principally involving foreign domestic workers employed under kafala, but reports of forced labor in the construction and sanitation sectors also existed. Forced labor conditions for migrant workers included nonpayment of wages, long working hours, deprivation of food, threats, physical and sexual abuse, and restrictions on movement, such as withholding passports or confinement to the workplace. In 2018 employers filed 4,500 “absconding” reports against private sector employees. Domestic workers have filed approximately 240 complaints against their employers in accordance with the domestic labor law. As of September, PAM statistics indicated that 3,793 domestic helper-related complaints had been filed between April and August 2019, including 2,087 in August alone. Numerous domestic workers who escaped from abusive employers reported waiting several months to regain passports, which employers had illegally confiscated when they began their employment.
The PAM operated a shelter for abused domestic workers but still did not allow them to leave the country without permission of their employers. As of October, according to a government source, the shelter had a capacity of 500 victims. It housed as many as 450 residents in April before the residency amnesty that removed travel bans from workers seeking to return home. According to a 2018 report, 145 workers were resident at the shelter.
A government owned company for recruiting domestic workers officially launched its services in 2017 and initially planned to bring 120 domestic workers a month from the Philippines and approximately 100 male workers from India. In February the company announced that it helped bring nearly 900 domestic workers into the country since September 2017 when it started receiving applications. The target recruitment fee depends on domestic workers’ experience and skillset. The government regularly conducted information awareness campaigns via media outlets and public events and otherwise informed employers to encourage compliance by public and private recruiting companies with the new law.
There were numerous media reports throughout the year of sponsors abusing domestic workers or injuring them when they tried to escape; some reports alleged that abuse resulted in workers’ deaths. Female domestic workers were particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse. Police and courts were reluctant to prosecute citizens for abuse in private residences but prosecuted some serious cases of abuse when reported, particularly when the cases were raised by the source country embassies. According to a high-level government official, authorities prosecuted several cases of domestic worker abuse.
In May, Filipina household worker Constancia Lago Daya, died after allegedly suffering physical and sexual assault by her employer. The Kuwaiti Public Prosecutor later filed a felony murder complaint against her employer. In June lawyers for the Philippines Embassy filed charges against a Kuwaiti man for sexually assaulting his Filipina domestic worker. The court subsequently summoned the man for questioning. Media reported in December that a couple, of which the husband was allegedly employed by the Ministry of Interior, was detained for investigation after they brought their 26-year-old Filipina maid to the hospital where she subsequently died with marks of physical abuse visible on her corpse, including missing organs and vaginal lacerations suggesting rape, according to statements made to the press in unofficial preliminary accounts by officials who conducted the autopsy.
Numerous media reports highlighted the problem of visa trading, where companies and recruitment agencies work together to “sell” visas to prospective workers. Often the jobs and companies attached to these visas do not exist, and the workers were left to be exploited and find work in the black market to earn a living and pay the cost of the residency visa. Arrests of traffickers and illegal labor rings occurred almost weekly. In October the PAM announced that it had referred 18 websites and online accounts to the Ministry of Interior’s cybersecurty department for the sale of domestic workers. Since workers cannot freely change jobs, they were sometimes willing to leave their initial job due to low wages or unacceptable working conditions and enter into an illegal residency status with the hope of improved working conditions at another job.
In September a court sentenced two individuals (one a Kuwaiti citizen) to life imprisonment and four others to three-year sentences for selling 400 visas for $5,000 each. Nine other cases of visa trafficking (alleging visas valued between $5,000-6,500) were under investigation at year’s end. These investigations and prosecutions followed a January government policy to begin prosecuting trafficking crimes under antitrafficking laws (vice labor laws) and the appointment of a deputy chairman of the national anti-TIP committee.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. The legal minimum age for employment is 18, although employers may obtain permits from the Ministry of State for Economic Affairs to employ juveniles between 15 and 18 years of age in some nonhazardous trades. Juveniles may work a maximum of six hours a day with no more than four consecutive hours followed by a one-hour rest period. Juveniles cannot work overtime or between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Although not extensive, there were credible reports that children of South Asian origin worked as domestic laborers. Some underage workers entered the country on travel documents with falsified birth dates.
The government did not effectively enforce the law. Information was unavailable regarding whether penalties were sufficient to deter violations. PAM labor and occupational safety inspectors routinely monitored private firms for labor law compliance. Noncompliant employers faced fines or a forced suspension of their company operations. Nevertheless, the government did not consistently enforce child labor laws in the informal sector, such as in street vending.
The law prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, sex, gender, and disability. The government immediately deports HIV-positive foreign workers, and there is no protection for workers based on sexual orientation. No laws prohibit labor discrimination based on non-HIV communicable diseases, or social status, but there were no reported cases of discrimination in these areas. Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to both citizen and noncitizen women. Female domestic workers were at particular risk of discrimination or abuse due to the isolated home environment in which they worked.
The law states that a woman should receive “remuneration equal to that of a man provided she does the same work,” although it prohibits women from working in “dangerous industries” in trades “harmful” to health, or in those that “violate public morals.” Educated women contended the conservative nature of society restricted career opportunities, although there were limited improvements. Media reported that the gender pay gap between male and female workers in the public sector was 28.5 percent for citizens and 7.9 percent for non-Kuwaitis. According to government statistics from 2018, women represented 51 percent of the population, but there was a total female workforce participation rate of 55 percent in the public sector.
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with permanent physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities in employment, and it imposes penalties on employers who refrain without reasonable cause from hiring persons with disabilities. The law also mandates access to buildings for persons with disabilities. The government generally enforced these provisions. Noncitizens with disabilities had no access to government-operated facilities that covered job training, and the government still has not fully implemented social and workplace aides for persons with physical and, in particular, vision disabilities.
Shia continued to report government discrimination based on religion. For example, Shia were not represented, in all branches of the security forces and rarely held leadership positions. Some Shia continued to allege that a glass ceiling prevented them from obtaining leadership positions in public-sector organizations, including the security services. In the private sector, Shia were generally represented at all levels in proportion to their percentage of the population.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The law sets a national monthly minimum wage in the oil and private sector and a minimum monthly wage for domestic workers. Most low-wage employees lived and worked in the country without their families, and employers generally provided at least some form of housing. In July, Kuwait ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Violence and Harassment by Public and Private Employers, which will come into effect in July 2020.
The law limits the standard workweek to 48 hours (40 hours for the petroleum industry) and gives private-sector workers 30 days of annual leave. The law also forbids requiring employees to work more than 60 hours per week or 10 hours per day. The law provides for 13 designated national holidays annually. Workers are entitled to 125 percent of base pay for working overtime and 150 percent of base pay for working on their designated weekly day off. The government effectively enforced the law except with regard to domestic workers. Penalties were sufficient to deter violations.
The government issued occupational health and safety standards that were current and appropriate for the main industries. For example, the law provides that all outdoor work stop between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. during June, July, and August, or when the temperature rises to more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. A worker could file a complaint against an employer with the PAM if the worker believed his safety and health were at risk. As of August 26, the Kuwait Society for Human Rights received 356 complaints of employers violating the summer heat work ban. In May it reported that 12 workers were killed in workplace accidents caused by employer negligence in the preceding 16 months.
The law and regulations governing acceptable conditions of work do not apply to domestic workers. The Public Authority for Manpower has jurisdiction over domestic worker matters and enforces domestic labor working standards.
The Ministry of State for Economic Affairs is responsible for enforcement of wages, hours, overtime, and occupational safety and health regulations of nondomestic workers. Enforcement by the ministry was generally good, but there were gaps in enforcement with respect to unskilled foreign laborers. Several ministry officials cited inadequate numbers of inspectors as the main reason for their inability to better enforce the laws.
Labor and occupational safety inspectors monitored private firms. The government periodically inspected enterprises to raise awareness among workers and employers and to assure that they abided by existing safety rules, controlled pollution in certain industries, trained workers to use machines, and reported violations.
The government did not effectively enforce the law. The number of inspectors was not sufficient to deter violations. The Ministry of State for Economic Affairs monitored work sites to inspect for compliance with rules banning summer work and recorded hundreds of violations during the year. Workers could also report these violations to their embassies, the KTUF, or the Labor Disputes Department. Noncompliant employers faced warnings, fines, or forced suspensions of company operations, but these were not sufficient to deter violators.
In the first 10 months of the year, the Labor Disputes Department received approximately 15,150 complaints from workers, of which approximately 5,800 were referred to the courts. These complaints were either about contract issues, such as nonpayment of wages, or about difficulties transferring work visas to new companies. Most of the complaints were resolved in arbitration, with the remaining cases referred to the courts for resolution. In July the Court of Appeals ordered al-Kharafi & Sons to pay heirs of a deceased Egyptian foreign resident (a former employee of the company) as compensation for the company’s negligence and noncompliance to safety and security regulations. The lawsuit indicated employees of the company caused the unintentional death of the victim due to negligence by tasking the employee to clean a six-meter (19.6 feet)-deep manhole without proper gear and without checking for poisonous gases.
At times the PAM intervened to resolve labor disputes between foreign workers and their employers. The authority’s labor arbitration panel sometimes ruled in favor of foreign laborers who claimed violations of work contracts by their employers. The government was more effective in resolving unpaid salary disputes involving private sector laborers than those involving domestic workers. Media reports indicated that the Ministry of Social Affairs won 58 court cases against visa traders by October.
Foreign workers were vulnerable to unacceptable conditions of work. Domestic workers and other unskilled foreign workers in the private sector frequently worked substantially in excess of 48 hours a week, with no day of rest.
Domestic workers had little recourse when employers violated their rights except to seek admittance to the domestic workers shelter where the government mediated between sponsors and workers either to assist the worker in finding an alternate sponsor or to assist in voluntary repatriation. There were no inspections of private residences, which is the workplace of the majority of the country’s domestic workers. Reports indicated employers forced domestic workers to work overtime without additional compensation. In July the PAM announced it was planning to unveil a “blacklist” system that would prevent the sponsorship of domestic workers by recruitment offices or employers that violate workers’ rights.
Some domestic workers did not have the ability to remove themselves from an unhealthy or unsafe situation without endangering their employment. There were reports of domestic workers’ committing or attempting to commit suicide due to desperation over abuse, including sexual violence or poor working conditions. A 2016 law provides legal protections for domestic workers, including a formal grievance process managed by the PAM. A worker not satisfied with the department’s arbitration decision has the right to file a legal case via the labor court.
Several embassies with large domestic worker populations in the country met with varying degrees of success in pressing the government to prosecute serious cases of domestic worker abuse. Severe cases included those where there were significant, life-threatening injuries.