Kuwait Times, Wednesday, February 1, 2006
By Velina Nacheva
Initially, as per the contract, the women came for 11 months, including a three-month probationary period. Shahriar Kader Siddiqy, First Secretary, Labour and Welfare Wing at the Bangladesh Embassy in Kuwait, explained that after the first year expires, they have the opportunity to go back to Bangladesh and return for another two years of employment. The first year has expired and now none of the Bangladeshi workers have a valid iqama (residency visa), civil ID or medical insurance. According to the contract, their employer was fully responsible for each employee's medical insurance, accommodation, KD 35 monthly salary and a ticket to return home after 12 months of service.
On arrival, these women - who hail mostly from rural areas in Bangladesh - faced poor living conditions, no medical coverage and non-payment of salaries. "In the beginning they were not even provided jobs," Shahriar told Kuwait Times. He further explained that this is not an isolated case. Of the 3,000 workers employed by the same company, many have complained to embassy officials. Many were not paid their salaries for a long time. "After the first year of their contract, employees are sent back home," he said, stressing the fact that the contract was signed a three-year period.
"If we go home now, we will have to pay a KD 2 per day fine. We have no such money," Debby, one of the cleaning company's employees, said. She said the general practice of the company was to deal with the workers on a daily basis. In order to avoid paying for a return ticket and a visa, the company files a false case with the Shuoon (Labour and Social Ministry's department in charge of work permits) on the grounds of having a 'runaway' employee. "If any of us are caught, we have to be deported," another of the company's employees said, adding that the deportation costs are not paid by the company and thus is an economic way to send workers back home.
Allegedly, there is a third case of noncompliance with the labour laws that these employees have experienced.
According to Shahriar, many of the company's employees were told to pay in order to get their passports back. This fee varied depending on the length of their stay out of the country. "If you are going on holiday, some employees have to pay KD 150; however, if you are going for good then the price amounts to KD 100," he said, adding that these figures are based on the employees' experiences. After talking to the company about this practice, Shahriar said the cleaning company called these sums "reserve money".
Taking the matter further, the Bangladeshi embassy took steps to solve the problem. After a couple of meetings with the representatives of the company, Shahriar realised that waiting for a solution was not the best option. An embassy team approached two other employers, who agreed to hire the women as cleaners in government schools in a bid to solve the problem. However, a letter of release, issued by the company, is needed in order to put an end to the situation. Therefore, all the necessary papers, data and passport copies have been sent to the Shuoon. "If they are not released by the company, we will go to court. We have no other option," Shahriar said.
Meanwhile, the embassy has helped relief organisations assisting the women and redirected those in need of medical treatment to the hospital. "If the embassy does not send you to the hospital, the government will not pay for any medical expenses," Shahriar said. Debby and Anuara both had to pay KD 550 for their visas to come to Kuwait. Each left a family and two children to come and work in this oil-rich country. "How am I going to support my two daughters now," Anuara said, explaining that KD 25 is not even enough for food, let alone to send money back home. "Plus, we have not been paid for seven months now," she said.
"Bangladeshi people are not welcome in Kuwait. They constantly face problems here," she remarked sadly, as she showed the inhuman conditions of the accommodation the company provides for them, a half-crippled three-storey building accommodating 100 women. Between six to nine women share a room. The smell of leaking gas and home-cooked food 'welcomed' the reporter as they entered the building in Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh. The slum-like conditions and lack of proper water and plumbing have caused many problems for these women. They haven't been paid, have left their families behind and all they hope for is a quick solution. They paid hundreds of dinars for visas and promised to send money home. "We are stranded and there is no way out," said Nashima, holding a photo of her young child.