Kuwait’s legislature passed two new laws recently to improve the conditions of domestic workers. One of the laws sets up a new type of company for recruiting domestic workers to replace the private companies that currently recruit domestic helpers. The new type of company cannot take any payments from the recruited workers. According to a statement from Human Rights Watch, citing news reports,

60 percent of company shares will be owned by cooperative societies (jointly-owned social enterprises) and 40 percent by government agencies. The law obliges these companies to train domestic workers before they leave their country of origin. Currently, recruitment agencies often pass costs to workers. The law on domestic workers prohibits such agencies and their employees from receiving any payments from domestic workers and, if found to do so, the authorities can charge them with extortion.

It is unclear whether the intention is to have only one such company or whether more than one of this new type of company will be set up.

The other law approved by the legislature, unanimously, addresses the working conditions of domestic workers. It sets twelve hours as the maximum length of a working day, and mandates one day off a week and 30 days annual leave. The legislation also obliges employers to open bank accounts for domestic migrant workers to avoid problems with payment of salaries.

kuwait_estimates_2014In addition, the law stipulates that domestic workers should be aged between 20 and 50 and receive a month’s pay for each year of service on termination of their contract, reported the Kuwait Times.

Both laws are expected to come into force soon after receiving the Emir’s assent.

Although much remains to be seen in terms of implementation and enforcement, the provisions take Kuwait ahead of its Gulf neighbours in terms of protections for domestic workers. However, it should be noted that they still fall short of the general provisions of general labour law, from which domestic workers are excluded. For example, general labour law sets a working day at eight hours instead of twelve, and requires employers to give workers an hour of rest after every five hours of work. It also has detailed provisions for sick leave, including 15 days at full pay, whereas the domestic worker law simply requires employers to provide medical treatment.

Singapore compares poorly with Kuwait now. Our regulations have lower standards and we still permit recruitment and placement agencies to charge workers large sums of money. The latter practice creates financial vulnerability and undermines workers’ ability to speak up should they be abused or exploited.

Human Rights Watch also noted that the new legislation does not banish the kafala system, under which foreign workers are tied to specific employers (or “sponsors”) denying them the right to change jobs. By denying them the opportunity for alternative employment, the kalafa system keeps workers in fear of losing their livelihoods should they report injustice and abuse inflicted on them by their present employers.

Singapore too operates a migrant worker regime indistinguishable from this much-criticised kafala system.

The full text of Kuwait’s new laws (in Arabic) can be seen here in Al Jarida.