hidden image

Inferno in Kuwait: Unveiling the Depths of Human Dignity through the Lens of Dignitas Infinita

Dr Arnald Mahesh SDB Dr Arnald Mahesh SDB
24 Jun 2024

None of us have yet emerged from the shock of one of the most devastating fire accidents in Kuwait, which killed 50 migrant workers, including 46 Indians, on Wednesday, June 12, 2024. The blaze, first reported to authorities at 4:30 am, occurred in a six-storey building in the Mangaf area of southern Kuwait, within the Al-Ahmadi governorate. Among the 46 Indian victims, 24 were Malayalis, seven were from Tamil Nadu, three each from AP and UP, two from Odisha, and one each from Bihar, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Haryana, Punjab, and West Bengal. About thirty-three Indians are currently undergoing treatment at different hospitals in Kuwait. Tragically, 196 workers were housed in the building when the fire took place. According to officials, most of the deaths were due to smoke inhalation, as the residents were asleep when the fire broke out. The deceased were aged between 20 and 50 years.

According to the Arab Times, the fire started due to an electrical short circuit in the security guard's room on the ground floor of the six-story building. Preliminary investigations by Kuwaiti officials revealed that flammable materials used as partitions in the building contributed to the rapid spread of smoke, leading to the suffocation of many victims. The victims were unable to escape to the rooftop as it was locked, according to Kuwait Fire Department Col. Sayed Al-Mousawi. Kuwait's Public Prosecution department has detained a citizen and some expatriates on charges of manslaughter and negligence for not implementing fire safety measures, The Times reported. After the fire, Sheikh Fahad Yusuf al-Sabah, the country's deputy prime minister, accused property owners of greed and stated that violations of building standards had led to the tragedy.

Since the bodies of some Indians killed in the fire were charred beyond recognition, Kirti Vardhan Singh, Minister of State for External Affairs, opted for DNA testing to confirm the victims' identities. On the day of the tragedy, the Prime Minister expressed condolences, directed the Government of India to offer complete assistance, and instructed the MEA to oversee relief efforts and expedite repatriation. He also announced an ex-gratia relief of 2 lakh rupees from the Prime Minister's Relief Fund for the families of the deceased. The chief ministers of the respective states of the victims have also come forward to announce ex-gratia payments to the families as an expression of solidarity and consolation.

In fact, it was the survivors who helped the officials identify the bodies with severe burns. Meanwhile, the Indian Embassy in Kuwait has started a helpline number for family members of the victims to reach out. The local administration has initiated an investigation into how more than 160 people had been staying in that building. The owner of the building and the person responsible for the workers may face legal action.

On Friday, June 14, by 10:25 am, the C-130J transport aircraft of the Indian Air Force reached Cochin International Airport with the mortal remains of the 45 Indians killed in Kuwait's Mangaf. Mr Vardhan Singh, who coordinated with Kuwaiti authorities to ensure swift repatriation, was onboard the aircraft. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and other ministers received the remains of 31 victims in Kochi and paid homage to the deceased along with the public at the Nedumbassery Cargo Airport. The remaining bodies were taken to Delhi on the same aircraft for further transportation to their respective places.

The Kuwaiti government investigated builders and municipal authorities responsible for oversights in a recent fire. Following the directive of the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Meshal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, on Tuesday (June 18), victims' families will receive USD 15,000 (12.5 lakh) each as compensation. Payments will be processed through victims' embassies to ensure efficient distribution.

Before we delve into renewed concerns arising from the tragedy, let's consider some pertinent facts. Millions globally relocate in search of jobs, including Indians. In oil-rich Kuwait, over four million of its population are foreigners, primarily from South and Southeast Asia, working in the construction and service sectors. Indians, constituting about one million or 21% of Kuwait's total population of approximately 4.8 million, form the largest expatriate community. Many are employed in business and services, comprising around 30% of India's workforce in Kuwait, roughly 900 thousand. Compliance with Kuwait's labour laws mandates written employment contracts, particularly for domestic workers.

Under India's Immigration Act, an employment contract attested by the Indian Embassy is mandatory. Indian nationals working as domestic workers in Kuwait receive a prescribed wage of 120 Kuwaiti dinars (approximately $390), as regulated by the Indian government. These workers are entitled to various benefits, including free food, clothing, medical treatment, accommodation, and compensation for weekly rest and annual holidays. Notably, women under 30 are not granted immigrant clearance for employment in Kuwait. In Kuwait, skilled and unskilled Indian workers, including doctors, nurses, carpenters, masons, drivers, and pipe fitters, are employed across various sectors. Despite often living in cramped conditions in semi-constructed buildings or labour camps, many relocate due to higher earnings than Gulf nations like the UAE or India.

Speaking at the airport, Mr Pinarayi Vijayan called expatriates the lifeline of Kerala and termed the deaths in the fire a massive disaster for the country. He emphasised the incident's profound impact on the expatriate community and the families of the deceased, urging preventive measures to avoid future tragedies. Mr Vijayan called on the Kuwaiti government to ensure adequate compensation. He urged the Indian government to expedite assistance, noting that "the current aid may not suffice," a statement with significant implications.

Indeed, no amount of money can compensate for the loss of so many precious lives, especially those who were the breadwinners for their families. This tragic incident highlights the deplorable conditions faced by migrant workers in Gulf nations, underscoring their ongoing struggles and hardships. Denied access to basic healthcare, human rights, and proper legal status, these workers face daily battles in their quest to earn a livelihood. This issue strikes at the heart of their existence – human dignity.

The Kuwait accident highlights deteriorating working conditions in the Gulf, driven by the greed of employers and the needs of the employees. Previous incidents in Kuwait, occurring 5 to 7 years ago, such as fatalities at an oil refinery and construction site, underscore the ongoing risks to Indian workers. This accident serves as a wake-up call, raising urgent questions about whether conditions will improve or if fatalities will persist. Kerala, a significant source of Gulf labour, has voiced deep concerns, urging the Indian government to negotiate better conditions. However, addressing cramped housing and poor working conditions requires broader action. Ironically, the building involved in the fire was partly owned by an Indian, exposing a troubling trend of compatriot exploitation abroad. India must confront how its overseas businessmen contribute to, rather than alleviate, such exploitation.

In addition, it is estimated that around 8 to 9 million Indians live and work in the Gulf. Despite the Indian government's efforts to negotiate better conditions, the working environments remain problematic, if not deplorable. While conditions have improved over the last 10-20 years, significant progress is still needed. Unlike Indian workers in the US and Western countries who often hold white-collar jobs, those in the Gulf predominantly work in blue-collar positions. Many are not well-educated, lack awareness of their rights, and are not in a position to negotiate for better working conditions.

According to Human Rights Watch, migrant workers are crucial in managing extreme heat in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, yet most governments fail to protect them from climate-related dangers. While all Gulf workers face risks from extreme heat, migrant workers are disproportionately exposed to the most hazardous conditions. Since the first oil boom in 1951, Gulf nations have relied on foreign labour for large-scale infrastructure projects to boost economic development. Today, migrants comprise an average of 70% of the employed population in the GCC and over 95% of private-sector workers in Qatar and the UAE.

Independent investigations into migrant worker conditions consistently reveal severe exploitative practices: exorbitant recruitment fees, contract substitution, passport retention, wage theft, substandard living conditions, discrimination, and other forms of mistreatment. In host countries like Oman, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain, employers often neglect proper job contracts, fail to pay promised salaries, and provide inadequate shelter and food. Moreover, the Kafala system in these Gulf nations exacerbates labour rights abuses, creating a draconian employer-employee relationship.

The Kafala system defines the legal status of most Gulf migrant workers, tying them to local sponsors who manage employment, living expenses, and well-being. This arrangement limits job mobility and often results in economic exploitation and humanitarian concerns, including withheld compensation and passport confiscation. Recent reforms have begun dismantling aspects of Kafala: Qatar led in 2020 by allowing job changes, followed by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia with similar reforms after one year of employment. As of 2021, most GCC countries allow migrant workers to leave without employer permission, yet challenges persist, particularly for vulnerable groups like domestic workers and farmers.

India provides the Pravasi Bhartiya Bima Yojana insurance policy to Indian immigrant workers in Kuwait, offering coverage of 10 lakh rupees for accidental death or permanent disability, along with legal expense coverage in disputes. The Indian embassy regularly issues advisories to labourers to prevent exploitation and scams, with New Delhi also covering legal expenses in case of disputes.

From 2019 through June 30, 2023, Indian embassies in Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia collectively received 48,095 labour complaints from Indian migrant workers. Kuwait leads with 23,020 complaints, followed by Saudi Arabia with 9,346, Oman with 7,666, UAE with 3,652, Bahrain with 2,702, and Qatar with 1,709. The Indian Embassy in Kuwait cites non-payment of wages and unfair working conditions, including harassment and lack of proper food, as the most common grievances. This underscores the urgent need for authorities, including in India, to prioritise the security and well-being of migrant workers abroad. These deplorable conditions of expatriate Indians in Gulf countries expose their vulnerability and compromise their human dignity and related values.

Reflecting on the tragic Kuwait fire and its emerging questions and concerns, let us recall the recent declaration "Dignitas Infinita" by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith on Human Dignity. This declaration aims to foster awareness of human dignity during our complex historical moment. Tragedies like the Kuwait disaster serve as wake-up calls, alongside the Church's constant teaching on human dignity, urging us to remain vigilant amid the challenges of our times. This incident calls us to action, prompting greater awareness of how human dignity is compromised globally.

Amidst recent tragedies and the plight of vulnerable migrants worldwide, we must reflect and advocate for their human dignity. The dignity of every person originates from their humanity, uniquely created in the image of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ. This inherent dignity remains integral to their being, transcending any circumstance or situation they may face.

Understanding and upholding human dignity is fundamental to promoting human rights, duties, freedom, and interpersonal relationships. Grave violations of human dignity, including poverty, war, migrant crises, human trafficking, sexual abuse, violence against women, abortion, surrogacy, euthanasia, discrimination against people with disabilities, gender inequality, sex change issues, and digital violence, often occur when we fail to recognise this fact. As Pope Francis emphasises, "Every human has the right to live with dignity and to develop integrally; this fundamental right cannot be denied by any country."

Therefore, everyone, based on their inherent worth, including vulnerable migrant labourers who move to unfamiliar places for economic reasons, must be valued and respected by ensuring their fundamental rights, freedom, and security. Neglecting this essential principle jeopardises the prospects for fraternity and the survival of humanity.

On the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (December 10, 1948), the Pope calls on the world to awaken to the consciousness of human dignity and its inherent values. This declaration is particularly timely in light of the tragic Kuwait fire, which could have been prevented if the dignity of the impoverished labourers had been respected, if not celebrated. Pope Francis urges us to stand with those whose dignity is disregarded or violated and to support those who struggle to live with dignity and lack solidarity. In light of the Kuwait blaze disaster, we must declare loudly that "the commitment to human rights is ongoing and unfinished." We must tirelessly uphold human dignity, appealing to all to never forget this fundamental aspect of humanity. Just as no one has the right to take away our dignity, we have no right to deny it to others. Human dignity must endure, as humanity itself must endure. Let us restore dignity wherever it has been lost or is on the verge of vanishing.

Recent Posts

Eliminating GST on books and periodicals would honour Nehru's legacy and promote knowledge and literacy.
apicture A. J. Philip
15 Jul 2024
While Mr Modi continues his international jaunts, he fails to realise that he has never lost any credibility because he never had any.
apicture John Dayal
15 Jul 2024
Bishops in India have observed a weakening of the country's important democratic institutions.
apicture Arockia Rayappan
15 Jul 2024
Justice Agarwal's comments on religious conversion reveal a deep-seated bias and the alarming reach of Hindutva elements within the judiciary
apicture Cedric Prakash
15 Jul 2024
Forty per cent of child food poverty is reported in India, which is much higher than the global average of 27%.
apicture Prakash Louis
15 Jul 2024
Despite new labour codes and the e-Shram portal, unorganised workers in India continue to face challenges.
apicture Jose Vattakuzhy
15 Jul 2024
A smoking ban in the workplace has saved the economy.
apicture Pauly Muricken
15 Jul 2024
India can learn from the UK's efficient and respectful power transition.
apicture Vidya Bhushan Rawat
15 Jul 2024
The journey from traditional to modern classrooms highlights technology's transformative role.
apicture Rajani George
15 Jul 2024
They are your guilty ones. And I wonder how you will succeed in not 'sparing' them?
apicture Robert Clements
15 Jul 2024