Migrant Worker Perceptions of Life, Work, Health and Safety in Kuwait: A Construction Industry Perspective
Construction workers have experienced profound changes in working and living conditions over the past 30 years due to the rapid expansion of migrant labour, ineffective management, lax regulatory practices and business cycle downturns. These changes have impacted negatively on the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) of workers and the construction industry is recognised as one of the most hazardous in the world. The extent to which construction workers’ OHS has been compromised has particular relevance in Kuwait where, despite the ratification of 19 International Labour organisation (ILO) conventions, effective implementation of improvements has been lacking.
The goal of this thesis was to understand the experiences of vulnerable migrant workers in Kuwait from their own viewpoint. The primary research question was ‘What are the OHS experiences of vulnerable migrant workers employed in the Kuwaiti construction industry?’ An adaptation of the Sargeant and Tucker (2009) layers of vulnerability model was applied to address this question.
The findings revealed that cultural indifference leading to power and control abuses within the low-bid tendering system has severely compromised the OHS of migrant construction workers in Kuwait. Coercive practices, deception, dishonesty and cruelty resulted in high levels of depression, fear, anxiety and a sense of defeat, exacerbated by poor living conditions, inadequate diets and forced extension of working hours. Contractual obligations and financial commitments to deceptive and dishonest labour agents deepened workers’ sense of helplessness and entrapment. This caused depression and suicide ideation. Their plight was compounded because they could never get permanent residency in Kuwait.
Abusive and negligent supervisory practices led to fatal and serious injuries and illness such as severe trauma, heart attacks, heat stroke, falls from height; all due to unsafe construction methods. It was also found that workers were exposed to noise causing hearing impairment and to harmful contaminants like dust and carcinogenic chemicals which led to respiratory illness. Heavy physical labour in the summer heat caused cardiovascular and musculoskeletal health problems.
The results revealed that the root cause of compromised OHS practices is the policy of awarding major contracts to the lowest bidder. Although Project Management Consultants (PMCs) were concerned about the OHS of subcontracted labourers, they were prevented by project owners from intervening and implementing best practices. Consequently most workers were inadequately trained and were unaware of their right to protection and access to compensation. However workers’ attitudes and commitment to working safely was not dependent on their educational level.
This research is distinctive because a fieldwork and analytical methodology was developed to investigate vulnerable workers in hard-to-reach, difficult and complex settings. The research further differentiates itself by the participation of a skilled interpreter throughout the data gathering process, revealing the subtleties and idiomatic nuances of the respondents’ vernacular which enhanced the data derived from truth and meaning as perceived by workers themselves. The researcher has exposed the numerous issues faced by previously unreached and unheard subcontracted labourers, explored through their own perspectives and experiences. The development of such a methodology is a distinctive feat as few if any Western researchers have been able to reach these previously invisible groups of workers or to expose the depth of the problems they face and are helpless to address. Moreover, the researcher has developed a valuable set of tools that can be extrapolated and generally applied to further global research on the OHS of vulnerable expatriate workers.
Finally, the analysis revealed two over-riding themes. First cultural indifference leading to power and control mechanisms and their impact on vulnerable workers was directly linked to hierarchical management systems, and second, the lowest bidder policy has led to profoundly negative outcomes and damage to the OHS of expatriate subcontracted workers.