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How Migrant Workers Suffer Under Kuwait’s Increasing Temperature

Gulf academics in the social science field have already conducted much research on the effects of climate change on Kuwait, and how those effects are likely to impact the livelihoods of average Kuwaiti citizens. There is, however, a gap within social science research on the impact of climate change on the quality of life in Kuwait for migrant workers. Both Kuwaiti and international experts have warned of uncertain access to food and clean water in Kuwait over the coming century, but, there is little more than a cursory investigation of how these trends will impact the most vulnerable within Kuwaiti society – other than minor references within the mainstream regional media, which overwhelmingly focuses on how the changes will affect the elite and privileged. Such discussions fail to account for the migrant workers who make up 70% of the population, the majority of whom make less than 200 Kuwaiti dinars (around $650) per month. Scholars warned about this “silent emergency” in a recent report commissioned by LSE’s Kuwait Programme.

Deeply held racial, ethnic and religious prejudices have been a recurring problem in Kuwait since before the country’s independence. However, the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately infected low-income migrant workers, inflamed tensions and led to increasing Kuwaiti nativism and discriminatory policies. For the seventh time in eight years, Kuwait ranked dead last in the Expat Insider’s 2021 survey of the 59 best and worst countries in which to live as an expatriate. The site described Kuwait as “the worst destination for expatriates in terms of ease of adaptation and stability.” On the health and safety index, Kuwait ranked 56th globally and 58th in environmental quality.

Unfortunately, Kuwaiti civil society or Kuwaiti lobby groups have little interest in pressuring the government to change its environmental policies. The Kuwaiti public is primarily concerned with domestic political issues, such as debt forgiveness, housing, or increasing financial benefits rather than sound long-term ecological policy. Moreover, populist policy platforms often increase the harm to Kuwait’s ecosystem. As part of Kuwait 2035 development plan, the government has constructed bigger housing developments, wider highways, more extensive construction projects, and increased heavy oil drilling – all of which have had significant negative impacts on Kuwait’s natural environment and climate.

Global Warming Makes it Harder

While they remain largely shut out from Kuwaiti politics and society, migrant workers are the group most impacted by climate change – particularly by the increases in temperature that are projected to accompany it, for two key reasons. First, unlike citizens, migrants typically work in far poorer and harder conditions, and some lack access to air conditioning, leading to dangerous heat levels. Mohammad, a factory worker, said that “the increase in temperature over the last five years I have worked in Kuwait made it more and more difficult. The air conditioners at work are always breaking down. Because summer is longer now, we really suffer to do the work we need to do.”

Second, rising temperatures have led families to remain indoors, creating additional work for migrants employed in domestic roles. Fatima, a maid, intimated that “as temperatures have gotten worse and worse over the years, my employers have tended to stay in the house more and more. This has added undue stress on everybody and has tripled my workload as people eat, sleep, work, and socialize at different times. My friends and I have all shared the same experience. Aside from the pretty bad work conditions we live and work in as live-in housemaids, we are also punished by the temperature forcing people inside more.”

Jared, a delivery driver who drives a motorcycle, relayed that due to the increasing temperatures in the summers, his job had become “a literal nightmare six days a week. I have to wear heavy thick sweaters to make sure my skin isn’t damaged by the sun, and I am constantly dehydrated. This is made even more difficult by the poor quality of drivers and roads, which I combat at the same time as I deal with the heat.”

Wake Up and Smell the Smog

High emission rates and heavy industrial pollution are also serious issues for Kuwait. For most migrant workers, commuting on the country’s public transportation is difficult on the best of days. Substandard diesel fuel used by heavy trucks and buses fills the street with noxious fumes. Maha, a retail wholesaler, noted that “we are punished by the fumes every day, and it makes getting to work a task in itself.”

Kuwait’s industrial areas sprawl across Subhan, Al-Rai, or Shuwaikh, often operating without enforced regulatory guidelines. Mohammad noted that most companies do not have adequate ventilation or air conditioning to circulate air, making the factory floor a choking hazard that workers are forced to remain on for up to 12 hours a day. Freddy, a technician at a plastic factory, said that the poor weather and quality of work-life encouraged many of the maintenance staff to resign and go back to their home countries a few years ago. Since then, he noted that his business had not been able to find qualified replacements, meaning that machinery within the factory – including air circulation equipment – was not properly maintained. “We all suffer in this,” he said, “and we blame the poor air quality in Kuwait.” “The poor economic situation in the company also makes this work, forcing us to continue working at jobs in bad conditions. We all want to go home but are stuck now,” he added.

It has become more common for people to stay inside for months without leaving their homes or apartments. An increase in Kuwaiti home delivery services, such as Deliveroo, My Home, or Talabat that offer everything from fast food, home repairs, and groceries, are signs of the public adapting to a hostile environment. “We don’t go outside anymore,” said Judy, a nurse at a public hospital. “When I first arrived in Kuwait fifteen years ago, the climate was better, and we used to walk home from work. Now we take the bus straight to the accommodation and don’t go outside at all. It’s been bad for everyone’s mental health, which is difficult enough when working in a hospital.” Local sources have also noted that the rich and powerful within Kuwait, such as the country’s lawmakers or business elite, are far more likely to leave the country on extended vacations during the summer.

Some populists within Kuwait argue that migrant workers are in Kuwait of their own free will and claim that if their working conditions were truly unbearable, they could return to their country of origin. For many non-citizens, however, Kuwait is home; there is no other place they truly belong. Marcy, a non-citizen confided, “I was born in Kuwait, and I have nowhere else to go. The situation doesn’t force me to leave. It just makes me poorer. A lot of people are in the same situation.”

The Widening Gap

For citizens, the rise in temperatures has led to increased energy consumption. As temperatures rise, more and more energy must go to air conditioners, water filters, and air filters, leading to greater emissions and therefore to higher temperatures. Migrant workers without access to such luxuries suffer the consequences: many have experienced respiratory ailments, skin conditions, and a far lower quality of life within dense apartment complexes. “I noticed when I first came to Kuwait how much my skin changed,” said Ray, a salon worker. “It became drier, and I got more and more problems with breathing and coughing.” The increase in prices also leads to increased population density in expatriate areas. To save money, most of which is sent as remittances to their home country, migrant workers are more and more likely to spend less on rent, live with more people in small spaces and eat less healthy food, reducing the quality of their lives further. Ray added, “We have cut back on our spending. We have started sharing our accommodation with more friends, in an attempt to save money. There used to be four of us; now there are 8.”

Finally, Kuwait’s infrastructure is poorly prepared for energy conservation or green conversion. Within richer areas populated mainly by citizens, most buildings are poorly constructed and consume a tremendous amount of energy. Because few properties owned or occupied by citizens have  water or electrical meters, citizens have no incentive to restrict consumption. Consequently, the occupants have come to run their often inefficient air conditioners year-round, consuming ever increasing amounts of energy. Conditions are far worse in non-Kuwaiti areas, such as Jleeb Al Shouykh, Mahboula, or Khaitan. Perhaps most concerning is that at the very moment that Kuwait requires significant funding for green policies, the country is in the most severe fiscal crisis in its history. Kuwait had the most significant budget deficit in its history in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, losing 10.8 billion dinars (around $36 billion), while revenues dropped by 38.9 percent. With these budgetary issues, green projects will likely be sidelined by more lucrative infrastructure developments, which will lead to a widening gap between citizens and migrant workers as environmental hazards increasingly impact the latter.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Geoffrey Martin is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at the University of Toronto, entrepreneur, and economic analyst based in Kuwait. His focus is on political economy, food logistics, and labor law in Kuwait and the wider GCC. He tweets @bartybartin

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