(New York) - Kuwaiti lawmakers should include domestic workers under a major new labor law, Human Rights Watch said today. The draft law would toughen penalties for private companies that abuse their workers, but would not extend its protections to the country's 600,000 migrant domestic workers. The law is scheduled for a vote in the National Assembly on December 6, 2009.

The proposed law would be the first major update of Kuwait's 1964 Private Sector Labor Law, following 10 years of debate and revision. If approved by the National Assembly, it will go to the emir for his signature, which is expected.

"So many years of effort have gone into this major effort to bring Kuwait's labor protections up to date," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. "What a missed opportunity it would be to leave out the very people who most need protection."

About a quarter of the country's two million foreign workers are employed as domestic workers. Because of their isolation in private homes, domestic workers are at particular risk of being forced to work long hours under poor conditions. Embassies of the workers' home countries receive thousands of complaints from domestic workers each year about unpaid wages. Kuwait has no current law setting a minimum wage, limiting working hours, or providing dispute resolution for these workers.

The draft law includes many improvements for the covered workers, including a ban against arbitrary dismissal and discrimination based on gender or ethnicity. It requires child care in workplaces with at least 50 female employees. It provides penalties of up three years in prison or heavy fines for employers who do not pay their workers or who recruit workers and then do not provide the promised jobs.

The bill falls short in other respects, though, in addition to not covering domestic workers.  It also discriminates against women and foreign workers in general. Only Kuwaiti citizens are guaranteed the right to participate fully in labor unions, and women are prohibited from working at night, except as doctors and other health workers.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Kuwait is a state party, requires Kuwait to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory all the rights in the Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as sex or national origin. The rights protected by the Covenant include freedom of association.

"Foreign workers make up more than 80 percent of Kuwait's labor force," Stork said. "They should be guaranteed the rights to which they are entitled under Kuwait's human rights commitments, including the right to participate fully in trade unions and to advocate for their rights."

The draft law authorizes the establishment of a new authority to regulate recruitment of foreign workers. If this provision is approved as drafted, it would replace a flawed immigration sponsorship (kafala) system, under which migrants' work visas and immigration status are both tied to their employers. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented how kafala systems, in countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon, can fuel abuses such as unpaid wages and exploitative working conditions.

The proposed new authority would include independent participants in the overseeing of migrant workers' immigration status and visas, a major advance for migrant workers. The new authority would regulate workers' residency permits, removing employers' discretion to cancel residency at will.

"Kuwait has long been signaling its interest in reforming the sponsorship system," Stork said. "We hope the government will move quickly to implement both labor and sponsorship reforms that protect all the foreign workers, whether they build new towers or cook and clean for Kuwaiti families."