(Geneva) – Kuwait should accept recommendations on protecting the rights of migrant domestic workers and stateless persons made today by United Nations member countries, Human Rights Watch said. The UN Human Rights Council examined Kuwait’s human rights record as part of the council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of each nation.

Several delegations at the three-hour session raised concerns about the lack of legal protections for migrant domestic workers and about problems faced by stateless persons in Kuwait. More than 660,000 domestic workers are employed in Kuwait, making up over one-third of the country’s migrant workforce. Local rights groups estimate that Kuwait’s population of about 1.3 million citizens also includes more than 120,000 Bidun, longtime residents who lack Kuwaiti nationality.

“The international community has called attention to Kuwait’s failure to protect the country’s most marginalized groups,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Kuwait should demonstrate its commitment to human rights by protecting domestic worker rights, and ensuring equal rights for stateless persons.”

Kuwait’s delegation, headed by Labor Minister Mohammad al-Afasi, claimed that domestic workers received protection under employment contracts that limit working hours, provide holiday time, and require employers to pay medical insurance and aid to a worker’s next of kin if a contract employee dies. However, Human Rights Watch research found that contracts for domestic work are not being enforced.

The country’s 2010 labor law continues to exclude domestic workers from labor protections required for other workers. In addition, Kuwait’s immigration sponsorship system traps workers in abusive employment situations by making it a violation of the law for a migrant worker to leave a job without the employer’s consent.

Domestic workers are unable to escape abusive employers or to seek redress even though workloads often exceed 15 hours a day, and there are frequent complaints of unpaid salaries.

“Kuwait has presented contractual clauses as adequate guarantees for domestic worker rights,” Stork said. “In reality, these guarantees are not being enforced, and domestic workers are deliberately excluded from labor protections under the law.”

With regard to stateless residents, Kuwait described the stateless Bidun in its presentation as “illegal residents” seeking Kuwaiti citizenship. However, many Bidun families have lived in Kuwait for generations, since the founding of the Kuwaiti state, but failed to apply for nationality at that time. Now, they cannot bring their citizenship claims before the courts because the 1959 Nationality Law prohibits judicial review of such claims. Kuwait now classifies the Bidun as residents without legal status.

The nongovernmental Kuwait Society for Human Rights has drawn attention to rights violations faced by Bidun. They frequently cannot obtain essential state-issued documents, such as marriage licenses and birth and death certificates, making it difficult or impossible for them to own property or even legally establish a family.

Kuwait also claimed during the review that the government provides education and health care to all those that live in its territory, and described any fees paid for such services as nominal. However, Human Rights Watch research shows that, unlike Kuwaiti citizens, Bidun are required to pay for medication and hospital visits, leading some to forgo treatment. Unlike Kuwaitis, Bidun also pay for elementary education for their children, including costly school fees and textbooks.

Kuwait’s report to the council claimed that “Kuwait is a leading state [in] the protection of human rights.” However, the government has increasingly threatened freedom of expression over the past year. In 2009, the Information Ministry proposed amendments to the country’s press and publications law that would increase fines and jail terms for journalists and publications for criticizing Kuwait’s amir (ruler) and crown prince as its foreign allies. Kuwait’s public prosecutor has also enforced criminal defamation laws more aggressively. It fined two members of parliament 3,000 dinars each (over $10,000) in October for criticizing the Interior and Health ministries. The prosecutor ordered the arrest of Mohammad al-Jassim, a prominent Kuwaiti journalist and government critic, in November, allegedly for making statements critical of the prime minister during a private gathering. On May 11, al-Jassim was arrested again for statements on his widely read blog that allegedly are critical of Kuwait’s ruler.

Authorities have also acted against expatriate political activists living in Kuwait for peacefully expressing their views. Security forces in April arrested and then deported more than 30 Egyptians who tried to hold a public meeting to express support for the Egyptian reform advocate Mohammad al-Baradei.

“Kuwait can’t claim it is a human rights leader and at the same time deny basic freedoms of expression and the right to hold a peaceful gathering,” Stork said.

The Universal Periodic Review was established under the General Assembly Resolution that created the UN Human Rights Council in 2006. The UPR evaluates the human rights record of all 192 member states, with each state submitting to review every four years. The review today was Kuwait’s first.