50 migrant labourers killed in Kuwait: NBTC Accommodation Building fire sparks outrage

50 migrant labourers killed in Kuwait: NBTC Accommodation Building fire sparks outrage
Fire at NBTC Accommodation in Kuwait City

A fire in a construction labourers accommodation building in the Mangraf-area of Kuwait City, which housed 196 people, killed 50 and injured more than 50 on 12th June 2024. The building, which housed 196 migrant labourers sponsored under the highly controversial Kafala System for Kuwait’s largest civil contractors firm, NBTC. The building itself was leased to the company’s Managing Director, KG Abraham, to house labourers for their civil infrastructure projects. Most residents were Indian nationals, this is reflected in the proportion of victims, with 46 hailing from India, 3 from the Philippines, and one unidentified person, the proportion of injuries is, as of yet, unknown. Additionally, authorities say the death toll may rise as investigators continue surveying the building.  

 

The incident once again raises serious questions about the validity of the Kafala System and has sparked public outrage with accusations that NBTC and the real estate owners endangered lives by overcrowding migrant labourers in unsafe living conditions, in order to cut costs. impACT echoes concerns that this incident is symptomatic of a wider issue across the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Particularly that the current sponsorship programme widely discriminates against migrants, excludes them from civil society and disempowers them. 

 

Kafala, a sponsorship of legal residence and work permits completely ties an individual to ones employer and places them in a highly precarious social and legal position; companies are able to leverage this asymmetry to their advantage, often overworking, underpaying and mistreating employees who have no real legal recourse and are subject to deportation if they do not act in accordance with their employers demands. This can mean either explicit or implicit discouragement of workers complaining or advocating for changes to their conditions. Often, as is the case with those employed by NBTC, they are provided accommodation, which leaves them further open to abuses or just heightened instances of death, accidents and injuries. 

 

According to reports, the fire started on the ground floor of the six-storey accommodation building after an electrical short circuit in the guard’s room. Witnesses saw workers on the higher floors trying to escape by jumping from balconies, with one reported incident of an individual hitting their head on a lower balcony, dying instantly, most of the deaths occurred due to the fire itself. Many victims were found in the stairwells of the building, which has raised serious questions about the efficacy, or even existence of, fire safety measures. 

 

Director of the Fire Accident Investigation Department of Kuwait has already identified several features of the building that would heighten the risk of death in such a situation. Closed facades, which are the partitions between employees rooms (which were made out of highly flammable materials) and the closure of the building’s roof gave residents little scope for escape and increased the speed at which the fire could spread. Reportedly violating a number of safety regulations authorities have blamed “the greed of the company and building owners” for the deaths. The Deputy Prime Minister and Defence and Interior Minister Sheikh Fahd al-Yousef al-Sabah has since declared the fire a catastrophe, and publicly called for the deployment of municipal teams to fully inspect other buildings in the area to enforce regulatory codes. 

 

Meanwhile, NBTC and KG Abraham have offered public apology, but have denied any culpability for the deaths of their employees. As reported

 

“We are so sorry. I was crying at home hearing about the tragic accident. These are our people… We have not done any wrong. We believe things did not happen because of our mistake”. 

 

Whilst they deny overcrowding at the accommodation facility, NBTC have offered compensation to their families of the deceased of around 9 500 USD, insurance coverage, and also employment for dependents ‘as their qualifications’ determine. 

 

Publicly, demands to address a lack of stringent repercussions for those who violate state regulations and laws are mounting. With a former lawmaker blaming the legalisation of “illicit human trafficking and housing violations” under the current system, it is clear (alongside the consistent reports of violations of migrant labourers) that there is need and also demand for changes to labour laws. There is concern, however, that as NBTC is a major construction contractor, critical for Kuwait’s national oil and gas sector, and therefore, those held criminally responsible will not be those in significant positions of power. Those responsible for the wider conditions, the decisions to house so many employees in one space, with a lack of safety measures, such as the business owners themselves, rather than minor building managers, must face criminal culpability if found.  

 

In the short-term impACT International encourages Kuwaiti authorities to properly carry out an investigation of the incident and determine the appropriate measures as to properly compensate the victims. Further, authorities should continue gather information about the fire itself, as well as, fire safety precautions (if any) established by NBTC and, if violations are found, impose serious measures against those breaking these laws.

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