The scholarship and policy literature on climate change has pointed to the fact that climate change aggravates inequality. As Islam and Winkel note, “the relationship between climate change and social inequality is characterized by a vicious cycle, whereby initial inequality makes disadvantaged groups suffer disproportionately from the adverse effects of climate change, resulting in greater subsequent inequality.”1 Kuwait is a country marked by deep social inequality with a notable divide between those with Kuwaiti citizenship and those without.
Kuwaiti citizens have both water and electricity heavily subsidized and are provided significant support in obtaining employment within government agencies. Most of Kuwait’s inhabitants are non-citizens and do not have the same access to these subsidies or support in employment. Our research shows that migrant workers and the stateless (bidoon) population are particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change. These groups, for instance, are more exposed to the weather extremes through their work in the outdoors (including as delivery drivers and street vendors), housing (often poorly insulated and lacking A/Cs) and transport (bus stops without adequate shelter). Our research also points to the vulnerability of agricultural workers to climate change that requires further research.
In the first study conducted on vulnerability to extreme temperatures in Kuwait, it concluded that the working age group 15-64 years – made up of predominately non-citizens - is at very high risk of death from increasingly hot temperatures. The study warns that the health disparity between citizens and non-citizens in Kuwait is set to widen as temperatures continue to rise because of climate change.2 Another study also found this working age group to be at higher risk of death from poor air quality effects and dust storms.3 In 2012, Kuwait introduced laws to ban work outdoors from June 1 to August 31 from 11am-4pm.4 However, several interviewees expressed skepticism over the extent to which bans were enforced, particularly in the private sector. In periods of extreme heat in Kuwait attention is often placed, frequently prompted by advocacy groups and activists, in social media forums on delivery drivers and construction workers exposure to the heat. The Kuwaiti Society for Human Rights launched a campaign, for instance, to limit delivery via bikes to nighttime and cars during the day. Attention by advocacy groups has also been drawn to domestic workers who are sometimes asked to clean roofs or windows during the midday heat; unlike construction workers there are no financial penalties for forcing domestic workers to work outside in extreme heat and there is no ability to monitor private domestic spaces.5
Advocates for migrant workers in Kuwait, interviewed for this study, stressed that it was not only delivery drivers and domestic workers who suffer from the impacts of climate change in Kuwait.6 The less visible workers, they noted, in the agricultural sector are particularly vulnerable to heat exposure. If a farm is located on private land, they explained, then the workers are not covered by the labour law. They added that it is also difficult to monitor labour conditions on these private farms because monitoring groups are not permitted access to these areas under the law.7 The impact of climate change on rural workers warrants further study. In addition to migrant workers, another particularly vulnerable community is Kuwait’s stateless (Bidoon) population. In our interviews with stateless men and women, those who had firsthand experience of working as street vendors noticed the difference in heat extremities over the years, with one saying, “I could feel the difference on my skin”, and another describing the death of his friend, a fellow stateless street vendor, because of heatstroke.8
Campaign to spread awareness on risks faced by delivery drivers. Artist Talal Almaian, 2021.