Over the past week I have had countless conversations with taxi drivers in Kuwait City. These drivers hail from a number of different countries including Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Egypt and Yemen. The overwhelming majority of those with whom I spoke have been in Kuwait for over 10 years (over 20 in some cases). They do not have Kuwaiti nationality (and will never receive it) and in almost all cases, they have wives and children back in their home countries that, if they are lucky, they see once a year. All of them stated to me very matter-of-factly that life in Kuwait was not happy for them (“I live 50% life”, one of them said succinctly) and explained to me that they were only there to work, in order to provide for their families and to be able to put their children in school. Most of the men said they had never been to school themselves, many had come to Kuwait as young teenagers and started manual work of some kind immediately.
All the drivers told me that they must pay a daily rental charge to the companies that own their taxis, yet they remain responsible for all the expenses of running the car including petrol costs and any maintenance work that is needed. Several explained that this rental charge must be paid every day, regardless of whether they worked that day or not. Therefore, the drivers rarely, if ever, take a day off, and are forced to work 7 days a week, and – according to many of them – 13 or 14 hour days in order to make enough money to cover their living costs. Every single one of the men complained that prices had increased a lot in Kuwait, and were continuing to rise. Several of them admitted that the extent to which they are forced to work was very dangerous for them (and others) as they often had to drive when they were very tired. All these men spoke to me – in English and Arabic – without bitterness but with blunt candour. Many acknowledged that however bad their situation was in Kuwait, it was preferable to the situation and their prospects back home. At least by working in Kuwait, they reasoned, they may be able to put their children in school and give them a chance of having a different, better life than their own. Even within Kuwait, they are far from the worst off amongst the country’s migrant workers. A Bangladeshi driver named Mohammad told me how he had battled for 8 months to be released from his contract with a cleaning company in order to become a taxi driver. He had worked for the cleaning company for 6 years and been paid so poorly that he had saved no money in that time.
Kuwait City. Photo: Louis Allday.
Several times, I felt like telling these men that they were heroes, once or twice I did. One of the men I said this to, a Pakistani named Mahboob, who has been in Kuwait for 8 years looked at me confused when I said it, and responding with a smile he said “no, no, I am just a simple, working man”. He told me he had never spent a day of his life in school and had come to Kuwait aged 12 or 13. He was very proud that his twin daughter and son were now in school in Lahore. I told him he should be proud and gave him double the fare on the meter when I got out of the taxi.
Of course, the stories of these men are sadly not unique, but are repeated the world over. This is the reality of the global capitalist system, desperate masses without any rights, used as cheap, disposable labour and forced to work inhumane hours for the benefit of those who own the means of production. Hence, for much of the population of the world, life is not about the realisation of their own happiness or the achievement of personal dreams; it is a day-to-day struggle of work and exertion in the hope that they will be able to provide a better life for their family and a better future for their children.
The crushing reality is that many people will work their entire lives and advance neither themselves nor the prospects of their children in any meaningful way, the structural inequality upon which capitalism depends does not allow it. Over half of the drivers told me that that even working 7 days a week, driving every day until they start falling asleep, they were now struggling to meet their expenses and as a result were sending very little – if any – money back home to their families.
The capitalist fallacy that with hard work and commitment you can always better yourself, is just that, a fallacy. Whilst the means of production are concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite that grows richer every single day from the labour of others, untold numbers of workers –men, women and children – will spend their whole lives working dangerous, low paid and monotonous jobs for the direct financial gain of others. These oppressed, marginalised yet stoic and proud people are a daily source of inspiration to me. I hope for the day that their degradation and suffering will end and the inhumane catastrophe that is capitalism is replaced with a system that promotes equality and solidarity, not rampant inequality and oppression.
Louis Allday is a PhD candidate at SOAS based in London. Follow him on Twitter: @Louis_Allday