Housemaids' woes spur Kuwait to review labor law
Human rights activists are pushing Kuwait to give legal protection to domestic servants from employer abuse.
KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT
Once a month, Jenny Rose gets to leave the house. She usually spends that time at a discount shopping center "to breathe some air."Skip to next paragraph
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The rest of the time, she works as a domestic servant, washing dishes, cleaning carpets, waxing furniture, and other tedious chores. In the Kuwaiti home where she normally puts in 14 hours, sometimes even more, she earns a monthly salary of about $150.
Though it's an exhausting workload, one she shares with four other domestic servants, the Filipino maid considers herself fortunate in a region where menial labor's shoddy treatment has been well documented.
Driven by dismal circumstances, two Filipino maids recently jumped from the third floor of the home where they were working. One died, and the other was critically injured. Such attempts at either escape or suicide have become common enough that nurses in a local hospital dubbed them "Superwomen" - because they "think they can fly."
The reverberations of such incidents in this oil-rich Gulf state have set off some alarm bells about the huge, largely unregulated foreign labor sector and the trade in forged residency permits. Kuwaiti officials have promised to review labor laws, and a four-year-old parliamentary initiative to give foreign nationals more rights has gained fresh steam.
Controversial proposals include setting a minimum wage, and making it illegal for employers to refuse to pay anything less than what is agreed to in a contract.
The 1.4 million foreign workers make up a sizable chunk of Kuwait's 2.2 million populace, particularly in the service industries. Homes of even the middle-class Kuwaitis seem to have three or four maids tending house.
Abdul Wahab al-Haroon, chairman of parliament's finance and economic affairs committee, says it will be difficult to get Kuwaiti politicians to agree on a minimum wage. "The wage differential between Kuwaitis and non-Kuwaitis is so high, and no one wants to increase the cost of employing foreign workers.... And so long as our economy is growing, we need the non-Kuwaitis to come and work for us."
Large spreads of Kuwait City are populated by drab apartment buildings occupied by foreigners. Outside the city, in places such as Jleeb el-Shiyouch, laborers are cramped six or eight to a room and are bused into town everyday to work.
Kuwait's current labor law nor its proposed replacement applies to domestic workers. And it is there, critics say, where the greatest window for abuse exists. According to some of the more grizzly stories carried in the Kuwaiti press, some maids have been kept locked at home and subject to abuse.
"We are asking the government to give them some additional protection," says former parliament member Ali al-Baghli, of the Kuwait Human Rights Society. "If a worker wants to press charges against an employer, we should give her sanctuary, not return her to an employer who she accused of beating or raping her," as police often do with "runaway" maids.
Alternatively, a few of the embassies that provide the largest pools of domestic servants to Kuwait now maintain shelters on their grounds for workers in such situations. Following an unmanageable caseload of problems, the Indian government instituted a ban on allowing its nationals to work as domestic servants here, but recently lifted it.
Many workers, however, say that their embassies don't do nearly enough to assist them because their officials are expected to help provide Kuwait with a pool of menial labor, and don't want to endanger the relationship or deter the repatriation of income to their strapped home economies.
In response, an official at the Philippine Embassy said there was little they could do. "Most people forget that an embassy in a certain country is just a visitor," the official says. "The embassy is not the department of labor in the country [it's located in]. A visa is owned by the sponsor, not the embassy. So when people ask to be repatriated, the sponsor can say, 'No. I bought the visa; I paid your expenses to come here.' "
That, argues Mr. al-Baghli, is a key reason why Kuwait should eliminate its sponsorship system, common in many Gulf countries. "There are some professional sponsors who take yearly fees from foreign labors for doing nothing but putting his signature on paper," he says. "We're trying to eliminate the middle men who are exploiting these people and taking fees out of their sweat."