Housemaids' woes spur Kuwait to review labor law

Human rights activists are pushing Kuwait to give legal protection to domestic servants from employer abuse.

Once a month, Jenny Rose gets to leave the house. She usually spends that time at a discount shopping center "to breathe some air."

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."

In November, Egyptian workers - who make up the largest portion of foreign workers here - rioted for two days, clashing with police in disturbances that underscored frustrations with the job market. Egyptians say they were maltreated by police who came to break up a fight between them and Bangladeshi nationals, sparking the violence.

But underlying the tensions, workers here say, was the fact that many Egyptians are brought into the country by sponsors who charge them some $3,000 to obtain residency permits. The laborers, who tend to take jobs as drivers and construction workers, are often unable to find enough work to pay off their debts - or an employer who will give them the wages promised them.

Though workers who run into problems with employers can seek recourse with the police, Kuwaitis say a foreigner's claims usually do not stand up against a citizen's.

Dalisai, for example, tried to fight back.

A housemaid from the Philippines who asked that her last name not be used, Dalisai says she wasn't receiving her salary regularly. She told her employer that she would complain to the police or leave. Instead, she says, her employer beat her to it, telling the police that Dalisai stole money from them.

That, says Beirut-based human rights lawyer Mirela Abu Sater, is a common maneuver in Lebanon where domestic workers from similar countries are also unprotected by labor laws.

"When the maid runs away, the police cannot just go and catch her because she left, so they make a complaint for theft, so that the police can make a search for her and bring her back to the house," says Ms. Abu Sater. "Or sometimes, when the employer doesn't want her anymore and wants to send her back home, he accuses her of stealing ... and doesn't have to pay her salary."

Dalisai was jailed for a month without trial. It was only through the efforts of a friend's lawyer that she was released. Instead, he found her a job at a small dress factory. In it, about 60 foreign laborers needle away at intricate fabrics in a crowded, uncomfortably warm workshop above the store. Downstairs, Kuwaiti women pick out materials for custom-made dresses in an elegantly appointed and air-conditioned shop. "We can't say no to these jobs," says Dalisai, who has been in Kuwait since 1984, "because there isn't anything better back home."

It is in everyone's interest, Kuwaiti officials argue, to improve the wheel, but not reinvent it.

"This system is a business relationship that makes it advantageous for both the workers and the employers. It is not a bad reality," says Shafeeq N. Ghabra, the director of the Kuwait Information Office in Washington, D.C. "This doesn't mean there shouldn't be ways in which abuse is checked."

Increased media attention to the problem, he says, has led the Kuwaiti government to crack down on such abuses, for example, by barring troublesome sponsors from bringing in more workers.

"Kuwait has grown more serious with this issue. Things have improved dramatically compared with five or six years ago, but there is always room for improvement," says Dr. Ghabra, a Kuwait University political scientist. However, he ruled out proposals such as instituting a minimum wage or allowing naturalization of veteran foreigners, some of them born in Kuwait.

"Domestic workers aren't just a problem of Kuwait, it's all over the Middle East. If it is available, then people will opt for it," he says. "The majority of our experiences have been very positive, and the workers become part of the family. If most cases were so negative, they would not keep coming to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia."

But Abu Sater says that until labor laws are made applicable to domestic workers, abuses will continue. "Their condition is the condition of slaves," she says of Lebanon's domestic laborers. "What does a slave mean? It means someone who must do whatever you want for as many hours as you want. The foreign workers have to work as long as the employer asks, the payment is very arbitrary, there is no fixed wage, and some people don't get paid at all. That, combined [with the] fact that they don't allow her to hold her travel papers, as though they possess her, is like slavery."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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