More efforts needed to improve domestic helpers’ conditions in Kuwait

October 8, 2010

More efforts are needed to help domestic helpers escape the trappings of their profession in Kuwait, a human rights watchdog has said.

In a report on the status of domestic helpers in the northern Arabian Gulf state, Human Rights Watch said that they have minimal protection against employers who withhold salaries, force them to work long hours with no days off, deprive them of adequate food, or abuse them physically or sexually.

The watchdog charged that those who try to escape abusive employers face criminal charges for “absconding” and are unable to change jobs without their employer’s permission.

“Employers hold all the cards in Kuwait,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the head of HRW Middle East department, said. “If abused or exploited workers try to escape or complain, the law makes it easy for employers to charge them with ‘absconding’ and get them deported. The government has left workers to depend on employers’ good will – or to suffer when good will is absent,” she said at a conference in Kuwait City.

However, Mohammad Al Kindari, the labour ministry’s undersecretary, said that a special committee was working on finding solutions to the issues based on local traditions.

“We do not need reports by international organizations to assess our treatment of any category,” he told Kuwaiti daily Al Siyassah. “Last month, we helped 500 domestic helpers to go home and gave them tickets. We also made sure they got all their rights.”

Ahmad Al Rajeeb, interior ministry undersecretary, said that Kuwait was keen on implementing all laws and decisions related to human rights, the daily reported on Friday.

Kuwait has around 660,000 migrant domestic helpers, the highest ratio of domestic helpers to citizens in the Middle East.

Mohammad Afassi, the labour minister, said last month that Kuwait would abolish the sponsorship system in February 2011, and replace the employer-based system with a government-administered national recruitment authority.

HRW welcomed the move as “an important reform”, but said there were no details whether the reforms would cover domestic workers.

“The country’s domestic workers constitute nearly a third of the work force in this Gulf country. But they are excluded from the labour laws that protect other workers.”

The watchdog said that data it had compiled showed that in 2009, domestic workers from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Ethiopia filed over 10,000 complaints about their treatment with their embassies in Kuwait.

The Kuwaiti government’s reform of the sponsorship system should include immediate steps to remove “absconding” as a legal violation and to allow workers to change jobs without the employer’s consent, the watchdog said.

The drive by the Kuwaiti government to reform the labour market and improve the working and living conditions of the domestic helpers has often been stalled by businesses and families keen on cheap and docile labour and by visa traffickers.

Al Afassi has repeatedly said that he would confront the pressure and that the government would go ahead with a string of gradual amendments to do away with the controversial sponsorship system.

HRW said that its report “Walls at Every Turn: Exploitation of Migrant Domestic Workers Through Kuwait’s Sponsorship System,” was based on interviews with 49 domestic helpers, representatives from labour exporting country embassies in Kuwait, and Kuwaiti government officials, including representatives from the ministry of labour and social affairs and the ministry of interior.

Employers, local human rights and civil society advocates, lawyers, and academics were also interviewed for the report, HRW said.

Nonpayment of wages, refusal to grant days off and physical assaults were among the abuses mentioned by domestic helpers in their interview.

Domestic workers, excluded from labour laws, face particularly difficult legal battles to claim wages owed. Proving exploitation or abuse can be difficult due to the limited evidence available from inside private homes. Long waits, poor information about their rights and options, and slim chances of achieving justice mean that many workers give up on redress, HRW said.

Even when domestic workers opt not to pursue claims, they still face lengthy delays before they can leave the country. Very few workers who had left their jobs had successfully retrieved their passports from their former employers after leaving. Employers confiscate passports to delay workers’ departures from the country, and to use this as a bargaining tool in negotiations.

The Kuwaiti government currently maintains a 50-bed shelter for domestic workers. However, only embassies can refer workers there and only after the police have cleared them of all charges.



About the author

Born August 3, 1960 in Monastir, Tunisia
Media career:
  • ABC News (Tunisia)
  • Bahrain Tribune
  • Gulf News
  • Bahrain Television News
Teaching career:
  • Monastir (Tunisia)
  • University of Bahrain
  • MA  Mass Communications, University of Leicester
  • BA  in English & US literature and studies, University of Tunis

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