Just because we are talking human rights, doesn’t mean it has to all be negative. We can talk about the progress that’s being made too, although the progress is set within the context of some horrific abuses. This time, we’re talking about the rights and treatment of migrants working as domestic workers in Kuwait. The post focuses on Kuwait because of the recent bilateral agreement that has been signed making this progress, however the conditions described for migrants domestic workers (MDWs) can mostly be generalised across all of the the Gulf states, with only small variants in the protective laws.
So, a recent agreement signed between Kuwait and the Philippines has made some small headway towards reducing some of the abuses that were occurring where domestic workers (those who work in households) were concerned. This is amazing news and has been a long time coming! But before we delve into the provisions of the new agreement, what was the situation that prompted it?
The short answer, abuse of MDWs and more frequently than we would like to think, treatment of them in a way that could constitute modern slavery. A horrific thought back then, let alone in this day and age when we are supposed to have abolished such happenings. What’s worse, most of these women migrate out of necessity with the false promise of higher wages which they can send back to their families at home.
[W]orkers risk their lives to escape, attempting dangerous climbs from the windows or balconies of their employers’ homes. – Human Rights Watch
A brief oversight of the legal system in Kuwait (and the other Gulf states) which is rather different to that of the UK, may shed some light on how such treatment can be facilitated. The way in which MDW’s gain access into the country and the right to work there is regulated by something called the Kafala system.
The Kafala system, sometimes referred to as the sponsorship system, represents the legal requirements for residency and employment. Before entering the country, the MDW will enter into a contract with an employer, who then becomes their sponsor, thus allowing them to live and work in the country. Sure, having a job set up in the country is not an unreasonable pre-requisite, but the nature of the Kafala system which bestows upon the employer an unreasonable amount of control, is most definitely unreasonable.
The system hugely benefits the host state as it provides them with security where their employee is concerned. Their contract allows the employer to control their entry and exit to the country (often by confiscating their passport), their accommodation, freedom whilst in employment and their ability to seek alternative work. This amount of control is not something that a MDW working in the UK or other countries would be subject to. With this amount of control, of course comes the tendency to abuse or exploit the worker. The MDW is not free to seek alternative work, and they are not readily free to leave the country and escape, because their employers frequently retain their passports. This allows MDWs to be overworked to suit the employer, and to be underpaid for their hours worked.
Under Kuwait’s kafala system, workers who flee their employers can be arrested for “absconding” and fined, imprisoned for up to six months, deported, and barred from returning for at least six years. – Human Rights Watch
To make it worse, MDWs in the region do not fall under the protection provided by local labour laws which protect nationals or migrants working in other ‘non-domestic’ professions. In effect, overtime the states have absolved themselves of responsibility for the welfare of MDWs and placed all responsibility on the contract between the MDW and their sponsor! Thus, the enforcement of what little rights they may have depends on maintaining good relations with their employer…doesn’t sound like an ideal working environment to me.
In 2015, pressure from the international community resulted in Kuwait passing new domestic worker labour laws which required employers to keep MDWs working days to 12 hours maximum, provide them with one day off a week, and prohibited employers from confiscating passports. This was hailed as a progressive and promising step at the time as the first Gulf state to provide MDWs with labour laws. Yet, the past 3 years have seen a severe lack of implementation of the protective provisions, and reports of workers being abused just the same as before, continue to flood local embassies.
2018- A total ban
As the lack of enforcement mechanism for the new laws is not resolved and abuses continue, the situation for the Filipino government, who have over 250,000 MDWs in Kuwait, reached breaking point. In February 2018, a Filipino worker who was working for a couple in the country, was found dead and mutilated in the freezer of the home she had been working in. This kind of abuse doesn’t even bear thinking about, and to imagine that the worker probably felt trapped with her sponsors and unable to escape abuse because of the way the system works.
So in February 2018, the Filipino president implemented a ban, prohibiting all Filipinos from travelling to Kuwait to begin work as domestic workers. This is a credit to the Philippines who have proven progressive in protecting their workers residing in the Middle East as they have before implemented the same ban in Saudi Arabia. The worry however is that workers desperate to seek out the work will instead travel through illegal routes to reach Kuwait, still making it vital that protective provisions in Kuwait are enhanced, or even enforced at all.
A new bilateral agreement
In May 2018, a landmark bilateral agreement was reached between the Philippines and Kuwait. The agreement provides the right for workers to keep passports and mobile phones, the right to one day off a week, accommodation, regular food, health insurance and only permits the renewal of employment contracts with oversight from Philippine officials. These provisions are a big step forward for the protection of the human rights of MDWs and preventing the abuses discussed. The Philippines should be praised for their willingness to protect their citizens and pave the way for other nations.
However, the worry is not over. These provisions only apply to Filipino MDWs. Disconcertingly, following the Filipino migration ban in February, Kuwaiti officials turned to recruitment agencies and ordered them to find other workers from Nepal, India, Vietnam and other neighbouring nations to replace the lost Filipino recruits. Thus, indicating that if it is not Filipino’s being exploited, they have no qualms about facilitating the abuse on citizens of other nations either. Therefore, whilst a victory for Filipino MDWs, workers of other nationalities still remain at risk of abuse where existing protective laws are not enforced.
Furthermore, if the new laws introduced in 2015 had little impact, I am filled with little encouragement that this new bilateral agreement will have the desired effect. Of course, I sincerely hope to be proven wrong and that this may be the turning point for MDWs in Kuwait, and in neighbouring states who may feel under pressure to follow suit.
Obviously not every MDW residing in Kuwait will endure these conditions, although research has shown that there is an overriding tendency for MDWs in this region to face oppressive working conditions. Kuwait is in fact one of the more progressive states in the region where domestic worker rights are concerned, making it all the more worrying that it reached such a point where the Philippines banned workers from migrating there. Having said that, from another perspective we can also applaud Kuwait for its reactiveness and willingness to negotiate with the Philippines and take the necessary steps towards MDW safety. Whilst there are doubts about the effectiveness it may have, and the heavy criticism of the Kafala system remains, from where I stand this step is better than no step at all, and for now, constitutes a small victory for Filipino migrant domestic workers.
For a more in depth and legal discussion about the Kafala system in general and its effect on migrant domestic workers, please visit the Essay section of this site to access the essay titled ‘Critically assess the adequacy of legal protection afforded to female domestic migrant workers residing in Gulf Co-operation Council States‘