Kuwait City, Sri Lanka Guardian — Domestic workers in Kuwait who try to escape abusive employers face criminal charges for "absconding" and are unable to change jobs without their employer's permission, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
Migrant domestic workers have minimal protection against employers who withhold salaries, force employees to work long hours with no off days, deprive them of adequate food, or abuse them physically or sexually.
The 97-page report, "Walls at Every Turn: Exploitation of Migrant Domestic Workers Through Kuwait's Sponsorship System," describes how workers become trapped in exploitative or abusive employment then face criminal penalties for leaving a job without the employer's permission. Government authorities arrest workers reported as "absconding" and in most cases deport them from Kuwait — even if they have been abused and seek redress.
"Employers hold all the cards in Kuwait," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "If abused or exploited, workers try to escape or complain. The law makes it easy for employers to charge them for “absconding” and get them deported. The government has left workers to depend on employers' good will — or to suffer when good will is absent."
Kuwait, which has the highest ratio of domestic workers to citizens in the Middle East, announced on 26 September, 2010, that it would abolish the sponsorship system (kafala) in February 2011, and replace the employer-based system with a government administered recruitment authority. While this would be an important reform, the government gave no details on what legal protections would be added for migrant workers in the country, or whether the reforms would cover domestic workers.
Data compiled by Human Rights Watch shows 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 current sponsorship system, Human Rights Watch said, should include immediate steps to remove "absconding" as a legal violation, and to permit workers to change jobs without an employer's consent. The government should also cease arresting and deporting workers for leaving jobs where employers violated their rights, and should instead provide domestic workers with emergency shelter and expedited complaint mechanisms.
Tilkumari Pun, a 23-year-old domestic worker from Nepal, told Human Rights Watch that she worked for 13 months without getting paid. She repeatedly asked her employers for her wages so that she could return to Nepal, where her father needed a heart operation. After waiting 10 months for her employers to make these arrangements, she said, she went to the police for assistance, but they detained her. From the police station, she said, "I had to go to the CID (Criminal Investigations Department). Baba and Mama (my employers, had) filed a police case against me."
"Walls at Every Turn" is based on interviews with 49 domestic workers, representatives from sending country embassies in Kuwait, and Kuwaiti government officials, including representatives from the Labour and Social Affairs Ministry and the Interior Ministry. Human Rights Watch also interviewed employers, local human rights and civil society advocates, lawyers, and academics.
The domestic workers interviewed cited a variety of abuses by their employers, including nonpayment of wages, refusal to grant days off, and physical or sexual assault. But they said they had found it virtually impossible to pursue their complaints.
While the Kuwaiti government currently maintains a 50-bed shelter for domestic workers, only embassies can refer workers there, and only after the police have cleared them of all charges, meaning that women typically wait long periods in their embassy shelters before reaching the government facility. When Human Rights Watch visited the facility, it was operating under capacity, despite the pressing need for shelter hundreds of domestic workers face, and overcrowding at embassy shelters.
"When unscrupulous employers exploit domestic workers, the government should not punish them further," Whitson said. "Government officials have been discussing kafala reform for years, but the time has come to implement measures that will protect workers' rights in practice — not just on paper."