Kuwait's abused domestic workers have 'nowhere to turn'

A Sri Lankan domestic worker shows her arm which she says was harmed by her employers (photo credit:Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai/Human Rights Watch) Migrant domestic workers, mainly from South Asia, regularly complain of abuse by employers

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"One day, she beat me, locked me inside the room, and also locked the outside door," a frightened and emotional Sri Lankan domestic worker in Kuwait recalls.

"When she locked me in, I made a rope from bed sheets. I climbed down, through the window, from the second floor to the ground floor."

Although Latha survived, many other women from South Asia have similar stories and have severely injured themselves while trying to escape abusive employers across the Gulf.

The Kuwaiti police usually register these escapes as "suicide attempts," according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Latha's story is one of thousands of harrowing examples of physical and sexual abuse - compiled in a report by the rights watchdog - at the hands of Kuwaiti employers.

"I could not go out. Even if I threw out the garbage downstairs, she followed me," she says.

No safe avenues

Sanju, another Sri Lankan worker, says in the report that she had to suffer in silence without a day off or rest for months.

"The madam always beat me; She would beat me on the head. I always had severe headaches. She told me, 'I can kill you; I can beat you. No one cares about you.'"

Kuwait

Kuwait city
  • Population - 3 million
  • over 660,000 migrant domestic workers
  • Migrant workers are not protected by the local labour laws

HRW says that many domestic workers who leave employers do so without pay after being subjected to abuse.

They are denied food or medical care, detained against their will and have few avenues to make complaints or obtain shelter.

Kuwait has the highest ratio of domestic workers to citizens in the Middle East.

More than 660,000 migrant domestic workers in Kuwait - mostly from Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Indonesia and Philippines.

HRW reveals that in 2009, domestic workers in Kuwait filed over 10,000 complaints about their treatment with their embassies.

The Kuwaiti government, however, was quoted in the report as saying that no widespread abuse is taking place.

Start Quote

She would beat me on the head. I always had severe headaches. She told me, 'I can kill you; I can beat you. No one cares about you.'”

End Quote Sanju Sri Lankan domestic worker in Kuwait

"Kuwaiti people treat domestic workers like members of the family," said Mohammed al-Kandari, undersecretary of social affairs and labour.

"There is no difference between them and any member of the family."

But the experience of thousands of domestic workers in the report tell a different story.

Tilkumari Pun, a worker from Nepal, worked for 13 months without getting paid. She repeatedly asked for the money to pay for her father's heart operation in Nepal.

After waiting for months, she approached the police for assistance, but they detained her for "absconding".

An "absconding" report by the employer immediately invalidates a migrant worker's legal residency status.

If reported as "absconding", women will have to spend additional time waiting for the authorities to clear them before returning home.

Nur, an Indonesian worker, is quoted as saying that her employer denied her permission to return home at the end of her contract and refused to return her passport after she ran away.

"I went to my embassy," she said. "They called Mama (the employer) from there. Mama refused to handover the passport. I had to be deported without it."

Labour laws
Sri Lankan domestic workers being trained before leaving for the Middle East (photo credit:Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai/Human Rights Watch) HRW has called on Kuwait to change sponsorship laws so that migrant workers are better protected

HRW has called on the Kuwaiti authorities to include migrant domestic workers into the country's labour laws so that they are better protected against abusive employers.

"Employers hold all the cards in Kuwait," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

"The government has left workers to depend on employers' good will - or to suffer when good will is absent."

The domestic workers say they find it virtually impossible to pursue their complaints.

"The government should remove these burdensome legal hurdles that employers impose even on abused women," says Ms Whitson.

She says the Kuwaiti government has been discussing reforming kafala, the sponsorship system that gives employers full control over workers including the length of their stay in the country.

"The time has come to implement measures that will protect workers' rights in practise - not just on paper," she added.

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