“Day and night I had to be ready,” said 24-year-old Charisse, a Filipina maid who worked in a Kuwaiti household for a year and a half. “At night, I could only sleep for an hour or two. The husband was nice, but his wife and three children beat me and I was not allowed any contact with my family.”
Her friend Malaya, 29, also worked in a Kuwaiti household until very recently.
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“I was given food once a day, and only leftovers, like a dog. Very unsanitary,” Malaya said. “At one point I asked the lady of the house if she’d rather have a robot. She responded by spitting on me and hitting me with a broom.”
These two women, whose names have been changed to protect their privacy, have spent the last few days in a new government-run shelter for “runaway maids” in a Kuwaiti suburb. The house, which has been in use for months, is set to formally open later this year. Another such shelter which opened in 2007, had room for only 50 women; the new one has 500 beds and currently houses around 150 women.
Around two million domestic workers are employed in the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The majority come from the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Ethiopia to cook, clean households and care for children.
Charisse and Malaya thought they could earn decent wages in Kuwait. The Filipino agency that brokered their employment promised a salary of $400 per month, which was far more than what Charisse earned from her job as a computer teacher back home. Malaya, who sold food on the street, earned even less.
To their disappointment, they earned about $100 less than expected and some months received no pay at all. In addition, they each had to pay $1,400 to an employment agency for their airfare and training.
These shelters are essentially detention centres, as workers are not permitted to leave until their inevitable deportation.
“It was not enough to save,” Charisse said. “I have many expenses at home with my three children and because my mum spent time in hospital.”
Kuwait is home to more than 660,000 domestic workers, according to a 2010 Human Rights Watch report. Only a third of Kuwait’s population of 3.5 million are Kuwaiti nationals, and up to 90 percent of all Kuwaiti households employ a worker.
Every year, thousands of them come into conflict with their employers, according to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour. A shelter for male migrant workers is also being built in Kuwait with space for 300 people, according to Hadi al-Enezi, deputy director of labour relations at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia also run shelters for domestic workers.
But some activists are critical of these shelters, citing human rights concerns.
“These shelters are essentially detention centres, as workers are not permitted to leave until their inevitable deportation,” Rima Kalush, programme coordinator at the Middle Eastern Migrant Rights research centre, told Al Jazeera.
Shelter beds are also offered in the embassies of the countries domestic workers typically come from, but they are largely overcrowded. According to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour, 900 to 1,000 women are currently housed in various embassies across Kuwait. They often wait for weeks or months before their employers return their passports and allow them to leave the country.
But the embassy buildings are not designed for this purpose and are usually understaffed. At the request of the embassies, the Kuwaiti government paid for this new and larger shelter, which requires contributions from the women’s employers at KD 15 (about $50) per day for each runaway maid.
When Malaya arrived at the Filipino embassy after escaping, she learned her boss was on a government blacklist of people who have mistreated domestic workers in the past. It was not long before Malaya’s boss turned up on the embassy’s doorstep, trying to get her back.
“I was trembling with fear,” Malaya said. “The embassy warned me not to go back, because maids are sometimes brought back later in a body bag, murdered.”
According to Enezi, the Kuwaiti government “is aware of the importance of domestic workers in particular” and hopes “to find legislation and legal action to alleviate the suffering of that group”.
One of the tasks of the Public Authority for Manpower, established by the government in 2013, is to protect the rights of foreign workers and provide services such as shelters, Enezi said. If companies or employees break the law, their files are sent to a public prosecutor to ensure everything possible is done to stop human trafficking.
“The Kuwaiti criminal code guarantees their rights,” Enezi said, referring to maids who have been abused or mistreated.
Like most runaway housemaids, Charisse and Malaya have not taken any legal action against their employers. This is partly because few know what their rights are, said lawyer Talal Taqi, managing director at the al-Dostour law firm.
“The government can’t educate every worker on their rights. That’s the responsibly of the workers’ embassy in Kuwait,” he told Al Jazeera. Long court trials and the high cost of lawyers are other prohibitive factors. “Not all embassies in Kuwait provide them with a good lawyer.”
The government can't educate every worker on their rights. That's the responsibly of the workers' embassy in Kuwait.
The six GCC countries are considering adopting a standard contract for domestic employment and will meet for talks in Kuwait later this month. The contract would include provisions for a weekly rest day, paid annual leave and sick leave, and it would give workers the right to keep their own passports instead of having their employers hold them.
“I believe the GCC genuinely wants to solve the issue, and will reach an agreement on this contract and take measures to implement it,” Enezi said.
The GCC countries currently manage their temporary migrant workforce through the kafala system, under which a local citizen or company has to pay to sponsor the foreign worker. This means workers are tied to their employers and can only switch jobs with their permission.
Some employers confiscate workers’ passports to safeguard their investment and prevent workers from leaving the country, although this is against the law.
According to Enezi, the existing labour law does not need to be revised as it was created by experts from the International Labour Organisation, and therefore meets international requirements.
The law does state that a resolution will be enacted to regulate relationships between domestic workers and their employers, but this has not yet happened.