The GCC Context
For the past decade, the Arab Gulf Region has been pervaded by a plague of human rights violations that has left hundreds of thousands of individuals in dire situations. While the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are bathing in a wealth of oil and gas resources that has sustained the lavish existence of its various monarchies, the rest of the populations are left to navigate a system of abuse and negligence that has stunted the growth and establishment of a more equal and democratic society. One of the human rights concerns that
is particularly striking in this region, is the mistreatment of migrant workers, particularly domestic workers in Kuwait. The GCC countries, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, are believed to possess the largest quantity of migrant workers in the MENA region, an estimated number of 23 million according to an Amnesty International report in 2020.
In Kuwait, 620,000 domestic migrant workers were working in 90 percent of Kuwaiti households in 2018, and this number continues to grow. Due to the high volume of domestic workers working within the state, primarily women from Asia and Africa like Indonesia, Ethiopia, and the Philippines, it would be expected that appropriate legislation relating to the protection of these workers’ rights and freedoms would be established by law. Unfortunately, this is not the case. While the Kuwaiti government has taken steps to include domestic workers in general labour laws and policies relating to migrant workers, there are still many gaping holes in the current legal protections of migrants working in this field. New measures under Law no.68 were passed in 2015 in an effort to expand the migrant worker policies to domestic workers, providing them with a minimum wage and a mandated one day off work per week. However, the provisions of the general labour law far exceed the benefits and protections of the domestic labour legislation, leaving domestic workers still disadvantaged by international standards. The biggest concern in relation to the implementations introduced by the government, is the lack of clear guidelines in relation to enforcement mechanisms. The law prohibits employers from confiscating documentation of their workers like their passports, yet there is no indication of the ways in which the government intends to monitor or investigate these measures. Furthermore, due to the fact that domestic workers are functioning within private households, labour inspections are less likely to occur and the government has not sought to address this issue.
What makes matters worse, the prominent ‘kafala’ system within the Arab Gulf countries has led to harsh punishments and impossible circumstances for many women subjected to domestic work and who may attempt to flee their abusive situations. The kafala system is a visa sponsorship programme that has facilitated the import and illegal employment of many migrants in the areas of construction and domestic work in particular. Through recruitment agencies both domestic and abroad, many individuals sign contracts for various occupations within the GCC countries and migrate there with the intention of building a new life. However for many, once they arrive, the situation is very different to what they had been led to believe. Many are immediately put into jobs that do not align with their contracts, their wages are lowered or withheld and they are put into debt. Employers have also often confiscated migrant workers’ passports and mobile phones, rendering them completely vulnerable to the regulations and demands set forth by their employers. For many domestic workers, this means that they may be forced to work longer hours than is legal as they are living and working within the household of their employer, and in many cases, are prohibited from even leaving the premises without the consent of their employer.
The difficulties do not stop there. If a domestic worker attempts to leave their current employment without the explicit consent of their employer, they are vulnerable to a variety of unsavoury consequences. The first is the declaration of abscondment, a crime punishable by imprisonment, as well as the new status of illegal immigrant, which is also subject to imprisonment or deportation. For those who find themselves evading these legal implications, the prospect of human trafficking is very high. Without money, shelter or a mobile phone, many domestic workers are unable to navigate their surroundings due to language barriers and a lack of fundamental resources. As a result, many women are trafficked back into the domestic work system, or are forced into sex slavery.
The Urgent Concerns
Despite these bleak options, those who escape their domestic work positions are often the lucky ones. Those that are trapped within their occupation, face very dark and dangerous conditions. While the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated and increased the level of domestic abuse within households amongst partners and family members, many domestic workers have borne the brunt of this violence. Unable to escape, many women have been subjected to physical, sexual and psychological abuse, as well as deprivation of food and sleep due to extensive working hours that have been reported to reach up to 21 hours a day without a day of rest. This, coupled with the reality of delayed or withheld wages, depicts a severe situation of modern day slavery for domestic migrant workers within Kuwait, and other GCC countries.
What is most concerning for human rights organisations and international bodies right now, is the growing number of cases of extreme mistreatment and death of female domestic workers, particularly those coming from the countries listed at the beginning of this post, as a result of physical and sexual abuse. Countless cases have been reported by civil society organisations which describel the gruesome details of abuse and torture perpetrated by Kuwaiti employers against their domestic workers. In 2018, ADHRB referred to a case of an Ethiopian woman working in a Kuwaiti household as a domestic worker, who fell from the seventh floor of a building to escape her employer. That year, ADHRB also reported the case of a Malagasy migrant known as Vanessa, who had been exposed to three years of abuse at the hands of her employer, and managed to escape and report these crimes to the police. Through the attainment of legal representation, Vanessa was able to prosecute her employer, however this is not the case for many female migrant workers who never see justice served or the validation of their suffering by the State.
The international response to these human rights violations has varied in strength. Many countries in Asia and Africa have endeavoured to invoke restrictions and prohibitions on the migration to the GCC countries for employment, namely Ghana, Zimbabwe, and at one point in time, the Philippines. In another vein, Amanda Milani, an ADHRB associate, presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council at their 32nd session, and addressed the issues outlined in this post. In her speech, she drew particular attention to the vilification and criminalisation of female victims of rape in countries like Saudi Arabia, making the opportunity for domestic workers to escape and seek reparations for their sexual abuse, virtually impossible. It is clear that the practices of employers in Kuwait and the GCC countries pose a substantial threat to the human rights of women and migrant workers. To demonstrate the extent to which the abuse and distaste for migrants goes in these countries, ECDHR would like to provide a case study of the reality of Filipino domestic workers in Kuwait.
Kuwait & Filipino Domestic Workers
Although Kuwait ranks second place as the most common country to work in for Filipino domestic workers, it is notorious for violating the rights of migrants and frequently subjects them to verbal, physical and sexual abuse. There have been many past violations and abuses that Filipino domestic migrant workers have encountered in Kuwait, such as the death of Joanna Demafelis in early 2018, whose body was found in the freezer of her employers. Based on forensic evidence, Ms. Demafelis appeared to have been tortured and strangled to death. In 2019, a similar freezer death case occurred again, in which the body of the Filipina domestic worker Constancia Layo Dayag was found in a freezer “with a cucumber stuffed in her genitals”. Another death case in 2019 was Jeanelyn Padernal Villavende, who died due to injuries inflicted by her employer. The deaths of these Filipina domestic workers have led the Philippine government under the former President of the Philippines, Mr. Duterte Rodrigo, to impose temporary deployment bans in Kuwait and only lifted the bans once the perpetrators were convicted.
The deaths of these domestic migrant workers and the working bans that the Philippine government has imposed, have strained the diplomatic ties between the Philippines and Kuwait. The tension between the two countries eased after both parties signed a Memorandum of Agreement on the Employment of Domestic Workers in March 2018 that aims “to regulate the working conditions of domestic migrant workers in Kuwait guaranteeing rights of domestic workers to address allegations of abusive working conditions”. More specifically, according to the Memorandum, Filipino domestic workers should “be given proper food, be allowed to use cellular phones and for their passports to be deposited at the Philippine embassy for safekeeping instead of being kept by their employers”.
However, despite the bilateral labour agreement between the Philippine and Kuwaiti governments, abuses against Filipino domestic workers, either by their employers or the employment agency abroad, continue to this day. More recently, namely on the 20th of June 2022, five Filipino domestic workers in Kuwait reported abuse by their employment agency abroad and have called for help. According to the domestic workers, the employment agency has locked them up in a small room, taken away their cell phones and subjected them to physical and verbal abuse. Given these continuous abuses, there have been calls to review the labour agreement as its main objective, which is to provide adequate legal safeguarding for Filipino domestic migrant workers, but it has currently not been met successfully.
Filipino domestic migrant workers are only one of the main nationalities of migrant workers in Kuwait, who are and have been subjected to abuse by their employers. To protect them and the rest of the migrant workers in Kuwait, ECDHR urges the Kuwaiti government to sign and ratify the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. ECDHR also encourages Kuwait to abolish any remnants of the kafala system in its laws, and to introduce legislation and policies that would prohibit its illegal use within the state, primarily through more expansive and coordinated inspection and monitoring of companies and industries that employ majority migrant workers. Further to this, a reassessment of the criminalisation of abscondment, in conjunction with the legal protections of vulnerable parties like women, should be conducted with the intention of improving the circumstances of migrant workers functioning within the state. Finally, while acknowledging the efforts by the government to introduce legislation that would better the conditions in which domestic workers are employed, it is ECDHR’s belief that revisions and reforms should be made to Law no. 68 that was brought in in 2015, so as to ameliorate any issues or gaps that currently exist to disadvantage and further endanger the lives of domestic workers in Kuwait.