In February 2018, a house maid from the Philippines was found dead in a freezer in Kuwait. This horrific case highlights once again the terrible conditions of life facing some of the thousands of domestic migrants workers in the Gulf.
Joanna Demafelis, 29, had been sent to Kuwait in 2014, after she was hired as a maid by a married Syrian-Lebanese couple, Mona Hassoun and Nader Essam Assaf, who had moved to Kuwait. She had not been in contact with her family since 2016. Marks on her body when she was found suggested she was tortured or strangled to death. According to the police, her body probably remained in the freezer for over a year. The couple Demafelis worked for has since been sentenced to death under Kuwaiti law. Seven deaths of Filipino workers were investigated at the same time in the Arab nations this year. This particular case set off a diplomatic crisis between Kuwait and the Philippines, the latter of which sends off around 2 million people to work overseas every year, with a majority of the female migrants destined to work in people’s homes.
In the Gulf countries, domestic migrant workers work under the Kafala system, a sponsorship scheme (“kafala” is Arabic for sponsorship) tying an employee and her or his employer until the end of the contract. The system gives sponsors a set of legal abilities to control the workers: without their employer’s permission, employees cannot change jobs, quit their current job, or leave the country. If a worker leaves a job without authorization, their employer has the power to cancel his or her residence visa, which automatically turns the employee into an illegal resident in the country. Workers whose residency visas get cancelled by their employers often are made to leave the country through deportation proceedings, and in many cases, have to spend time in prison.
Migrant workers in the Gulf account for 10% of all migrants in the world. Over 620.000 migrant domestic workers are in Kuwait, where 90% of households employ a house worker from overseas. Domestic workers account for 10.2% of the Bahraini work force. In Oman, in 2013, the majority of migrant workers came from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (87%). The workers have very little control over their situation, and also work very long hours: in Saudi Arabia domestic workers work an average of 63.7 hours a week, the second highest rate in the world. And that is only an average in the country – experts estimate that some maids might work up to 100 hours per week. More than 750.000 domestic workers work in the UAE, and in Qatar domestic workers earn less than 30% of the average workers wage.
“The Kafala system is design to encourage abuses”, Rothna Begum, senior researcher focusing on women’s rights in northern Africa and the Middle East at the international organization Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Fanack. “Originally, it was a guest system that put responsibility on a sponsor in case of criminality or accidents, but in the 1980-90s, the rules changed to give full authority to the sponsors, therefore becoming abusive. Now governments and people are used to rely entirely on migrant workers. There is a whole generation who was raised by these women. Some became so used to be taken care of that they don’t really see the point of a correct salary, working hours and a day off, while others are so grateful of the attention they got that they became generous and want them to have more rights.”
Begum described Joanna Demafelis’ case as “absolutely horrific, but not that rare in Middle East”. HRW has documented thousands of abuses by talking to a large variety of these domestic migrant workers in the Gulf and the rest of the region, whether in malls or after they escaped their employer.
“Some described good conditions of work, others were trapped in terribly abusive situations. Some work up to 21 hours a day without a day off, have their passport taken away: that’s very common actually, about 90% of the women we talked to. Some are confined in the house, barely fed, their salaries are delayed, underpaid or not paid at all, sometimes for years. Some are verbally abused, insulted, humiliated, others are physically abused, from being slapped to being burnt by hot water or beaten by a stick. And for the rest, they described being sexually harassed, groped, pursued, raped and/or threatened if they didn’t comply. In many cases, it’s a combination of these abuses. And the reason of that is the impunity felt by the employer, who is protected by the Kafala system.”
Some small legal steps have been taken by some of the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC):Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, excluding Oman (which is also a GCC member). These countries have agreed on standard legislation to protect domestic migrant workers, but the rights this legislation gives them is still weaker than the countries’ current labor laws. For example, Bahrain, unlike the others who made special laws focusing on migrant workers, included them in the Bahraini labor law, while excluding them from several specific articles. Each country also adopted different levels of protection, which means that domestic migrant workers are always at a legal disadvantage.
Qatar is the first Gulf country to make real changes: on September 4, the country passed a law that will allow the majority of migrant workers to leave Qatar without permission from their employers. It is perceived by campaigners and human rights organizations as a landmark in the battle against labor abuses in the build-up to the next World Cup, which Qatar will host in 2022. There are currently 1.9 million migrant workers in Qatar. This new law, law No. 13 of 2018, amends Law No 15 of 2015 and under this new legislation, employers will no longer have the power to deny exit permits to most of their workers. The downside of this reform is that employers may request that certain named employees, up to 5%, obtain their permission before exit. Their request must be approved by the Ministry of Administrative Development and Social Affairs. It also applies only to migrant workers covered under the labor law, and not those governed by a separate law. According to HRW, Qatar had been under pressure for labor reform from international labor and human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch to address abusive conditions for migrant workers building stadiums and associated infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup. In response, in October 2017, Qatar agreed with the International Labor Organization (ILO) to a technical cooperation agreement (2018-2020) to work on reforms.
“You also have to remember that [migrant workers like the Filippino maid] undergo a triple form of exploitation: they are domestic, women, and colored”, Begum told Fanack chronicle. “They also live the most intimate types of abuses because they live in people’s houses: sometimes it’s a male guest who harasses them. They are more likely to be sexualized, slapped, shouted at, etc.”
There are still some optimistic thoughts to hang on to while hoping these women get the legal, working and personal respect they deserve, Begum said: “They start to gain rights even if it’s weak, and ten years ago people would call them servants and think it’s inconceivable to respect them”. Now, governments are starting to include legal articles regarding their rights. But the most important challenge lies with the reform the Kafala system. Once the system is clear on the rights of migrant workers, mentalities should follow.