The Gulf's employment crisis (3)

For sale of return: A recruitment agent stands with a group of Ethiopian domestic workers as they wait for potential clients at an agency office in the Hawalli district of Kuwait. Women who leave employers and return to recruitment agencies – either as a result of their employer’s decision or their request – are called “returns”. Photograph: Human Rights Watch

This is the third in a series of blog posts exploring employment problems in the Arab Gulf states.

Part one: How it began

Part two: The iniquities of kafala

Part three: Female domestic workers

Part four: Working outside the rules

Part five: Jobs for citizens?

Part six: Jobs, politics and ethnocracy



WOMEN who join the expatriate workforce of the Arab Gulf states are employed – like men – under the iniquitous and much-criticised kafala (sponsorship) system. But unlike most of the men, women face additional problems because of their gender and the nature of their work.

Exactly how many foreign women work in the Gulf states is far from clear, though the small amount of available data suggests a total of at least 1.5 million, with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE as the largest employers.

Many of these women work in teaching, health and social care and, rather oddly, in the tiny kingdom of Bahrain they account for almost 90% of foreigners employed in the financial sector. Across the region, though, the overwhelming majority are in domestic service – which excludes them from even the minimal protection afforded by Gulf employment laws.

In Kuwait, employing domestic workers is the norm. Some households employ several and, on average, there is one domestic worker for every two Kuwaiti citizens.

A whole generation of Kuwaitis has been reared and fed by foreign housemaids. Families can become very attached to them and, if they leave, the children may be in tears. The effect – for Kuwaiti women if not their employees – has often been liberatory, relieving them of household chores and allowing them to work, study or lead an active life outside the home.

Domestic workers, on the other hand, may have no independent life of their own – tied to the house and family, working long hours (as many as 100 hours a week in some cases) and without the days off prescribed in their contract. 

A report by the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) describes their situation as “somewhere between the western concepts of slavery and adoption”.

ALTHOUGH plenty of families and their domestic workers get along well together there are many others who do not. In 2009, embassies of countries that provide foreign labour for Kuwait received more than 10,000 complaints from domestic workers, according to Human Rights Watch. These included complaints about non-payment of wages, excessively long working hours without rest, and physical, sexual, and psychological abuse.

Many more abuses probably go unreported, HRW suggests, because. domestic workers have few avenues for redress. Even if existing labour laws were extended to include them there would still be problems enforcing them because, as another report points out, “monitoring of workers’ rights is inhibited by the fact that labour inspectors, for social and legal reasons, cannot enter private homes to investigate the treatment of workers and allegations of abuse”.

But what might seem like obvious cases of abuse do not necessarily appear that way to Kuwaiti employers. Recruiting someone from thousands of miles away – an almost complete stranger – to live in your home and look after it, to prepare your food and care for your children is a nerve-wracking business, and no less nerve-wracking for the person who is about to join an unfamiliar family in an unfamiliar country.

The risks, on both sides, are considerable. Success hinges on developing personal relationships and mutual trust – far more than it does when hiring someone, say, to mix cement on a construction site. In other words, even with the best intentions, there’s an awful lot that can go wrong.

Given all these difficulties, we might ask why Kuwaitis still do it – and the short answer, as the IHRC notes, is that most of them think “domestic workers are a necessity of life”.

A common fear among Kuwaiti employers is of domestic workers running away – which, as they are eager to point out, is not always the employer’s fault. Some are ill-prepared for their new life or become homesick. In a few cases, the women may be totally unsuitable – for example, if they have got into trouble in their home country and their family relieve themselves of the burden by sending them abroad.

Choosing a domestic worker in Kuwait is a bit like shopping from a catalogue. Typically, Kuwaitis go to an agency where they can browse through plastic folders containing details of prospective employees. They may also get a change to speak to them on the phone or via Skype before making a final decision.

By the time a worker arrives in Kuwait her employer will probably have spent $2,000 or more on recruitment fees, the air fare and other charges. Some feel justified in recouping this (illegally) from the worker’s wages and some withhold wages in the hope this will discourage her from leaving (which can actually the opposite effect).

The worker herself may also arrive heavily in debt, having paid excessive fees to a recruitment agency in her home country. Human Rights Watch says:

“In order to pay these fees, migrants typically have few options but to borrow money at exorbitant interest rates from local moneylenders or to receive a ‘loan’ from the employment agency which they must repay by turning over the first six to 10 months of their salary once employed. 

“This debt burden makes it difficult for migrant women to report workplace abuse for fear of losing their jobs and the resulting inability to pay off their debts.”

In an effort to deal with the problem of mis-matched employers and domestic workers, the Kuwaiti government established a probationary period where, during the first few months, workers can be returned to the recruitment agency for a refund or a replacement.

That led to a new problem in the form of a secondary market where “returns” (as these rejected workers are known) can be hired for periods ranging from a few days to two years without a proper contract and with even less protection than before. In effect, they are being bought and sold.

In Kuwait and other Arab countries where large numbers of domestic workers are employed, unnatural deaths are a regular occurrence – most often caused by falls from windows and balconies. These are usually reported as suicides though some may be accidents where a worker has been fleeing her employer or, having been forcibly confined to the home, is merely trying to spend some time outside.

FEMALE domestic workers tend to be regarded as generally asexual but potentially hypersexual. They are assumed not to require a normal sex life though they may also be viewed as a source of temptation for husbands and teenage sons. Fear of what they might get up to sexually if given free rein is one reason why so many employers are reluctant to let them take time off.

Pregnancy brings a host of new problems. Human Rights Watch found a one-month-old baby living in the Philippines embassy with his mother who had taken refuge there. “Domestic workers who have children in Kuwait face particular difficulties obtaining the legal clearances necessary for these children to leave the country and travel to their mothers’ home country – a process that can take years,” it said. The report continued:

“Human Rights Watch interviewed 22 workers who said employers or agents had physically abused them, and seven who shared accounts of sexual abuse. The ambassador of one labour-sending country told Human Rights Watch that his embassy received approximately 950 rape and sexual harassment claims in 2009, while another ambassador said that his staff received complaints of sexual violence or harassment on a daily basis.

“These numbers may not reflect the full extent of violations, as women have numerous reasons to underreport sexual violence in Kuwait. They may fear prosecution under Kuwait’s adultery laws, lack evidence to support their claim, or seek to avoid any negative social stigma that might follow them back home. Other barriers include fear of retaliation from perpetrators and lack of faith in the ability of the Kuwaiti legal system to provide redress.”

The IHRC report adds:

“Because in Kuwait it is illegal to have a baby out of wedlock, even in instances of rape, the pregnant domestic worker may be sent to prison. 

“When the woman brings a lawsuit against the alleged perpetrator, she is not allowed to leave the country for the duration of the trial. Therefore, some babies are born in prison.”

Further reading:

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 19 February 2014