Moises Saman for The New York Times
Domestic workers living in a makeshift shelter at the Philippines Embassy in Kuwait City.
By KAREEM FAHIM
Published: August 1, 2010
KUWAIT — With nowhere else to go, dozens of Nepalese maids who fled from their employers now sleep on the floor in the lobby of their embassy here, next to the visitors’ chairs.
In the Philippines Embassy, more than 200 women are packed in a sweltering room, where they sleep on their luggage and pass the time singing along to Filipino crooners on television. So many runaways are sheltering in the Indonesian Embassy that some have left a packed basement and taken over a prayer room.
And in the coming weeks, when Ramadan starts, the number of maids seeking protection is expected to grow, perhaps by the hundreds, straining the capacity of the improvised shelters, embassy officials say. With Kuwaiti families staying up into the early hours of the morning, some maids say they cook more, work longer hours and sleep less.
Rosflor Armada, who is staying in the Philippines Embassy, said that last year during Ramadan, she cooked all day for the evening meal and was allowed to sleep only about two hours a night.
“They said, ‘You will work. You will work.’ ” She said that she left after her employers demanded that she wash the windows at 3 a.m.
The existence of the shelters reflects a hard reality here: With few legal protections against employers who choose not to pay servants, who push them too hard, or who abuse them, sometimes there is nothing left to do but run. The laws that do exist tend to err on the side of protecting employers, who often pay more than $2,000 upfront to hire the maids from the agencies that bring the women here.
The problems in Kuwait, including a lack of legal protection, are hardly unusual or even regional; this summer, New York became the first state to grant workplace rights to domestic employees in an effort to prevent sexual harassment and other abuses. But human rights groups say the potential for mistreatment is acute in several countries in the Middle East, especially those with large numbers of migrant workers who rely on a sponsorship system that makes employers responsible for the welfare of their workers.
That system is particularly entrenched in Kuwait, where oil riches allow many families to have several servants, human rights advocates say. And conditions for some workers here are bad enough that the United States Department of State in a 2010 report singled out Kuwait, along with 12 other countries, for failing to do enough to prevent human trafficking.
The report noted that migrants enter Kuwait voluntarily, but “upon arrival some are subjected to conditions of forced labor by their sponsors and labor agents, including through such practices as nonpayment of wages, threats, physical or sexual abuse, and restrictions on movement, such as the withholding of passports.”
The informal shelters here are open secrets and touchy subjects.
Embassy officials are loath to talk about them and generally do not allow visitors, citing concerns about the privacy of the women and a reluctance to antagonize Kuwaiti officials, whose cooperation they need in order to repatriate many of the women. The government runs a shelter for about 50 women, but few domestic workers know about the place, according to their advocates.
Kuwaiti officials say that an overwhelming majority of the country’s approximately 650,000 domestic workers are treated well and are considered part of the families that employ them. Some bristle at the notion that Ramadan is more taxing.
Mohammed al-Kandari, under secretary in the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, said many maids received extra money from their employers during Ramadan.
“They get benefits. Their expenses and food is paid for, and they don’t spend anything,” he said. “They send their salaries to their families. Some work here for 15, 20, 25 years.”
But even many of those who are not abused can lead lonely, Spartan lives with little time off. Some employers forbid the women to socialize with friends, and the women themselves are often loath to spend much money in their free time so they can save cash for the families they left behind in their home countries.
The perils faced by many domestic workers were brought into sharp focus in recent weeks, when the local news media reported that a Sri Lankan maid who fled to her embassy said she had been imprisoned by her Kuwaiti employers, without pay, for 13 years. The Sri Lankan ambassador, Sarath Dissanayake, refused a request to interview the woman and said hers was an isolated case.
Also last month, the news media reported that a Filipino maid was allegedly tortured and killed by her employers, who the media said ran over her body with a car in the desert in order to make her death look like an accident.
Human rights advocates say the problem of abuse persists because it is rarely punished. Domestic workers are told to report offenses to the police, but the advocates say some employers quickly file countercharges, accusing the maids of such offenses as stealing.
Lawmakers have been discussing new provisions to protect the workers, including a law that would require employers to deposit salaries directly in bank accounts, but they have yet to act.
Talk of building a large shelter has circulated for years.
For now, the women rely on their embassies for shelter, along with some Kuwaitis and expatriates who risk prosecution to house them.
In 2009, embassies in Kuwait received more than 10,000 complaints from domestic workers about unpaid wages, long working hours and physical, sexual and psychological abuse, according to Priyanka Motaparthy of Human Rights Watch, who wrote an as yet unpublished report on the conditions of domestic workers in Kuwait.
Workers who flee harsh work conditions face the risk they will be charged with immigration violations and imprisoned, or face prolonged detention or deportation, Ms. Motaparthy said.
Alida Ali, a 22-year-old from the Philippines, described a different kind of punishment. She begged her agency to move her from an abusive family, and when her employers found out, she said, they threw her out of a third-floor window, breaking her back.
Ms. Ali recently had a metal rod removed from her spine. She has been in the shelter in the Philippines Embassy — which considers her story credible — for 10 months while lawyers pursued a case against the employers. She lost the case, and now she just wants to go home.
Bibi Nasser al-Sabah, who runs an organization that advocates for domestic workers, said it would take more than awareness campaigns to change the behavior of employers and agencies.
“This does not work,” said Ms. al-Sabah, who is a granddaughter of Kuwait’s emir. “People will not change. It has to be imposed, through proper laws and strict rules — by actions taken by the government.”