Abuse of maids rising in Kuwait

2010-10-06 21:04

Kuwait City - Abuse of domestic workers in Kuwait is rising, and maids in the Gulf emirate face prosecution when they try to escape, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.

The New York-based rights group said migrant domestic workers have minimal protection from employers who withhold salaries, force them to work long hours with no days off, deprive them of adequate food or abuse them physically or sexually.

"The number of abuses has been rising," Priyanka Motaparthy, HRW research fellow in Middle East and North Africa, told a press conference announcing a report, which details specific cases.

"In 2009, domestic workers from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Philippines and Ethiopia filed over 10 000 complaints of abuse with their embassies," she said.

The HRW data does not include Indian maids, who represent almost half of the 660 000 domestic workers in the oil-rich emirate. Domestic workers, almost entirely Asian, form one-third of the 1.81 million foreign employees in Kuwait.

The 97-page report, Walls at Every Turn: Exploitation of Migrant Domestic Workers Through Kuwait's Sponsorship System, describes how workers become trapped in exploitative or abusive employment.

"Employers hold all the cards in Kuwait," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW.

Not covered by law

The report was based on interviews of dozens of runaway maids at either their embassies or a small government-run shelter.

Domestic workers in Kuwait are not covered by any law to limit working hours or a rest day or even basic rights, the report said.

"They are forced to work for unlimited hours, 10, 12 or 18 hours with no breaks, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year," Motaparthy said.

Manik J, a Sri Lankan, said she had worked for more than 18 hours a day for 10 months, but did not receive her salary for most of the period although she worked for two families.

She was at the government shelter.

Twenty-one domestic workers interviewed by HRW said they had worked 18 hours or more per day on repeated occasions.

A 2004 International Labour Organisation study found that maids in Kuwait worked for 101 hours weekly, HRW said.


The main abuses include physical and sexual abuse, non-payment or delay in payment of salary, long working hours, no weekly rest day and others, the report said.

HRW said it interviewed 22 maids who said their employers or agents had physically abused them, and seven spoke of sexual abuse.

An ambassador in Kuwait for a labour-exporting country told HRW that, during 2009, the embassy received 950 rape and sexual harassment claims.

Mary P, a Filipino, told HRW her employer beat and insulted her every day, using degrading language.

"Sometimes my sir would spit in my face. My employer always called me dog, donkey... There was no day the employer didn't say these bad words... I have accepted this because I am the breadwinner of my family," she said.

Motaparthy said that based on HRW data, "each week, at least two domestic workers fall from high places," in apparent attempts to commit suicide to escape abuse.

The report placed the blame squarely on the so-called sponsorship system, which bonds labourers to their employers and put them under their mercy. It called for the Kuwaiti government to abolish the system.

The Kuwaiti government said it plans to abolish the system in February.