Posted: Mar. 13, 2003 Kuwait's troubled domestic relations Philippine house maids flee abusive employers
BY JULIAN E. BARNES AND KIT R. ROANE Julian E. Barnes, a U.S. News senior editor, is reporting from Camp Arifjan, the Army's logistical hub, where thousands of reservists and active-duty soldiers provide support for combat troops in the field. Kit R. Roane, a U.S. News senior editor and veteran foreign correspondent, is a roving correspondent from his base in Kuwait.
KUWAIT CITY, KUWAITHuddled in the basement of the Philippine Embassy here are 248 women desperate to leave this country on the eve of war. It is not the threat of Scud missiles or gas attacks that has driven these Filipinos to the safety of their embassy, rather a more mundane and everyday terror. The women have all fled the Kuwaiti homes where they worked as domestic servants. Some have not been paid. Others report being overworked, physically assaulted, or raped. So many of these women appear at the embassy every day that there is a special sign-in book at the front desk, bluntly labeled "Runaway House Maids."
In recent weeks, Americans and British officials have talked about a potential invasion of Iraq as a war of liberation. They promise to remake the country, replacing the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein with a democratic government. But 12 years after the United States liberated Kuwait, this country is much the same as it was before. Women cannot vote, the parliament wields little real power, and a debilitating culture of privilege and entitlement pervades Kuwaiti life.
(Kit R. Roane for USN&WR)
Nothing lays the inequities of life in Kuwait more plain that the treatment of the country's 1.2 million guest workers. It is something that visitors to the country notice right away, especially the American service members. Sgt. 1st Class Charlie Cox has visited Kuwaitis in their winter desert tents and has had long talks with residents while patrolling the border of Camp Arifjan in the southern desert. "The Kuwaitis are great," he said. "There is just one thing. They treat their help horribly."
Few groups of workers are more sought afterand treated worsethan Philippine housemaids. Bangladesh, India, and other countries refuse to allow their citizens to work as maids in Kuwait. So the jobs fall to the Filipinos. There are 60,000 Filipinos legally working in Kuwait, about 65 percent serving as domestic workers. But theirs is the hardest of lots, with more than 1000 Philippine maids running away every year, complaining of abuse.
Kuwaiti labor laws do not extend to domestic workers, and a 1996 parliamentary initiative to tighten controls and improve conditions went nowhere. That means a Philippine maid's only recourse is laws passed by the Philippines governing how its overseas workers should be treated. The laws give the Philippine government some leverage with Kuwaiti authorities because it could block workers from coming here. The Philippine diplomats say the Kuwaiti government has helped resolve some disputes and has pressured employers to pay at least partial back wages.
(Kit R. Roane for USN&WR)
Tina Lundy works for a Philippine placement agency for maids While her job is recruiting these workers, much of her time over the past nine years has been spent protecting them from abusive employers and making sure they are paid. "I am almost giving up; there are too many problems," says Lundy, who is Philippine.
Philippine maids are supposed to get a day off, but they end up working seven days a week because few employers allow their servants to leave the house unescorted. Many Kuwaitis lock their maids inside their homes and confiscate their passports. "It is very common," says Angelo Jimenez, the labor attaché at the Philippine Embassy. "Employers say they take it for safekeeping, but it is actually a way to impose control."
The standard contract stipulates that Philippine maids will be paid 60 Kuwaiti dinars, equivalent to $180, a month. But market rates have fallen, and the embassy says the maids can realistically expect only 45 dinars, about $135. Many of the women huddled in the embassy say their employers refused to pay them even that. When brought to task, Lundy says, these Kuwaiti employers insist they do not pay because the maids do not work. She usually responds by simply holding up the maid's hands, showing the hard calluses and chemical burns. "I said I do not believe she is not working," Lundy recently told one recalcitrant employer. "She is working too hard."
These cases rarely end up going to trial, and jail sentences are rare for employers who abuse their workers. "Foreign-born domestic employes have the right to sue their employers for abuse, but few do so fearing judicial bias and deportation," says a U.S. State Department report on Kuwaiti labor abuses. Instead, the Philippine diplomats work with the Kuwaiti government to obtain a portion of payment for the lost wages before the maid is deported. In Kuwait, it is the abused maids who must fear the legal system.
The police blotter provided to Kuwaiti newspapers by the government contains a daily roundup of maids being charged with "attempted suicide." But embassy officials say when overworked maids injure themselves while jumping from windows, they are trying to escape, not kill themselves. The newspapers sometimes note these diametrically opposed views with little irony, saying flatly that a maid was charged with attempted suicide after a "vain attempt to 'run away.'"
The message is clear to domestic workers like Cancel May, 24, who recently escaped from her employer, saying she was repeatedly beaten and sexually molested by two members of her employer's family. She ran away to the Philippine Embassy after being ordered out on an errand. She says she knew her only hope was to find the embassy. "If I had had to jump to get away, I...would have," she says. "No one was going to help me, and I was hit too much to stay."
Maids are not the only ones who need to fear the Kuwaiti legal system. Critics contend that the difficulty Kuwaitis have with accepting responsibility for the bad actions of their compatriots has been exemplified by the ongoing trial of several other Philippine workers here in a case of murder. In October 2001, an assailant shot Mary Jean Bitos, a Filipino, and her husband, a Canadian named Luc Ethier. Ethier was killed, and Bitos grievously wounded. Kuwaiti police initially arrested a suspected Kuwaiti terrorist whom Bitos had identified. But prosecutors dropped the charges because, according to critics of the government, they were reluctant to acknowledge the terrorist link. It was much easier-and less messy-to lay the blame on the Filipinos, critics of the government say. So a Philippine man was charged with the murder, and four other Filipinos, including Bitos, were charged as accomplices.
After allegedly being tortured in jail, the five confessed and were convicted in a lower court. An appellate court overturned the ruling. But such cases die hard. The Kuwaiti Cassation Court is expected to deliver a final verdict April 1. Benoit Rivard, Ethier's friend, has been helping with the Filipinos' defense for the past year. "They are considered cheap labor. They don't have any money and are easy to pick on," Rivard says of Kuwaiti attitudes to Filipinos. "They are referred to as a rubbish people."
For now, Bitos and the other accused Filipinos are living in the Philippine Embassy along with the escaped housemaids. Embassy officials are hopeful that the five will be able to return home soon. But the problem of the domestic servants seems likely to remain. Economic desperation in poor regions of the Philippines drives women to come to Kuwait, says Jimenez. Across his desk he spreads out overhead slides detailing complaints of abuse, rape, and withheld wages. "We do have a lot of problems," he sighs. "This is one of the most challenging posts for a labor attaché." Jimenez said the Philippine government has thought about forbidding citizens from taking maid jobs, but if a ban were imposed, the work would go underground and the government would have a harder time protecting its people. So it is better to make the work legal and fight for women who have been abused.
Noria Angeles, the 21-year-old daughter of unemployed farmers from an impoverished province of the Philippines, worked for two years cleaning house and taking care of her employer's four children but never got paid. A few months ago, at the urging of a friend, Angeles says she insisted on seeing her money. Her employer refused to show her a bank statement or give her a check. Angeles says she was locked in the house and able to flee only when her employer inadvertently left the key in the lock. "I heard Kuwait was a beautiful country and Arabs were a beautiful people," she says, now safely ensconced in the Philippine Embassy. "But now I realize they are not."