A year ago, three Filipina women arrived in Kuwait to work in a house in the Qurtuba area. Their employer, a Kuwaiti matriarch, immediately took away their passports. She woke them up each morning with insults – berating them for rising late or not wearing their uniforms. She became infuriated when the workers neglected the several cars her family owns - she expected them to wash the vehicles daily, even on winter mornings, even though their uniforms did not include jackets. Day after day, the women hoped her mood would improve and that the daily abuse would subside.
But the verbal assaults did not yield, and soon their painful tolerance was mistaken for passivity. The “madam” decided to take the abuse further and began to physically assault the women. She beat them, telling them they deserved it for shirking their “daily responsibilities.” “
She did not seem bothered to abuse us verbally and physically everyday,” one of the workers said. As the assaults became regular, the women realized they needed to escape.
Perhaps aware of her abusive character, the madam understood the workers would attempt to leave her. She and the rest of her family closely monitored the workers, no longer permitting them to leave the house, not even to wash the cars. Later, she prohibited them from calling their families back home.
The women decided to talk to their employer. They asked her to send them back to the Philippines because “they no longer wish to work here.” She ridiculed and refused their request, forced them to return to work, and threatened to withhold their salaries if they ever brought up the subject again.
“We were only hoping to leave that house safely, the money was not even a concern for us at the time.”
The women did not relent their demands to return, though the madam repeatedly threatened them. Eventually, she decided they could leave but only if they worked three months without pay to cover the cost of their departure tickets. Local laws stipulate employers are responsible for return tickets and must pay salaries in full, on time. But the power dynamics of domestic labor and kafala system enable the employers to easily flout the few existing regulations.
At last, one day, the three women were able to escape from the house and sought refuge at the local police station. They demanded to be taken to the Filipino embassy so they could leave the country. A local organization met with them at the station to help process their case and unexpectedly encountered the employer and her sons; the employer entered with an angry face, demanding to take the workers back home with her because they ‘broke the law by escaping the household.’ Workers who abscond from employers, no matter the reason, are considered to violate residency law. The family threatened the workers in the presence of police investigators, who did nothing to stop them.
As typical of such cases, the employer knew very well how to deploy local law in her favor. She accused the workers of stealing her possessions, which would result in their detention for months. After much arguing between the madam and the workers’ pro-bono lawyer, the workers were able to secure their final salaries and their plane tickets. They are now back in the Philippines.
Their lawyer had hoped to lodge a case of forced labor and “deprivation of freedom” against the employer, but the opportunity for accountability diminished once the employer threatened to accuse the workers of theft. This scare tactic is often used by sponsors to silence migrants and prevent them from seeking justice.
Strikingly, the lawyer discovered that similar complaints had been made against this same sponsor. Former employees accused her of abuse and forced labor but she escaped any accountability, able to hire more domestic workers despite her record. Even if Kuwait or other GCC countries prohibited abusive sponsors from hiring migrants, employers could merely acquire workers through family members. The absence of any meaningful monitoring or regulation of domestic work coupled with a legal system constructed to favor the employer routinely subjects migrant domestic workers to these vulnerabilities.
Kuwaiti law further complicated the lawyer’s ability to lodge a case of abuse and forced labor against the employer; since the women absconded, they lost their legal status and could not stay in the country. Their only realistic option would be to remain in the domestic workers’ shelter for several months while legal papers are processed. In best-case scenarios, lawyers can carry on cases against employers after workers exit the country. But the absence of the victims in court renders the likelihood of success unlikely. Kuwait, as well as other Gulf countries, does not provide any legal or financial aid for abused migrant workers, even in cases of forced labor. Their primary recourse to accessing justice are the limited services provided by small local organizations and pro-bono lawyers.
GCC officials rationalize the kafala system as one that organizes labor dynamics without upsetting “local norms and cultures.” They aid their arguments with appeals to the sanctity of family privacy to silence demands to incorporate migrant workers in labor laws. The practices that weave together the monstrous body of the kafala system often facilitate exploitation and abuse against vulnerable migrants, especially domestic workers. Starting from the confiscation of their passports, once an “advised practice” by the interior ministry of Kuwait, migrant domestic workers are stripped of their only legal document before even being given their work uniforms. The relatively recent prohibition against passport confiscation remains only “ink on paper,” as violators are not held accountable for this routine practice.