Sexual Assault and Physical Abuse at Kuwait’s Shelter for Domestic Workers
The Ministry of Labor opened the country’s first shelter in response to the growing number of runaway workers. Authorities claim “it is one of the best specialized centers in the Middle East” but it’s not quite clear what this specialization entails. The shelter boasts 700 beds, but its privately contracted staff is untrained and has no experience dealing with survivors of abuse. Migrant-Rights.org spoke to one woman who claims that the staff not only failed to provide basic support services, but physically and sexually harassed the shelter’s vulnerable residents.
In November 2014, a Ghanian woman named Gloria saw an advertisement for a job in Kuwait. Holding an associate’s degree in Human Resources, she decided to contact the agency for more details on the position. Over the phone, the job sounded promising - an 8 hour shift 5 days week at a shipping company, paying $600-$800 a month. Excited, Gloria along with her two sisters paid $900 in recruitment fees to secure the jobs. Within days, Gloria and her sisters departed for the long trip from Accra to Addis Ababa to Kuwait. They waited seven exhausting hours for the partner agency to pick them up from Kuwait’s Airport. Only when the agency representative arrived did the sisters discover they had been deceptively recruited - trafficked - for domestic work.
The three sisters were shocked. An Ethiopian woman managing the agency informed them they would be taken to Kuwaiti houses and work as domestic workers. She asked them if they had cell-phones and they said no, hiding their devices in their clothing so they would not to be confiscated.
“You will work for a woman in Jahra” the manager told Gloria, “while your sisters will work in Salmiya and Jaber al-Ali.”
“I was speechless. I did not know what to do. Here I am an educated woman coming to work in my field of experience only to find out that I will work in someone's home.”
Trafficked and Exploited
Gloria was taken to the house in Jahraa to serve an old couple with seven children and their uncle.
“When I first arrived, she searched all my luggage and was shocked to know that I have a laptop.” Gloria informed the ‘madam’ of the household of her deceitful recruitment, but she replied “I do not care, I paid a lot of money to have you recruited. You will work here until your contract ends in two years.”
That night, Gloria slept on a mattress on the floor.
The next day, Gloria had to wake up at 5:30 in the morning. She cooked and cleaned with no break until midnight.
“I worked nonstop for two months and a half. It was not only the overwhelming job that I had to endure but also the beating and insults of the madam. When I get sick, she does not try to help. Once I had a food poisoning and her daughter asked her to take me to the hospital but she refused and instead got me some medicine from the pharmacy. I passed out that day but was still not taken to the hospital.”
Gloria’s request to return to Ghana was swiftly refused. So she logged onto her computer and found the email address of a local lawyer. The lawyer told Gloria to take a cab to Kuwait's domestic worker shelter in the Jleeb al-Shuyukh area.
On January 27, Gloria escaped to a mosque near her sponsor's house. She called her sister, Angela, who had also escaped her employer's house. Angela took a cab from Salmiya to Jahra to pick Gloria up and enter the shelter together.
The two were joined by their third sister, Linda, two days later. They recounted their story to the shelter’s staff. Their accounts were recorded and they were repatriated to Ghana in March 2015. But the two months they spent at the shelter was no safe-haven from abuse.
Shelter from whom?
“When we arrived, there were three women working at the shelter. A woman and her two daughters. Her name is Mona and her daughters are called Farida and Safia.”
“Mona, the mother, would always insult us and had especially mistreated those at the shelter who are African and of darker skin. She used to insult us and deny us phone calls or hygiene and care products.”
Although the shelter has a full-time nurse, Mona would not allow anyone to go to the clinic unless they appeared particularly sick.
But Mona was not the worst of them. Her two daughters were sexually harassing me and my sisters and other women living there. On different occasions, they two grabbed my breasts and verbally harassed me. The one called Farida has her own room at the shelter. Sometimes she takes some of the resident women there. Farida threatened to take away anyone's food if they ever bring up the subject of her room and harassment.
Though embassies informally host a number of domestic workers, their facilities are not intended to function as shelters. Still, one runaway worker told Kuwait Times that she would prefer going to her embassy over the shelter; she noted that people at the embassy speak her language and would understand her reasons for ‘absconding’ - considered a criminal offense in Kuwait. “We don't know about the existence of this facility and where it is located” she adds. She had faith that the embassy “will do something” to help her, but could not be certain of her safety at a state-run institution.
At the time of publishing, the shelter’s abusive staff remain employed. The Ministry of Labor must investigate the conduct of these contracted workers and ensure runaway migrant domestic workers, many of whom are already victims of abuse, are provided with a truly safe space to recover and access justice.