A recent decision by Kuwait’s Ministry of Interior will exempt sponsors from paying return airfare for domestic workers reported as absconding (‘runaways’), or who have any other criminal charges against them. The decision also increases punishments for individuals who hire or shelter ‘absconded’ workers, and will force these employers to pay for return tickets.
Though Kuwaiti authorities have previously admitted that many runaway cases are due to abusive employment practices, it is unlikely that the "interrogation" to uncover an absconded worker’s illegal employer would include a parallel inquiry into the reasons the domestic worker absconded in the first place – nor that abusive employers will face similar penalties.
‘Abuse’ is not limited to physical abuse, but includes unfair working conditions. Domestic workers, even more so than other migrant workers, face many obstacles in reporting contract, wage, and working condition issues – let alone seeing them through any kind of resolution. Even court rulings that penalize employers are unreliably enforced.
The decision also ignores the fact that employers often erroneously report domestic workers as absconding in order to preempt charges of abuse, as punishment for workers, and precisely to excuse themselves from their obligations as a sponsor and employer. MR has previously reported on employer’s misuse of absconding reports.
Absolving employers of the responsibility to pay for a worker’s return ticket further skews the imbalanced relationship created by the Kafala; employers benefit from even less accountability for domestic workers, while still preserving their inordinate sphere of control over workers. Kuwait should address the significant gaps in legal protection for domestic workers before enforcing even more punitive measures against absconding workers.
The issue of ‘runaway’ domestic workers receives constant media attention; sky-high recruitment costs mean that significant financial investments go into hiring a domestic worker, and a ‘runaway’ worker is perceived as a lost investment. But popular – and official – dialogue pays little attention to the conditions that impel a worker to runaway, including overwork, low wages, physical and emotional abuse. Kuwaiti authorities seem to be appeasing popular sentiment, to the detriment of both worker’s well being and employer’s concerns; they offer deportations as a band-aid solution to any issue involving, or blamed on, migrant workers – a knee-jerk reaction which only feeds the cycle abusive recruitment practices and unhappy employment arrangements.
The decision comes alongside other questionable reforms affecting the recruitment, employment, and residency of domestic workers and other migrant workers this year. According to Arab Times Online, this decision likely to come into force in January 2017.