We all saw the video of the Ethiopian worker who was holding to the verge of a window before falling off the seventh floor of a building in Kuwait. People in Kuwait and elsewhere were shocked and angered by the fact that her employer was filming her, instead of trying to save her life. The woman screamed for help “hold me, hold me” and her voice was heard across the globe, reminding us of a bitter reality that domestic workers in Kuwait experience everyday. Yet, despite the great support that the woman has received so far, the victim was still shamed and accused of being a liar and criminal. The hate speech against domestic workers, in this case Ethiopian women, is not new in Kuwait. They are often depicted as criminal, subhumans, witches, and prostitutes. Some newspapers have already tried to support the employer’s narrative over the victim’s. They claim the employer was too scared, despite her cold and calm voice tone, to reach out and help her worker. She even claims that her video was a way to prove her innocence!
That night, the employer went back to her bed and slept in comfort, while the worker was hospitalized and is still fighting to recover. In another video, the woman thanked all those who sympathized with her and denied the rumors that she was trying to commit suicide. She said she was escaping from her employer, who kept her up locked up in the house. The employer finds her detention of the worker justified and reasonable, to prevent her escape. This is despite the fact that the worker had asked her to send her back to the recruitment office, as she wishes not to work for her anymore. According to international human rights agreements and declarations, this would be considered a form of ‘forced labor.’ It is said that the worker has not been paid in months, but one newspaper claimed that she has only been working for two months in that house. They even accused her of cooperating with a “fraud agency” to escape her employer for another one, as a way to collect more fees!
This way, the victim who had us clenching at her pleading scene, was turned into a mad criminal, as if this type of stories is exceptionally new to our society. A few months ago, a Kuwaiti doctor was sentenced to 4 years in jail for torturing her domestic worker. Her victim escaped and for weeks she stayed at the shelter, where many others have arrived with horrific stories of exploitation, harassment, and torture. It turns out the doctor in that case had committed prior violations of the same nature against domestic workers, but no case was filed then. This is why such employers with such records should not be allowed to sponsor workers who would be vulnerable to such violations.
Stories of violence and forced labor are many in the Gulf; not a week would pass without a new case reported in local newspapers. If, for example, we review cases from last November, we will read about the case of a Bahraini woman who got only two months in jail for torturing a Sri Lankan woman with an iron. Another Kuwaiti woman got only 6 months in jail for assaulting her worker. In the UAE, an Emirati woman tortured her domestic worker at various occasions using scissors, boiling water, and an iron! This means we’re talking about routinized violence against domestic workers, especially as laws fail to prevent this harm from happening again. This is specifically tied to the fact that domestic workers are confined to the household, and when they leave, they’re directly reported as “absconding” and become illegal workers.
When the parliament was discussing the domestic workers’ law two years ago, legislators ignored the calls to revise these conditions that continue to make workers vulnerable to violations. They often blame it on the local culture or society, to avoid progressive changes. The sponsorship system places a worker under the full power of his/her employer. Discourses on ‘family values’ or ‘protecting society’ are often deployed to justify the very limited freedoms and rights of domestic workers.
The social and legal structures deny the right of a domestic workers to her body; whether to refuse serving a certain employer, or to take a walk or make a trip outside the household, or to avoid being harmed and assaulted by their employers. Working as a domestic worker in the Gulf is becoming more of a risky adventure, as it lacks the least assurances for safety and wellness. In the Philippines, media documented the story of a Filipina domestic worker who now resides in a mental health clinic, as she tries to recover from years of exploitation and sexual harassment in Kuwait. We also heard about the Sri Lankan worker who had worked for a Kuwaiti family for 11 years without wages, only to paid her wages in sum, and get deported without much compensation for her freedom and wellbeing. A domestic worker might be harassed, raped, pushed towards suicide, or even commit a crime. In such conditions, one cannot maintain sanity and good spirits. These are not exceptional scenarios, these are not individual cases, nothing stops the employer from harming his worker, other than his/her own consciousness!