As Kuwait limps back to some kind of normalcy, not all sectors or residents are able to move past the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Domestic workers in the country are still reeling from the pandemic’s repercussions and several of them told Migrant-Rights.org that they were forced to work round-the-clock, responsible for more duties than usual. Exploitation inside homes was mirrored and fuelled by the pandemic-hit recruitment industry and when a ban was placed on new recruitment and recruitment offices closed for a long period of time, the black market for domestic workers flourished.
Illegal recruitment offices
According to Kuwait’s Public Authority for Civil Information, 732,000 domestic workers live in the country, accounting for around six percent of the population. All of them are non-Kuwaitis, mainly from India, Philippines, Bangladesh and Ethiopia.
Domestic workers differ from other foreign workers as they are excluded from the private sector labour law and fall under a weaker domestic worker law. Around 50% of domestic workers are women who work as maids, nannies, and cooks – confined to their employer’s home, where they are legally required to live. Their relative affordability (i.e. low wages) and the lack of public care services has created a huge dependency on domestic workers, with an estimated 90% of Kuwaiti households employing at least one worker. The pandemic further heightened dependency on their services, with members of the household spending more time at home, and children attending online schools.
The most common channel for bringing domestic workers to the country is through recruitment agencies that facilitate the arrival and placement of domestic workers. During the pandemic, these offices were not operational as Kuwait had strict entry and exit regulation and new recruitments were put on hold. But the demand for domestic workers remained high, which created a flourishing black market: unregistered agencies took over, resulting in around 60,000 domestic workers, mainly women, being exploited by recruitment offices.
Um Mohammed, an Ethiopian community organiser who works closely with domestic workers in Kuwait, witnessed these illegal practices first hand. She explained that unregistered agencies would set up shop in an apartment (usually located in the localities of Jabriya, Jleeb Al Shuyoukh and Jahra), which were also used to house the women before deployment to the employer. She said that in some cases, around 50 to 100 domestic workers – all of whom were women – were kept in one apartment. Little is known of their health issues they faced during the height of the pandemic, cramped into small spaces without access to healthcare.
Operating openly as though they were legal entities, these recruitment offices advertise their services on various social media platforms. Once a customer shows interest and finalises the contract, the agency provides them with a falsified receipt which gives the impression that the transaction is legitimate.
When asked how they find these women, Um Mohammed said, “they go to playgrounds, shopping malls, the church or even approach them via WhatsApp and convince them to leave their employer with the promise that they will find them a higher paying job.” Not all are scouted in this manner – some are ‘runaways’ that decided to leave their employer mainly due to financial, physical or verbal abuse.
These illegal recruiters also mainly target domestic workers that have expired residency permits, Um Mohammed says. Although the whole operation is daunting and traumatising, some domestic workers willingly ensure it as they end up earning more through undocumented channels than the regular employment.
However, the government has been shutting down and punishing owners of these agencies. Between 1 October 2021 and 10 November 2021, the General Administration of Residency Affairs at the Ministry of Interior shut down 22 fake recruitment agencies.
Kuwait witnessed the longest consecutive lockdown in the world, which lasted from 22 March 2020 to 30 August 2020. The curfews and lockdowns forced people to stay home, “and thus, activities were confined to the house thereby increasing the demand for work (cooking, cleaning, laundry etc) and working hours became irregular. For example, different members of the household sleeping and waking at different hours would double the effort and energy required from domestic workers,” explained Shaikha Al Hashem, a PhD researcher and an activist for domestic workers’ and women's rights.
Not only is working more than 12 hours illegal according to the 2015 Kuwaiti domestic workers law, it is also against the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention No 189 of 2011. Many domestic workers also did not receive their weekly day off, although it too is required by law.
Hannah*, a domestic worker, said that she only got one day off a month. She knew she had the right to one, but when she pointed it out to her employer, she was told, “my husband will not give it to you because the contract is only a paper.”
While legally, domestic workers must work for one sponsor and live with them at home, many domestic workers are freelancers who work part-time for different people. This used to be a worthwhile risk for many domestic workers, as they could live within their own communities and control their working hours. But the lockdowns, which most harshly affected the areas workers lived in, made it impossible for many to get to work.
“The geographical lockdown (mainly Jleeb Al Shuyouk and Mahboula) made freelance and part-time domestic workers inaccessible thus raised prices for hiring full time due to supply deficiencies and strict health and airport regulations for abroad recruitment,” Al Hashem pointed out.
Another reason for the thriving underground market is the government ban on the entry of non-Kuwaitis, amongst them domestic workers, from March to December 2020 as part of its pandemic response. This ban came in addition to the one put in place back in December 2019, when the government suspended recruitment of domestic workers from 26 different countries.
In February 2021, Ali Al Shammoush, the Secretary General of the Kuwait Union for Domestic Workers said, Kuwait is facing a shortage of around 160,000 to 18,000 domestic workers. Due to the shortage, many domestic workers who are trying to leave Kuwait for good are being stopped by their employers, explained Pin, a domestic worker from the Philippines.
Pin says she has been planning on going back home since 2019, but her employer has been unwilling to release her “until a new domestic worker arrives to take your place.” She said that he kept making up excuses as to why it was not the right time for her to leave, though the main reason was that her employer was waiting for her replacement to arrive. “First he said I can’t go because of all the lockdowns, then he said that tickets were expensive, so I should wait. I’ve been waiting two years to leave. I want to go soon because my mother is very sick, and I want to see her before things get worse,” Pin stated.
Though Kuwait does not require exit permits for domestic workers, employers can still prevent workers from leaving the country by refusing to pay for their tickets and retaining their passports.
The government can address these issues — which amount to forced labour and trafficking — and the sector’s shortage with policies that will safeguard workers’ rights while also taking into account the needs of employers and agencies. Firstly, workers whose documentation has expired should be allowed to legalize their stay via a registered recruitment agency, who can then connect the worker to an employer in full accordance with the law. The government should also lift the ban on domestic workers from certain countries, which only works to push recruitment underground.
Officials should also develop public messaging targeted at employers, to remind them of their obligations under the domestic workers’ law and the anti-trafficking law, and take concrete action against those in violation. Messaging should be simultaneously rolled out to domestic workers, to remind them of their rights and connect them to complaints systems.
As for long term solutions, Kuwait could consider ratifying the ILO convention No 189 on domestic workers that calls for freedom of association, the elimination of forced labour and the elimination of discrimination in employment, amongst other things. This is possible and realistic, as Kuwait has previously, with support from the ILO, introduced the first minimum wage for domestic workers in the Middle East.