‘I want to leave but I’m scared’: Pandemic increases risk of violence for Gulf’s domestic workers

Katie McQue
·4-min read
The rules in place for domestic workers in the Middle East make it near impossible for them to leave abusive households - FG Trade 
The rules in place for domestic workers in the Middle East make it near impossible for them to leave abusive households - FG Trade

For the first time since she moved to Kuwait to become a live-in domestic worker, Maryanne believes her safety is in danger. She tends to a family of six and their ongoing confinement due to the Covid-19 pandemic has caused tensions in the home to fray, putting her in the firing line.

“Yesterday, my boss acted like he wanted to hurt me, but I quickly ran to my room and locked it,” says the 39-year-old from the Philippines, in an interview with the Telegraph. “I cry so much because my employers are always angry. I have to be alert in case something happens to me.”

Lockdown measures, put in place to stem the spread of the virus, have put already vulnerable domestic maids in the Gulf states under more pressure.

Many find themselves forced to work longer hours to complete the additional tasks that come with having the families they work for stuck indoors. Some are trapped in physically abusive environments, unable to access help, since they are unable to leave their employers homes.

Maryanne came to Kuwait one year ago from the Philippines with the aim of supporting her three small children back home, who are cared for by her mother. She’s is paid 120 Kuwaiti Dinar ($385) per month. Since the lockdown her already busy workload has increased.

There’s extra cleaning and cooking, as well as new duties such as washing newly bought groceries. “There’s no rest for me. I finish work at 12am and start again at 6.30am,” she says. There are over 1.6 million women employed as live-in domestic workers employed across the Gulf states, Lebanon, and Jordan, according to the United Nations’ International Labor Organization (ILO).

They typically hail from low income countries in Asia and Africa and send the bulk of their earnings home in remittances. In Qatar, the government recently introduced a minimum wage for migrant workers and abolished a requirement that workers obtain their employer’s permission to change jobs or leave the country.

Kuwait City skyline at sunset - AFP
Kuwait City skyline at sunset - AFP

However, these reforms are not enough to ensure the wellbeing of domestic workers or protect them from violence, a report by Amnesty International published on Tuesday states. The human rights organisation interviewed 105 female domestic workers in based in Qatar and found that each of them had their own tale of abuse.

According to the report, 15 domestic workers said they had been physically abused, which ranged from spitting and slapping to severe forms of assault, and five reported that they had been sexually abused, in some cases raped. Some reported being denied adequate food or forced to eat leftovers, while others said they were denied medical care and were forced to sleep on the floor.

“The overall picture is of a system which continues to allow employers to treat domestic workers not as human beings but as possessions,” says Steve Cockburn, Head of Economic and Social Justice at Amnesty International. “Domestic workers told us they were working an average of 16 hours a day, every day of the week, far more than the law allows. Almost all had their passport confiscated by their employers, and others described not getting their salaries and being subjected to vicious insults and assaults.”

Maryanne’s employers enforce rules that she feels are intended to wear her down. Each day, she is made to wear a uniform of badly fitting old overalls that used to belong to family’s previous maid. She also has limited access to her phone, which means she can only chat to her children twice a month. “We can only text, we can’t talk by video because I have to buy my own data and it’s expensive,” she says. “My employers won’t give me their wi-fi password. They tell me they’re not a bank.”

The rules in place for domestic workers in the Middle East make it near impossible for them to leave abusive households. They are employed under the ‘Kafala’ sponsorship system, which means employers have complete control over them, including the power to stop them changing jobs or leaving the country. Escaping is classified as a criminal offence.

In September, Qatar passed a law to abolish its Kafala system. However, it is still in full use throughout many other Middle Eastern countries. Cristina*, a domestic worker in Kuwait, says her employers are over-working her, and her working days have got even longer since the pandemic began.

The 25-year-old from the Philippines is allowed a five-hour break from work twice a year, despite her contract stating she should have one day off per week. “Since I arrived at the house, I haven’t stopped working,” she says. “It’s so difficult.”

Cristina is desperate to leave her employment, but her recruitment agency won’t assist her in doing so. She’s thought of running away but is concerned she’ll be prosecuted for absconding her contract. “I’m too stressed and my body is in pain,” she says. “I want to leave but I’m scared.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities

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