Modern Slavery

Rarely does a day go by that a domestic worker in Kuwait doesn’t take her own life. Sometimes, several cases of suicide are registered in the same
day. Those who fail in their attempt to end their own life are charged with
the crime of attempted suicide. That helps.

Young women from impoverished countries, usually the Philippines,
India, and Ethiopia, are lured from their homes with a promise of earning a
decent living with sufficient funds to support their families at home. They
entrust the care of their small children to husband, grandparents, and other
relatives and head off to Kuwait, not because they do not love their children,
but because they do. They do not want to see their children die of starvation.
The potential maids are convinced that the only way to save their families is
to leave them behind and to send money back once a month. Unscrupulous
recruiting agencies talk these young women into signing five-year contracts,
assuring them that they can come home any time they like if things do not
work out.

In the homes of their employers, they are treated like slaves. Maybe
because the are. They take care of all domestic duties: cooking, cleaning,
washing clothes, getting the kids ready for school, running errands, etc.
But they are never treated as one of the family. They go shopping with the
woman of the house and carry the bags. They coral the kids into the local
Krispy Kreme, buy the doughnuts and drinks, and then stand outside waiting
for the family to finish getting fat. Some are even forced to dress as
Muslims while out in public, covering their hair with scarves and wearing
robes to cover their regular clothes. For this they are paid 45 Kuwaiti dinars
(about $157) per month. One person justified the low pay by indicating that
they are provided room and board. When I asked what that was worth, I got
nothing but a dumb look.

Things rarely work out, but the woman cannot return home. Once in
Kuwait, the women are placed with Kuwaiti families to be maids, dare care
providers, and too often the sex toys of the man of the house. After all, there
cannot be anything wrong with that if a Kuwaiti is entitled to four wives.
Right? The problem is that if the woman reports it, she is not believed. If
she is badly beaten with bruises and abrasions, maybe somebody is charged
with assault and battery. Maybe she just fell down a flight of stairs.
The woman has signed a five-year contract, and she cannot get out of
it. If she tries, she will be arrested, incarcerated, and placed back in the
home where the abuse began. Civil contracts are enforced by the police in
Kuwait, and a person can go to prison for failing to pay a debt. There is but
one escape—suicide.

You can read about the suicide attempts in the local English newspapers,
but there is very little coverage, and hardly any investigation. A typical
article will look like this Oct. 11, 2009, Arab Times report:

Acting on information police and an employee from
the Philippines Embassy in Kuwait rushed to the home of
an Egyptian family in Salmiya and convinced their maid to
open the door after she had allegedly locked herself inside
the kitchen and threatened to end her life, reports Al-Shahid
daily. The housemaid has been referred to the Salmiya Police
Station. Interrogations are underway why the maid wanted to
commit suicide. Meanwhile, a case of attempted suicide has
been registered against her.

The most important element of this newspaper story is the fact that the
maid was charged with the crime of attempted suicide.

Some finally do escape, but then it is too late to return home.
Millie came to Kuwait from the Philippines in 1992. She came here as
a maid and finished her five year contract. After some pleading, her sponsor
agreed to sign her papers allowing her visa status to allow her to work
outside. As long as she earns enough money, she can stay in Kuwait. Since
her release by her sponsor, she has worked in a small coffee bean roasting
and grinding shop. She sees her husband and daughter every other day on
the internet, and she still sends money home every month, more now that
she is employed “outside.” She misses her family dearly, but it takes about
two to three years for her to save enough money to travel to the Philippines
to visit them.

Lan Lan came from Dalian, China about two years ago as a maid. She
did not put up with her abuse, so she escaped from her sponsor relatively
early on in her contract. Being Chinese and speaking very little Arabic or
English, she hooked up with the wrong people and became a prostitute. She
uses this money to help support her son in China, who stayed home with his
father. Lan Lan was arrested and subsequently deported to China for engaging
in immoral acts, but she is back on a visitor’s visa plying her trade. She
has no education beyond the compulsory nine years in China, and she cannot
make a decent wage in China. She makes about 400 KD (about $1,400)
a month in Kuwait. In China she would be lucky to earn $100 a month.

Asma, from Ethiopia, has just been released from her contract. She does
not yet have an employer, so she is working for herself cleaning apartments
for teachers and other expatriates. She earns 24 KD ($84) a month from each
customer and insists that she be paid at the end of the month. This way she
can show the Kuwaiti immigration officials that she is gainfully employed
earning the minimum amount necessary to remain in Kuwait.

There is no public assistance for expatriates in Kuwait, other than
healthcare provided by sponsors, no Medicaid, no welfare, no food stamps,
nothing. Non-Kuwaitis are treated worse than second class citizens because
they are not citizens. If they do not like it, they can leave. But they can’t.