Campaign for Domestic Worker’s Rights in Kuwait

Human Rights Watch has launched Campaign for Domestic Worker’s Rights. The campaign is illustrated with photos of Arab women dressed in the costumes that many of the workers have to wear when on duty – which often is 15 hours per day, 7 days a week. Hopefully this will make people think.

I have repeatedly become surprised over how people’s brains stop working when exposed to something abnormal being normal – Arabs, Europeans, Americans alike – which is what the trafficking situation of poor people from Asia and Africa to the Middle East is today. I won’t dig into the subject of why you can’t clean your own house or raise your own kids, but on how today’s knowledge about human rights for some people seem to have vanished.

When living in Kuwait I had a friend from Eastern Europe who had married an Arab man residing in the country. She was a great girlfriend; caring, funny and smart, and I missed her a lot when moving. Going back to visit a few years later, she and her husband had got their first child and employed a live-in-maid, and suddenly I saw a new side of her. The woman they had employed, let’s call her Maria, was not allowed to call my friend and her husband by their first names, instead ”sir” and “maam”.

“If you let them call you by your name they will disrespect you, you can’t give them too much freedom,” my friend explained.

All house chores had been given to Maria who worked from 6 am to 10 pm without a break. She was not allowed go out on her own or make her own decisions about what to do during the day, had to follow my friend wherever she went, walking a few steps behind with all the bags and the trolley that she pushed the toddler in, when my friend was out with her girlfriends on one of their many shopping tours to the mall.

My friend thought she was nice to Maria. She could eat how much she wanted and slept in a bed in the child’s playroom – “Not on the floor like with the Kuwaiti families”. My friend didn’t seem to reflect on how Maria might feel when my friend called her stupid or criticized her for not doing anything right (I noticed this among many, the constantly criticizing of the domestic staff, as if they get a kick out of putting them down).

Now I happened to like Maria as a person and we spent some time talking. It turned out she had a university degree in her Asian home country and previously had a qualified job that she had lost, why her last way out if keeping her own child in a private school was to go abroad as a domestic worker. The experience had been a shock and she found herself not able to return as she had signed a two year contract and had her passport taken away. I suggested I ask my other friends about jobs in her field of experience and we secretly exchanged numbers. My research didn’t lead to anything but we kept in touch after I left. She often called and texted, feeling so alone and exposed.

Then a few weeks later my friend’s husband emailed me. My friend had taken Maria’s mobile to check on her and had read my messages. She and her husband were furious I had kept in touch with Maria and urged her to get a better job. This is an excerpt from the e-mail:

I would really like to thank you for treating your friends who were soo good, honest, loveable to you and accepted you in their home not as a guest but as a very close person. We are very surprised of the way you cheated us and tried to contact our nanny from our back and tried to help her to leave us and finding a job because you persuaded her that she’s over qualified to be a nanny…  If you think that you are supporting women right by encourage her to do what she did and leave us then let me tell you that you destroyed our lovely family and destroyed her life as well.

He ended the e-mail by telling story I had heard before, on how Maria had felt so empowered by me that she had brought home a man and had sex with him in a room next to where the child had been sleeping. The story is one version of many used to justify what happens if you give your maids “too many rights”; Asians are not only unintelligent, they are also sexually primitive if you fail to control them. Do you know your history? African–Americans were once considered the same way by whites.

My friend blocked me on all social websites we had been in touch through and we never spoke again. I don’t know what happened to Maria – the control must have increased and I assumed it was safer for her not to be in touch with me as I anyways was far away from Kuwait and had no means of helping her.

Human Rights Watch’s campaign is much needed in a time when again human rights doesn’t apply to people of color, and I wish it leads to some sort of change. If I could speak to my friend I would explain to her why I had urged Maria to leave and that I hadn’t mean to hurt my friend – but I wouldn’t say I’m sorry. And if I were in the same situation I would do what I did again, even if it meant losing a close friend. I know some people would say I’m fanatic. I say I’m normal.

Photocredit: Human Rights Watch

16 thoughts on “Campaign for Domestic Worker’s Rights in Kuwait

  1. If I guess right, this couple, both have lower education than the maid. In life and in universities. It is the bad self esteem in those countries that give some sort of superpower feeling for those who would be nothing in their own countries. But unfortunately it is the pre-setting between races and the social connections, the family ties that have given them so much power. Not their own achievements. Sad.


  2. I am a Canadian woman living in Kuwait for 6 years now. I’ve seen both sides of the coin. My sister-in-law (who’s originally Syrian, now Kuwaiti, having married a Kuwaiti) had a Filippina nanny working with her for quite a while. She treated her nanny like a friend, gave her many freedoms, trusted her completely. This Filippina thanked her by trying to seduce my brother-in-law, the Kuwaiti BECAUSE SHE WANTED TO HAVE A KUWAITI HUSBAND. That was an abuse of her freedom. Of course, my brother-in-law informed his wife who immediately released the nanny from her service. That is not the only incident I know of. Many Filippina’s will work for Kuwaitis or for companies and supplement their incomes through prostitution. You just have to check some social networks to know that they will do it just for a phone card (a couple of Filippina’s tried to do that with my husband!). I also have some friends who are Filippina and have told me of being approached in the street by Kuwaitis and solicited for sex.

    My point: there are human rights abuses, yes, however many come to Kuwait with the intention of making money no matter how. That includes prostitution and abuse of liberties granted to them. Please don’t assume that all are faultless.and abused; they are not. One of my co-workers – an admin assistant, who is well-educated, is Filippina. She is respectable and maintains acceptable behavior.

    Hmmm, I could write a whole post debating the pros and cons of the situation with domestic servants here in Kuwait. Yes, I have seen some terrible abuses, however some deserve it because they are NOT trustworthy and are just here to make money and they don’t care how they do it.


    • When we are talking about “freedom” as something given and not a natural born right and how some people deserve abuse, we are back in the days of slavery. And when describing someone as respectable and with an acceptable behaviour “even though” she is a Filippina, we are down a very dangerous road since we are then assuming most Filippinos are NOT respectable and by that are reinforcing stereotypes (would you like someone to assume you had this or that negative characteristics because of your nationality? I wouldn’t). The origin of prostitution (as of many other problems in the society) is poverty for the very majority, I really hope you don’t assume Filippinas likes to be penetrated daily by different men for no other reason. I’m sorry but I think you should reconsider your thoughts, the world is much more developed in terms of sociological theory and understanding than what reflects in Kuwait today.


      • I did not use the term ‘even though’ she is Filippina. I merely stated that she is a respectable woman. The other Filippina I mentioned is DISGUSTED that she is approached for sex in the street! I am NOT justifying human rights abuses. Of course they are rife here in Kuwait. I myself, because I am western and the media portrays women of the west as falling into bed with random men, have been offered money for sex – once in a dentist’s office, of all places!

        My point is that women who come here do so because we can make more money than in our home country which is the case for all women currently residing here. We then have a choice if we will accept to supplement our incomes through prostitution. If we choose to do so, we are reinforcing the preconception people in the Middle East have of our lack of morals and availability for sex for money.

        On the other hand I am AGREEING with you that the way some domestic servants are treated is appalling. I have heard numerous tales of nannies being beaten – sometimes to death – by their Kuwaiti sponsors. I know a Kuwaiti who works for the Ministry of Interior who told me that he is frequently (every couple of weeks) called out to the desert to investigate the death of a domestic worker whose bodies was found out there. No such murder is generally solved since, if they can trace her to the Kuwaiti sponsor, they will always claim that she ran away or some such tale.

        I DO NOT condone this disgusting abuse of human rights, I merely say that the WOMEN THEMSELVES should never allow themselves to fall to the point of being considered available for sex for money but there are many who do – and you can recognize them by their dress and their wandering eyes and way of walking. Respectable women in the Middle East know enough to dress modestly, not look at men and mind their own business – that includes women from all parts of the world INCLUDING respectable domestic workers.


    • No one can expect all ppl they meet to be honest, but now ask yourself why a woman (any woman) would end up offering her body for a phone card,…. or why she’d want desperately to marry a man for his nationality, and not for love, even being himself married (although able to marry more than once, I guess?) I can be pretty sure that if they had a chance to develop by themselves a career and grow up personally and professionally without being treated like semi-slaves, they’d not need to do all those degrading things.

      Because I am sure that if they could avoid it, NO ONE would even travel to the Middle East to work for their spoiled “maams” and their horny “sirs”, both equally disrespectful in a majority of cases.

      Btw, the same kind of discrimination applies to male foreign workers, mostly from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India or also Filipinos, who live almost in the same way as slaves would do, but still earn more money than they’d dream of back at home.

      Do you really think all these men and women would leave their place for Saudi arabia, Kuwait or UAE, choosing “wage-slavery”, giving out their passports and their freedom with them, being treated in such a shameful way… if they had some alternative to make a decent normal life back home?

      Simply NO.

      So first, I’d teach the middle eastern ladies to take responsibility for their life and families, instead of becoming expensive, ornamental, breeding members of a clan, perpetuating a system that leads invariably to social chaos in the long term.

      Second, regarding your concerns on the “service staff” etics… If I am working for some company here in Europe and I notice my boss treats me JUST A HALF as bad as Middle Easterns tend to treat their workers… I’d spend JUST A HALF of the time to retaliate somehow. Because there’s always some kind of moral contract between noth parts, employee and employer, and it’s the responsibility of both sides to respect it. And it’s when one of these breaks that moral respect when things go wrong.

      So it’s not strange that if some employer hears abt home workers “betraying” their employers they become alert about their staff behavior, and set distance between them … but also is not surprising that if a worker has been before used as crap (and yes, I said used, not even employed, because those working conditions are the normal for a temporary slave) or has heard abt so many bad stories… she or he will attempt to improve their living standards whatever the cost, as far as it does not mean to steal or kill.

      After all, once an asian woman (same as many european women I heard about) is treated on street as a whore by many men, and suspected to be a whore by many women… she won’t give a damn to crossing the lines needed, in order to get a chance to get out of that situation.

      Sorry for such a long answer! 😉


  3. It is truly sad how people are exploited and who have no recourse, can take no action against those who are exploiting them. It must also be unbearable to become stuck in a place with no way out and no means to get out and to be treated like dirt. I feel for every single person who is, has and will ever be exposed to this type of situation. If I could stop it, it would cease immediately. Unfortunately, I can only state how deeply sorrowful I am for their plight.

    Thank you for bringing their story into the spotlight. Who knows? Maybe, one day, our collective voices will make a difference. We can only hope and continue trying.

    Bless you!


  4. Pingback: Wage Slavery | Vantage Points

  5. Marking my spot, VERY well said….. you’ve hit a very sensitive & true point & I do so agree with you, I speak from experience after having spent 21yrs in KSA. People reading blogs, can you PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE open your eyes to the fact that there are TWO sides to the coin & two sides to every story, whilst no normal person condones ill treatment of any employee & yes it is heart breaking the tales of abuse for whatever reason that unfold, please keep clearly in your mind that many of the staff that arrive to the gulf to work in no matter what position they apply for are not all ‘sweet & innocent’ (& they are not expected to be either- tho honesty & a willingness to work according to contract is as much as what’s expected) besides seducing men as a way to supplement income etc, how about having your baby slowly poisoned to death by the inclusion of rat bate powder being added to the infants formula ? Or your 4 yrs old child beheaded by a nanny who admitted to never being mistreated but merely because ‘voices told her to do it’ or having your child burned by the iron or an elderly infirm relative bludgeoned to death….or those who come just to get paid but not do their job & just sit on the net via their mobile. Those who bring several strange men into your family home each night whilst your whole families asleep. Those who steal from you, etc etc etc. Hey, I don’t need to go on as i’d be here forever & a day but you will get the picture.

    Please remember 2 sides to every story & the vast majority of employers are not abusers more so than the minority who should be held accountable without a shadow of a doubt, judgement day comes to us all whether in this life or the next. Employers uphold your contracts, employees please do the same….


    • Should bloggers stop discussing the human rights abuses ongoing in the Gulf? Or should we start excusing such abuse with low-class behaviour? Another question: what do you think makes a maid go so insane that she kills the children in a family she works in? Was that maybe her main purpose of the trip to the Gulf? “Hey, I’ll go there and kill some kids so I can have the death sentence and be beheaded myself, that’ll be fun!” A person that commits such a crime is obviously extremely traumatized herself.


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