By Robert B. Roque, Jr.
Kuwait is a country with a diverse society. Of its 4.2 million people, 70 percent or 2.9 million are expatriates. Of these, 260,000 are Filipinos employed either as household help or skilled workers such as nurses, doctors, teachers, mechanics, chefs, and hotel and restaurant managers, to name a few. Obviously, for whatever nationality, it is a place of great opportunity – greener pastures that their country cannot provide.
Believe it or not, the United Nations has recognized the humanitarian leadership of Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, and Kuwait as International Humanitarian Center. So why the hell are there a spate of reports of workers being abused, their human rights violated?
Everyone knows that such reports, including the murder of Joanna Demafelis, have triggered the Philippines to issue a deployment ban.
We also know that the Philippine embassy staff’s “rescue” of a worker, whose video footage went viral on the web and which Kuwait felt was a breach of its sovereignty, has resulted in the expulsion of the Philippine ambassador, the detention of some embassy staff, and the recall of the Kuwaiti envoy.
Kuwait does not condone modern-day slavery. If we read the news and blogs, and hear the views of workers from varied jobs, we come to a conclusion that skilled workers are generally treated well. Incidences of abuses are high only in the level of Household Service Workers (HSWs) or domestic workers.
So what’s happening in several Kuwaiti households?
Many employers abuse the contracts they sign with the house help. They maltreat them, physically or verbally, force salary deductions and do not pay them on time. Several confiscate the worker’s passport and forbid her from possessing a mobile phone, which keeps her connected to loved ones back home and eases the feeling of solitude.
Any contract signed between the employer and domestic helper should be honored. Any party that breaches it must bear the responsibility. This is understood.
Many workers, however, feel helpless because if they file a complaint with the police, the employers either fire them or file trumped-up charges against them.
Kuwaiti authorities should address these issues by ensuring employers treat HSWs humanely and with respect – as if they are part of their own family, and not as slaves. Abusers should be dealt with harshly.
They should ensure that HSWs are allowed to keep their phones and passports or allow the embassy to hold the sovereign document for them.
Allow HSWs to open bank accounts where employers can deposit their salaries. This way, the government can monitor whether or not employers adhere to their financial obligation.
There must also be some form of standard to determine if a household is qualified to hire an HSW, perhaps, considering the size of the house, availability of a private room for the worker with basic amenities such as bed, television, etcetera.
Kuwaitis cannot deny that Filipinos are an integral part of their society. Pinoys are among the 2.9 million expats who help boost the emirate’s economy as well as the Philippines’s. Both governments should find a win-win solution to this impasse based on long-held friendship and reciprocity.
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