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Run for your life
Desperate migrants from poor countries head for oil-rich states in search of decent jobs.
All too often what they find, reports Grace Pundyk, is brutal employment as domestic servants.

Lady in waiting - thousands of women come to oil-rich states from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and the Philippines. But few leave with anything. Shokina’s dark-skinned face is covered in bruises. On her arms long claw-like scars stretch down to her wrists, and the tell-tale burns of cigarette ends are dotted over the backs of her hands. Dressed in the standard uniform – suspiciously resembling a night-gown – of a domestic maid in Kuwait, she sits waiting in an isolated room at the Bangladeshi Embassy. After two years with her employer she has finally run away.

I have come here to interview Mr AT Ismael, First Secretary of Labour, about the problem of migrant domestic workers. He asks if I would like to meet a ‘runaway’ maid, and calls for Shokina to be brought in.

For the record, this story is for her and for countless others who share her experience.

I feel like a voyeur as this woman enters the room, covering her face with her headscarf, hiding her tears, grasping for what little self-respect she has left. She indicates to me all the places on her body that are hurt. She has been kicked in the back, punched in the head, scratched on the face, pinched, pulled, spat at. At night she was not allowed to sleep, instead having to stand facing the wall of the balcony outside – which was also her ‘room’.

Her cooking duties were taken over by her employer, so she wouldn’t be able to eat their food. But she was still expected to do everything else, from washing the car to washing her employer’s feet, at whatever time she was commanded.

Shokina’s employer was a woman.

I asked why she hadn’t run away earlier. She said she didn’t know where to go, as she had never been allowed to leave the building. The family treated her well for the first year, though she was never paid. The trouble began when she asked for her wages. The withholding of wages, says Mr Ismael, is the most common cause of complaint and is a problem that can usually be resolved within a couple of weeks. But Shokina doesn’t know the full name or address of her employer.

Each year thousands of women and men travel from countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and the Philippines to work as domestics in one of the oil-rich Arab countries. They sell dowries and family property, even take out a loan, to pay the fees recruitment agencies require. For their money they are promised a way out of poverty. In reality they are subjected to sexual, physical or mental abuse, or placed in menial jobs after being promised a more skilled position.

Almost daily in Kuwait local newspapers report the injustices and crimes committed against domestic workers: a man dowsed with petrol and set alight; a Sri Lankan woman convicted of murdering her unborn foetus by repeatedly punching her stomach after being raped by her employer; a maid found hanging from her employer’s fan; a Filipino woman picked up by two policemen and raped.

Imagine what it’s like to fly for the first time, not to be able to speak the local language, not to be able to read and write in your own; and then to realize that the country you have come to gives you no protection under the law. The experience can suddenly become terrifying.

The visa category for domestic workers in Kuwait falls outside the current Private Sector Labour Law. They cannot lay claim to such luxuries as days off, restricted working hours or holidays, and their only avenue for complaint is through mediation with their embassies. A Domestic Labour Department was set up, but primarily it monitors the maid-recruitment agencies.

Domestic workers are often caught in the crossfire between agencies and sponsors who have also paid agency fees and been promised trained staff. This situation, says Mr Ismael, just compounds the problem. ‘We are trying to do the best we can and provide the necessary service to all involved,’ he says diplomatically. ‘Many employers become frustrated with their maids because these women do not know how to manage a house. They have paid for and been promised a fully qualified housekeeper when in reality they get a woman from a village who has no idea how to use a telephone or electrical appliance.’

Dr K Vijaya, president of the Indian Women’s League, is quick to point out that not all maids are treated badly. On the contrary, she says, many women are employed by decent people who treat their maids as one of the family and pay them a good wage. She believes that it is only in desperation that people seek refuge at their embassies. ‘These people have come out with a purpose,’ she says, ‘and are willing to face hardships up to a limit, but when basic human rights and dignity are denied them they have little choice but to run away.’

In the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia safe houses have been established for runaway victims. At the beginning of 1996 the Kuwaiti Government promised to build a compound to house runaway victims. Land was allocated, but as yet nothing else has been done.

In the meantime, for people like Shokina, embassy safe houses are a blessing. For her, there has been a small breakthrough – Mr Ismael has found her name on a recruitment-agency file. With this he should be able to piece together her last two years, locate her employer and retrieve her wages.

Paid or not, however, she will return to Bangladesh empty-handed. ‘All the money I am owed will go in repaying the loan from the recruitment agency,’ she says. ‘I have nothing.’

She sits crying into her scarf, a tiny figure surrounded by officials.

Grace Pundyk is a freelance writer and photographer living in Kuwait.

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New Internationalist issue 301 magazine cover This article is from the May 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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