Nepal hat ein seit zwölf Jahren bestehendes Verbot aufgehoben: Frauen aus dem Himalaja-Staat dürfen künftig wieder legal in den reichen Golfstaaten arbeiten. Das gab das Arbeitsministerium kürzlich in Kathmandu bekannt, wie die BBC berichtete. 1998 war das Verbot nach dem Selbstmord einer nepalesischen Hausangestellten in Kuwait, die von der Familie, für die sie arbeitete, mißhandelt worden war, erlassen worden. Die Aufhebung begründete Ministeriumssprecher Purna Chandra Battarai damit, daß es so leichter sei, grundlegende Rechte für die Betroffenen durchzusetzen.
Damit räumte er ein, was jeder wußte: Auch in der Zeit des Verbots haben wegen der großen Armut in der Heimat viele Frauen aus Nepal ihr Heil in einer Beschäftigung in den Vereinigten Arabischen Emiraten, in Katar, Kuwait oder Saudi-Arabien gesucht. Die Vermittlung erfolgte über Agenturen im benachbarten Indien. Diese Verlagerung machte es für Behörden und für Menschenrechtsgruppen noch schwieriger, unseriösen Mittelsmännern das Handwerk zu legen und einigermaßen sicherzustellen, daß die Frauen unter menschenwürdigen Verhältnissen arbeiten. Die Zahl der nepalesischen Arbeitsmigrantinnen am Golf wurde in der Zeit des Verbots immer noch auf etwa 200000 geschätzt.
Künftig sollen die Agenturen genau überprüft werden. Die Botschaften Nepals in den Golfstaaten wollen sich des Themas noch stärker als bisher annehmen. Wie genau die Überwachung vonstatten gehen soll, ist aber noch nicht klar. Denn auch die Mitarbeiter seriöser Agenturen haben oft keine genaue Kenntnis darüber, was später aus den Frauen wird. Häufig müssen die Betroffenen 14 bis 16 Stunden täglich schuften, haben bisweilen über Monate hinweg keinen einzigen Tag frei, erhalten nicht einmal den– ohnehin geringen – vereinbarten Lohn und müssen sich zudem von ihren »Arbeitgebern« beschimpfen lassen. Auch schwere Mißhandlungen sind alles andere als Ausnahmefälle.
Erst im Oktober hat die Organisation Human Rights Watch eine neue Studie zur Lage von Hausangestellten in Kuwait vorgestellt. Das Emirat hat insgesamt rund drei Millionen Einwohner, doch nur 1,3 Millionen haben die kuwaitische Staatsbürgerschaft. Allein in den Privathaushalten sind 660000 Ausländerinnen als Dienstmädchen beschäftigt. Die meisten kommen aus Südasien, von den Philippinen, ein Teil auch aus afrikanischen Staaten wie Äthiopien. Allein im Jahr 2009, auf das sich die Studie bezieht, hatten die Botschaften der Heimatländer in Kuwait City rund 10000 Beschwerden und Hilferufe erhalten. Viele hatten Lohnstreitigkeiten mit den Dienstherren, exzessive Überstunden, aber auch fortgesetzte Übergriffe zum Inhalt.
Sich dem zu entziehen, ist nicht einfach: Nicht nur in Kuwait, sondern auch in anderen Golfstaaten sind Arbeitsmigranten nahezu rechtlos. Ein Fernbleiben vom Arbeitsplatz ist eine Straftat, selbst wenn Übergriffe der Fluchtgrund sind. Eine vorfristige Rückkehr in die Heimat ist oft unmöglich, da die Arbeitgeber die Pässe ihrer Angestellten einfach einbehalten. Wegen der Repressionen gegenüber Arbeitsmigranten mußte die kuwaitische Regierung im Mai 2010 bei einer UN-Konferenz in Genf heftige Kritik von Vertretern mehrerer Länder einstecken. Ein im Februar verabschiedetes neues Arbeitsgesetz sieht zwar einen geregelten Acht-Stunden-Tag, bezahlten Mutterschaftsurlaub und Abfindungszahlungen vor. Dies gilt aber ausdrücklich nicht für ausländische Beschäftigte in Privathaushalten.
Obwohl es in den anderen Golfstaaten besser aussieht, kommt es auch dort immer wieder zu Skandalen, die die Weltöffentlichkeit erschüttern – bis hin zu Selbstmorden aus Verzweiflung. Erst vor einigen Monaten hatte der Fall einer 49jährigen aus Sri Lanka für Entsetzen gesorgt. Die Frau war aus einer Anstellung in Saudi-Arabien geflohen, wo ihre Arbeitgeber sie auf unvorstellbare Weise gequält hatten: Mediziner fanden in ihrem Körper 24 Nägel und Nadeln. Selbst die Ärzte konnten es anfangs kaum glauben, entfernten der dreifachen Mutter dann aber in einer ersten OP erfolgreich zunächst 18 der metallenen Gegenstände.
Zwar ist dies ein besonders dramatischer Fall, doch allein der psychische Druck auf die Migrantinnen ist enorm. Sie ertragen nur deshalb vieles, weil ihre Familien daheim dringend auf das von ihnen verdiente Geld angewiesen sind. In Nepal machen Überweisungen von in den Golfstaaten Arbeitenden bis zu einem Viertel des Bruttosozialproduktes aus, schätzen unabhängige Quellen. Selbst amtliche Stellen sprechen von etwa 13 Prozent.
Im Folgenden dokumentieren wir aus der Studie die Zusammenfassung und die politischen Empfehlungen an die Regierung von Kuwait sowie an die Regierungen von Indien, Indonesien, Sri Lanka, den Philippinen, Nepal, und Äthiopien.
Foreign domestic workers play an essential role in nearly every Kuwaiti household. More than 660,000 foreign domestic workers from Asia and Africa, the majority of whom are women, work for Kuwait’s 1.3 million citizens, as well as for foreign residents living in the country. While some employers develop an affectionate and caring bond with the women who care for their children, cook their meals, and clean their homes, others take advantage of weak legal protections and an isolated home environment that shields human rights abuses from outside scrutiny.
In 2009, embassies of labor-sending countries in Kuwait City received more than 10,000 complaints from domestic workers about nonpayment of wages, excessively long working hours without rest, and physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. Many more abuses likely remain unreported. Domestic workers have few avenues for redress. Kuwait’s labor laws exclude domestic workers, while its immigration laws prohibit them from “absconding” from the workplace—leaving or changing jobs without their employer’s consent.
Domestic workers who leave their job without their employer’s permission, even those fleeing abuse, may face immigration charges with criminal penalties, indefinite detention, and deportation. More than half the domestic workers who Human Rights Watch interviewed for this report had charges of absconding registered against them. The government deports thousands of workers each year who have little opportunity to pursue their own complaints. In other cases, employers try to force workers wishing to change their job to repay the initial cost of recruiting them, in violation of Kuwaiti regulations, by keeping their passports and withholding their consent to change employment.
Kuwait’s kafala (sponsorship) system effectively shields employers from legal responsibility to respond to charges of nonpayment, forced labor, or abuse by allowing them to petition immigration authorities to cancel workers’ legal residency, and by providing workers with few practical avenues for redress. Kuwaiti officials and lawmakers have repeatedly voiced the opinion that certain legal reforms are unnecessary because employers in Kuwait treat domestic workers as members of their families. However, such descriptions remove workers from the rules and protections that would govern any other workplace. They also ignore government responsibilities to prevent mistreatment, and to respond to repeated complaints of legal violations, including those that take place in private homes.
During the May 2010 review of Kuwait’s human rights record at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, several of the 52 speakers representing foreign government delegations pressed Kuwait on the status of domestic workers in the country. Following the review, the government agreed to pass labor legislation covering domestic work as part of its commitment to improving human rights protections. Such legislation will need to provide domestic workers with protections equal to those of other workers in the country, while addressing the particular monitoring and enforcement challenges that have rendered previous reforms ineffective in achieving greater protection for this sector. Kuwait’s neighbors in the region have similarly been held to account for treatment of domestic workers in their countries, and governments have begun to implement reforms. Kuwait’s next steps in resolving this issue can mark it as a regional leader in human rights, or, if reforms remain incomplete, as a state where workers are conspicuously left vulnerable to abuse.
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Women workers migrate to Kuwait and other countries in the Middle East chiefly from India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Nepal, and Ethiopia, for financial reasons that include the desire to support their children, invest in small businesses, or buy a house back in their home country. Domestic workers generally migrate to Kuwait via recruitment agencies in their home countries that maintain relationships with agents in Kuwait. Most have agreed to two-year contracts. Countries that send large numbers of female migrants to work in Kuwait take insufficient steps to protect their citizens either before or during their migration, leaving workers vulnerable to inadequate information or misrepresentation regarding future employment, illegal recruitment fees confinement by agencies pre-departure, and extortion from corrupt local officials. Once in Kuwait, these workers find themselves vulnerable to further abuse in a system that leaves them with almost no effective legal protections.
A major contributing factor to domestic workers’ vulnerability is Kuwait’s kafala (sponsorship) system. The Aliens’ Residence Law of 1959 (the Residence Law), with its implementing regulations, remains the primary law setting forth this system. Governing domestic workers’ legal residency and work permits, these regulations require employers to act as “sponsors” of workers’ legal residency and employment in Kuwait. Sponsors decide whether a worker may change employers and can easily file paperwork with Kuwaiti immigration authorities to cancel a worker’s residency permit at any time. By delegating to individual employers the power to determine a worker’s immigration status—tying a worker’s ability to be legally present in the country to the satisfaction of her employer—lawmakers have ignored the exploitative potential inherent in these regulations. Workers desperate to earn money fear retaliation, cancelation of their visas, and deportation should they attempt to pursue claims of contract violation or abuse.
Domestic workers’ rights are further compromised by their inability to invoke labor protections. Though domestic workers have worked in Kuwaiti homes for generations, Kuwait has excluded domestic workers from labor protections—including minimum wage regulations, paid holidays, and sick leave— since the first Labor Law for the Private Sector was passed in 1964. A new labor law enacted in February 2010, Law No. 6 Governing Labor in the Private Sector, retains this discriminatory exclusion. The new law strengthens protection for privately employed workers by restricting working hours to eight hours per day, providing for paid maternity leave, end-of-service payments, and access to Labor Ministry dispute resolution mechanisms. Domestic workers, however, remain without any protection under this law.
Kuwait’s current Minister of Social Affairs and Labor Mohammad al-‘Afasi, as well as certain members of Kuwait’s National Assembly (the parliamentary body), have publicly recognized the need for a law governing domestic work. A new draft law under consideration by parliament could significantly improve the terms of employment for domestic workers and allow them the possibility of seeking a new employer in cases of abuse or contract breach. In addition to the terms already provided in the standard contract, the new draft law would standardize eight-hour workdays, payment of overtime, days off for domestic workers on official public holidays, and penalties for late payment of salaries. Workers could transfer employment without their sponsor’s consent by following specific dispute resolution procedures. These provisions, if realized, would represent major progress for workers’ rights. To date, however, the proposed draft fails to ensure full reform of the problematic kafala system. The proposed form still does not allow workers full freedom to terminate or change jobs at will, and maintains references to the system of employment sponsorship.
As a step towards improving legal protection for domestic workers, the Kuwaiti government in 2006 revised the standard contract that agencies, employers, and domestic workers are legally required to sign during the process of recruiting a domestic worker. Government officials continue to cite this standard contract as the main source of protection for foreign domestic workers. While the contract marks progress, setting at least a minimum of standards, it lacks the more comprehensive protections that other private sectors receive and remains poorly enforced. Human Rights Watch found that many workers never see the contract in practice and have had little success enforcing even its basic provisions.
Current requirements in the standard contract for domestic work include rest breaks for every three hours of continuous work, a weekly day off, and two months of paid leave for every two years of service. Employers must provide food, accommodation, and medical treatment; they also bear responsibility for workers’ arrival and return air tickets. However, the contract fails to restrict the total number of hours worked per day and lacks overtime and sick leave provisions, causing it to fall short of labor protections enjoyed by other private sector workers in Kuwait as well as those recommended under international labor standards.
Employers must also pay all recruitment fees under the standard contract, while recruitment regulations prohibit both employers and agents from collecting any reimbursement from workers. In practice, both employers and agents regularly exploit their power over workers to demand repayment of recruitment fees or to extract further services from workers who cannot pay them. Workers may be returned to employment agencies or turned over to new employers in exchange for large payments of recruitment fees, in some cases without their consent, and in yet others, by threat.
Contract guarantees and agency regulations have in numerous cases have failed to improve the actual employment conditions of many domestic workers. The government lacks mechanisms to monitor and enforce employer compliance with their contractual obligations. Instead, workers must take it upon themselves to procure the necessary information and seek government help in making sure their employers follow the law, a process rife with obstacles. Human Rights Watch research into the current situation of migrant domestic workers in the country determined that while some workers experienced satisfactory employment situations, others left the jobs they had traveled thousands of miles to reach, citing employers’ abuse and exploitation. While Human Rights Watch cannot estimate the total number of workers abused, it found that current regulations and practice not only fail to ensure the rights of many workers, but in many cases they are subjected to further penalty and hardship after these rights have been violated.
Nonpayment of salaries for months at a time and excessively long working hours without rest topped the list of complaints reported by domestic workers in Kuwait. They also said that they had in some cases encountered punitive or violent reactions to their request for overdue wages. Despite the mandatory rest periods included in Kuwait’s standard domestic labor contract, workers reported that employers expected them to remain on-call at all hours of the day and required them to perform unreasonable amounts of work. Workers also described incidences of physical and sexual abuse, as well as denial of adequate food and medical care.
Workers that Human Rights Watch spoke to routinely described how employers not only retained their passports, but used the passports as a method of control by refusing to return them when workers tried to leave their employ. Employers’ fears of domestic workers “running away” to find a boyfriend or other jobs led some to prohibit any independent movement by locking workers inside the home or keeping them under constant supervision. Without stronger protections for their freedom of movement, some workers remained physically confined to the workplace, trapped in abusive conditions and denied accessible avenues to report contract violations.
Other workers risk their lives to escape, attempting dangerous climbs from the windows or balconies of their employers’ homes. Those who fall often suffer serious injury and sometimes permanent disability, and some subsequently discover that criminal charges of absconding or theft have been filed against them. Local media typically report these falls as cases of attempted suicide. Human Rights Watch found conflicting information about the legal consequences for workers who have indeed attempted suicide and for workers whose unsuccessful escapes are described as such. While some experienced lawyers told Human Rights Watch that an individual unsuccessfully attempting suicide would face criminal penalties, others disagreed. Regardless, responsible authorities tend to treat workers as they would other immigration law violators rather than providing them with the assistance and counseling that their circumstances merit.
Human Rights Watch documented dozens of cases in which workers who left employers’ homes faced punishment or further exploitation. We interviewed 49 domestic workers, in addition to local employers, Kuwaiti lawyers, members of civil society organizations, and government officials.
Kuwaiti government officials told Human Rights Watch that domestic workers alleging contract breach or abuse should lodge complaints with (1) the police, (2) the Ministry of Interior’s Domestic Workers Department, or (3) a civil court. However, each of these institutions presents legal or practical barriers to workers seeking redress.
In practice, Kuwaiti police stations provide an inconsistent array of responses to workers’ complaints. Domestic workers leaving their employers must successfully register a complaint with the police before their employer reports their absence in order to avoid “absconding” charges, pursuant to which a worker faces criminal and financial penalties of up to six months in prison and KD600 (US$2060) for leaving her job without the employer’s permission. The Aliens’ Residence Law requires employers to report workers who are absent for more than a week to the police. This race-to-the-police-station approach frequently punishes, rather than protects, workers who are escaping abuse.
The majority of workers that Human Rights Watch interviewed said that their sponsors had reported them to the police as cases of “absconding” after they left abusive employment situations. Upon receiving an absconding report, police cancel the worker’s residency visa and register an order for her detention. Domestic workers charged with absconding, including workers who said they quit jobs because they had not been paid, or were beaten, denied food, or subjected to sexual violence, thus joined the ranks of criminal suspects and offenders in Kuwait’s penal system. While some workers were able to report abuse through their embassies or directly to the police, very few could successfully pursue claims to their resolution.
Domestic workers seeking assistance at police stations were left unsure as to whether they would be helped or penalized, while some workers were abused by the authorities responsible for their protection. In January 2010, Kuwaiti papers reported two separate incidents in which policemen or immigration officers admitted to raping domestic workers in their custody. Most domestic workers whom Human Rights Watch interviewed avoided going to the police station and instead sought assistance from their home country embassies or local community groups.
Administrative complaint resolution proves similarly ineffective. Embassies typically direct workers’ employment complaints first to the Domestic Workers’ Department for dispute resolution. The department cannot compel employers to attend dispute resolution hearings, nor can they evaluate the complaint and impose an equitable solution. Instead, the responsible officer mediates between a representative of the worker’s embassy and the employer, trying to get the parties to reach an agreement. Even when sponsors did participate in such negotiations, they sometimes bargained for full or partial repayment of recruitment fees in exchange for paying overdue wages, providing an air ticket home, or returning the domestic worker’s passport. Such agreements are made even though the standard contract prohibits domestic workers being charged for recruitment fees.
For nonpayment and other breach of contract claims, the current standard domestic labor contract provides that any disputes arising under its provisions should be referred to a Kuwaiti court. Workers who were victims of crimes and those who considered pursuing civil legal claims after failing to resolve their cases through the Domestic Workers Department faced a host of practical and financial concerns that discouraged them from doing so. These included the length of time involved in filing a claim; high filing fees and limited access to legal services; lack of accommodation and employment opportunities during the review period; difficulty substantiating their claims with evidence that would convince a court given the lack of witnesses or poor police investigations; and mistrust of the legal system.
Domestic workers who left homes in which they said they worked without pay for months on end, experienced physical or sexual abuse, or worked without sufficient food or medical care, also had very few options for emergency shelter while they tried to resolve their claims or return to their home countries. Many workers turn initially for help to their recruitment agency, which served as their first point of contact in Kuwait. However, workers that Human Rights Watch interviewed said that, in some cases, recruitment agents gave them inadequate food or shelter, or tried to coerce them into working in another home even if they wished to leave Kuwait.
The Kuwaiti government currently provides no immediately accessible shelter to domestic workers in distress. Despite the fact that hundreds of domestic workers need shelter on any given day, at the time of Human Rights Watch’s visit, the official government shelter could house just 50 to 60 women. Shelter policy allows the facility to accommodate only women who have no “cases,” meaning women whose employers or others have not reported them as “absconding” or filed criminal charges (even ones with no credible basis) against them. These overly restrictive policies left the government shelter operating well under capacity. In the meantime, domestic workers who sought refuge at their home country embassies found themselves waiting for weeks or months in crowded shelters while overtaxed embassy staff tried to resolve their cases. In October 2009, the Indonesian embassy housed over 600 domestic workers, while in November 2009 the Sri Lankan embassy sheltered over 200. Domestic workers whose governments do not maintain embassies in Kuwait lack even this option.
Abuse of domestic workers in Kuwait is not new. Almost two decades ago, Human Rights Watch reported that “nearly two thousand women domestic servants … have fled the homes of abusive Kuwaiti employers and sought refuge in their embassies,” and that “there exists a significant and pervasive pattern of rape, physical assault and mistreatment of Asian maids that takes place largely with impunity.” The 1992 report, “Punishing the Victim: Rape and Mistreatment of Asian Maids in Kuwait,” found that the government “made no systematic effort to document abused women's criminal complaints or civil claims,” but deported large groups of workers rather than resolving their claims or offering alternatives like job transfer. “Deportation seems to have allowed the Kuwaiti government to wash its hands of the maids’ problems without addressing the underlying causes of their abuse,” it concluded.
The Kuwaiti government continues to rely on deportation as the primary method for dealing with the several thousand domestic workers who terminate their employment by “absconding,” or leaving their employers without consent. Even workers who claim that their employers breached their contractual obligations or abused them physically or sexually, often leave Kuwait through deportation proceedings. Workers reported spending weeks or months in official custody, moving from embassy shelters to police stations to criminal investigation facilities to deportation detention. Many of the workers Human Rights Watch interviewed said that officers had failed to explain any charges against them, or they had failed to provide information on when these charges would be resolved and they could leave the country.
The head of Kuwait’s deportation department told Human Rights Watch that workers could wait lengthy periods in deportation detention while waiting for passports or travel documents, air tickets, or the resolution of any remaining charges against them (though the workers should have been cleared of such charges before entering deportation custody). Relying on deportation to “solve” domestic workers’ problems treats them as offenders rather than workers legitimately seeking to change employment. Current procedures also neglect workers’ own potential claims against employers, leaving them to depart without the wages that they are owed or redress for blatant breaches of other contract provisions.
In an April 2010 public address in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Navanethem Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, joined the call for reform of the sponsorship system, one of the lynchpins enabling employer abuse and worker vulnerability across the Gulf region. In her speech, at the beginning of a tour examining human rights priorities across Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Pillay stated that “many problems have arisen through a lack of protection safeguards in the so-called kafala – or sponsorship – system that leaves migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation in an unequal power relationship with their employers,” and stressed that “the numerous highly vulnerable domestic workers do not yet receive anything like adequate legal protection.” However, she continued, “all the governments I have spoken to so far recognize that this needs to change.”
Today, further advancements must overcome significant opposition from political factions and local recruitment businesses. Full protection of migrant domestic workers’ basic rights in Kuwait remains an unrealized goal.
To the Government of Kuwait:
To Governments Whose Nationals Perform Domestic Work in Kuwait, including India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Nepal, and Ethiopia:
Reform Kuwait’s sponsorship system. In particular, remove provisions on absconding, including any criminal penalties. Repeal or amend all articles and regulations under the Aliens’ Residence Law to enable foreign workers to change employers without losing valid immigration status and without having to obtain their first employer’s permission.
- Prohibit employers from confiscating domestic workers’ passports. Monitor compliance and penalize employers and recruiters who violate this prohibition.
- Include domestic workers under Kuwait’s labor laws. Ensure that a specific law for domestic work does not create weaker or unequal protections to those in the main labor laws. Set out and enforce standard labor rights protected by the ILO conventions that Kuwait has signed, including defined working hours, freedom to take a weekly day off outside employer supervision, and just and equitable employment conditions including regular payment of wages.
- Inform domestic workers of their rights and responsibilities under Kuwaiti law, and provide information and contact details for sources of assistance. Make this information available in languages spoken fluently by the largest numbers of domestic workers in Kuwait.
- Empower the Ministry of Labor to resolve domestic labor complaints through dispute-resolution or arbitration mechanisms. Refer all complaints that do not reach resolution to the courts system. Create a labor-complaints court that can expedite resolution of domestic worker complaints, allowing workers who have faced abuse to return home as soon as possible.
- Collect and publish statistics on a yearly basis regarding the number and type of complaints filed with both courts of law and the Domestic Workers’ Department (or any authority that assumes supervision of domestic labor) as well as on how these complaints are resolved.
- Provide shelters or financial support for civil society shelters that meet international standards and allow access to all workers escaping abusive work conditions.
- Create a domestic labor inspection task force to monitor working conditions and legal compliance for this sector. In particular, investigate places of work where domestic workers have alleged violations.
- Increase recruitment agency monitoring by devoting greater resources towards this mandate and by hiring more staff for the Domestic Workers Department, or any alternate government monitoring authority created. Ensure accountability for agency abuses.
Source: Human Rights Watch: Walls at Every Turn. Abuse of Migrant Domestic Workers through Kuwait’s Sponsorship System, October 6, 2010; www.hrw.org
Enhance labor departments of embassies or consulates in Kuwait to assist migrant domestic worker nationals whose rights are violated by their employers.
- Inform all domestic workers before they travel abroad of their contractual rights as well as their rights under Kuwaiti and international law. Provide information on means of support and legal assistance, as well as contact information for embassy officials and other resources in Kuwait.
- Raise cases of nationals who suffered abuse at the diplomatic, and if necessary, public level. Advocate for increased legal protection and assistance to domestic workers in Kuwait who face criminal assault or work for long periods without pay.