Sunday, November 18, 2007

Social Justice for Migrant Workers

The abuse of migrant workers and domestic servants is often a prevalent topic of discussion in reference to the Persian Gulf countries. While physical abuse occurs in the worst cases, it is often the cheating of these workers of their salary and benefits that is more wide-spread. Domestic servants who work in the private homes of Arabs and expats are female migrant workers from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, or the Philippines. Their tasks range from cleaning and cooking to childcare. Although they are involved intimately in maintaining the affairs of house, they are often ignored and treated and not given due consideration as full human beings. There is even a website offering domestic labor service that allows a person to search for a suitable servant based on nationality and religion

Domestic servants are brought to Kuwait from their home countries on a certain type of visa that only permits them to work as domestic servants. Agencies act as the middle-men to bring the workers and arrange their visas and to find them employers. Normally, the domestic servant signs for a two-year contract to work in a person’s home at a salary of about $160 with food and clothing paid for by the employer. After the two years she is entitled for a paid airline ticket by her employer to return to her home country for a vacation.

One particular story I heard recently smacked of avarice. A non-Kuwaiti Arab couple both of whom were doctors had been nice to their maid. Yet as the two year mark approached and the maid wanted to travel, the employers began changing their attitude towards her and telling her that she could only travel for less than the normally granted time. Also, the maid was seeking to be released by her employers so that she could find more profitable work in a store or restaurant. A release requires the employers to sign a document releasing the domestic servant from their employment in order for her to change her visa status so that she may work in more well-paid jobs in a store or restaurant. However, the employers of this maid, who lived a comfortable life and were well-off, attempted to extort money from her by demanding that she pay them an exorbitant amount such as a $1,000 for them to sign the release paper. She refused and was returned to the agency before her two year contract ended allowing her employers to forego the expenditure of her rightfully deserved plane ticket per the stipulations of the contract.

Though it is unfortunate that such incidents occur and there is little recourse for justice for the domestic servants, even in the extreme cases of violence and rape (see this Al-Jazeera English news report that highlights two Indonesian servants that were abused by their sponsors in Kuwait), there is hope that there is a growing awareness among Kuwaitis for the need to redress these abuses and promote social justice. The granddaughter of the current Amir of Kuwait, Bibi Nasser al-Sabah, is involved in the Social Work Society of Kuwait which provides various forms of assistance to migrant workers such as helping detained workers return to their home countries, helping them get medical care, and promoting reforms in the labor laws. She runs a blog promoting social justice for migrant workers.

It is important to note that the problem of domestic worker abuse is not restricted to the Gulf Arabs but is rather a widespread problem stretching from Africa to India to East Asia the roots of which lie in a traditional mentality veiled from the light of education. I remember watching a program in the US that documented abuse of African domestic servants in the US by their African immigrant employers. Though seemingly slow, but yet surely, the light of education will pierce the veils of ignorance as humanity acknowledges the oneness of mankind and the implications thereof.

The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.” –Baha’u’llah

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