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Workers continue to spend long periods waiting at embassy shelters, including the Philippines safe house, shown here. Since 1992, the Kuwaiti government has relied on deportation as the primary method for dealing with domestic workers who face employment-related problems. Workers reported spending weeks or months in official custody, moving from embassy shelters to police stations, and from there to criminal investigation facilities, before they were sent to deportation detention. © 2010 Moises Saman/Magnum Photos
(Beirut) – The Philippines’ new ban on Filipinos migrating to Kuwait for work is likely to increase abuses of workers who are forced to resort to unsafe and unregulated channels to enter the country, Human Rights Watch said today. Kuwait and the Philippines should instead agree on key reforms that could more effectively protect migrant domestic workers in Kuwait.

On January 19, 2018, the Philippines Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) ordered a temporary ban on Filipinos seeking to migrate to Kuwait for work, pending an investigation into seven deaths of domestic workers in the country. On February 12, the Philippines ordered a “total ban” on new workers migrating to Kuwait.

“The Philippines should work with Kuwait to protect workers rather than ban them from migrating, which is more likely to cause harm than to help,” said Rothna Begum, Middle East women’s rights researcher. “Kuwait should confront the outcry over deaths, beatings, and rapes of domestic workers by taking immediate steps to reform the kafala system, which traps workers with abusive employers.”

Kuwait’s kafala, or sponsorship, system ties migrant domestic workers’ visas to their employers, prohibiting workers from leaving or changing jobs without their employers’ consent.

Previous bans by the Philippines and similar bans by other countries of origin did little to end abuses in Kuwait or other Middle Eastern countries. Instead, people desperate to work still migrate, but through unsafe and unregulated channels. These can leave them exposed to abuse and trafficking and make it more difficult to address abuses.

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has called on employers in Kuwait and other Middle Eastern states to treat Filipinos as human beings. Kuwaiti authorities have claimed they are providing the Philippines with the results of their investigations into deaths but have yet to take any serious steps to deal with laws and policies that facilitate such abuse, Human Rights Watch said.

Kuwait has more than 660,000 migrant domestic workers in a population of 4 million. According to estimates by the Philippines, more than 250,000 Filipinos are in Kuwait, most of them domestic workers. Many send their salaries home to help feed, educate, and house their own families.

Human Rights Watch has extensively documented abuses of migrant domestic workers in Kuwait and other Middle Eastern countries. Employers confiscate domestic workers’ passports, force them to work excessively long hours without rest or a weekly day off, confine them to the employers’ homes, verbally abuse them, and in some cases, physically and sexually assault them. Suicides and deaths of domestic workers are reported every year in Kuwait.

In 2015, Kuwait passed a law on domestic workers extending labor protections for the first time, including a right to a weekly rest day, a 12-hour working day with rest periods, annual paid leave, and overtime compensation. In 2016, Kuwait became the first in the Gulf region to pass a minimum monthly wage of 60KD (US$200) for domestic workers. However, the law is weaker than Kuwait’s main labor law and does not conform to the International Labour Organization (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention. The law fails, for instance, to provide for workplace inspections in the home, which can be done with due regard to privacy.

Under Kuwait’s kafala system, workers who flee their employers can be arrested for “absconding” and fined, imprisoned for up to six months, deported, and barred from returning for at least six years.

The kafala system can force workers to remain with abusive employers and punish those who try to flee. Workers who seek legal redress often have to do so without an income as they cannot work for another employer without the initial employer’s permission. Many leave the country without getting justice.

Human Rights Watch has previously reported that the Domestic Workers Department, which mediates disputes between domestic workers and employer-sponsors, has no authority to compel employer participation. The 2015 domestic workers law authorized the department to sanction recruitment agencies, but not employers, for failing to respond to a summons.

Human Rights Watch also documented inconsistent responses by police officers to domestic workers. Some officers provided immediate assistance, while others detained the worker and called her employer or refused to accept a complaint.

In response to the Philippines ban, on February 13, the Kuwaiti cabinet authorized Al Durra Recruitment Company, the state-owned recruitment agency, to find workers from Indonesia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Nepal.

“The Kuwaiti government should fight the root causes of abuse of domestic workers – such as the kafala system – before looking to recruit workers from other countries,” Begum said. “Domestic workers from other countries like Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Nepal have faced similar problems in Kuwait.”

The Philippines has been a leader in protecting its domestic workers in the Middle East. Philippine embassies verify contracts to check that employers commit to paying a monthly minimum wage of US$400 and have requirements for agencies to pay for return flight tickets home for abused workers. But these work best for migrants arriving through a regulated channel.

The Philippines and Kuwait have yet to sign a pending bilateral labor agreement to protect Filipino domestic workers. President Duterte is considering a visit to Kuwait.

“While bilateral agreements have many limitations, they can be helpful when there is an agreed upon mutually enforceable employment contract that provides real protections, and effective complaint systems and investigation procedures,” Begum said.

The Philippines and Kuwait should agree on a bilateral agreement that includes a standard contract, a system for rescuing workers in distress and investigating worker abuses and deaths, a requirement to inform the Philippines of any national arrested, and a requirement for all employers who apply for work and residency permits for domestic workers to apply for authorization from the Philippines embassy, which can then register workers and provide protection. The Philippines should also seek agreement to continue criminal or civil cases against employers or agencies on behalf of workers who wish to return home and who provide a power of attorney to embassy officials.

The Philippines government should share and consult on the draft agreement with domestic workers, local nongovernmental groups, and trade unions and ensure that it includes monitoring systems with public reporting about how the agreement is being carried out.

The Philippines embassy should ask employers to register domestic workers when they arrive and should check in with workers periodically, and before they leave about their working conditions.

The Philippines should also increase oversight and effective monitoring of recruitment agencies, so they do not deceive workers or charge them recruitment costs or fees, and ensure that there is an expedited complaints process for returning workers to file complaints against agencies. Many workers say they find the current process too lengthy and drop cases so they can leave the Philippines to find new work.

“Both Kuwait and the Philippines have an opportunity to work together to increase protections for domestic workers and fix the gaps that are leaving workers vulnerable to extreme abuse,” Begum said.

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