‘My family thought I was dead’: Domestic helpers narrate tales of mistreatment

Unpaid salaries for up to 15 years, abuse and empty promises

Punyawathie, AR and Marina

KUWAIT: A majority of people working in Kuwait are happy, even in the household service sector, where they are cared for and treated well by employers. But a few reported cases of mistreatment at the hands of abusive sponsors make the headlines of local dailies. These are documented cases of abuse, and sadly, sometimes result in the death of domestic helpers.
According to Human Rights Watch, Kuwait has more than 660,000 domestic workers in a population of 4 million. The group has documented cases of abuse of domestic helpers, including confiscation of passports, forcing them to work excessively for hours without rest or a weekly day off, confining them to employers’ homes, verbally abusing them and in some cases, physically and sexually assaulting them. Furthermore, suicides and deaths of domestic workers are reported every year in Kuwait.

According to records provided by embassies, Sri Lankans in Kuwait number 94,348, of which 70,013 are domestic helpers, while the Philippines has about 250,000 nationals here with 160,000 of them domestic helpers. From February to May this year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte banned Filipinos from accepting jobs in Kuwait after the death of a Filipina housemaid Joanna Demafelis, whose body was found stuffed in a freezer in a Maidan Hawally apartment. Duterte alleged employers routinely rape their Filipina workers, force them to work 21 hours a day and feed them scraps.

The domestic labor tension between the Philippines and Kuwait escalated further towards mid-April, when several videos of rescue operations by the Philippine Embassy were posted on social media, which upset the Kuwaiti authorities. It resulted in the expulsion of the Philippine ambassador and declaring him persona non grata in May. Later, the two countries agreed to end the tension by formally signing a memorandum of agreement.

Kuwait Times spoke to Sri Lankan and Filipino housemaids who were abused and mistreated to the extent that their salaries were not paid for years.

KUWAIT: In this file photo, Philippine Embassy officials announce the resumption of the deployment of Filipino domestic helpers to Kuwait on June 4 at the embassy premises. —Photos by Ben Garcia

No salary
Sri Lankan housemaid AR was employed in a Kuwaiti household in Andalus for more than 15 years, and during this period, received no salary. How did this happen, and why didn’t she receive any support from her government, recruitment agencies and the host government? Why did she wait this long before escaping?

After arriving in Kuwait, AR initially worked for a few months, but decided to transfer to a new employer when she felt that she wasn’t treated well. After pleading with her agency, she was transferred to another household without knowing she would be working there for 15 years without pay. AR, 56, was born and raised at Panadura, a large town in Kalutara district in western Sri Lanka. AR entered Kuwait on a domestic helper visa when she was 40.

Her father died when she was a child, but her mother was able to send her to school. AR is the second child in her family. Since the eldest was a boy, she had to look after her six sisters and two younger brothers. She was eventually convinced by her mother to go abroad. She went to Saudi Arabia to work as a domestic helper from 1999 to 2000. In 2001, she went to Kuwait, but was not happy with her sponsor, so she quit and went back to Sri Lanka. She tried to apply for another job again and eventually came to Kuwait for the second time in 2003.

AR’s first sponsor wasn’t good, so she only worked there for seven months. At the second employer’s house where she was transferred to, she was treated well, but she wasn’t paid any salary. She hoped that one day her salary would be given, so she waited – for 15 years. “They are good employers and treated me just like a member of the family. But during my first year, they took away all contact details of my family, so there was no way I could communicate or contact them at all. I pleaded and searched for my contact information. I even told them to take me to the Sri Lankan embassy, but it remained a promise. So I left without anything,” she told Kuwait Times through an interpreter.

AR said she only got KD 20 five months ago before she fled to her embassy on April 29, 2018 for assistance. The embassy filed a case with the domestic workers’ department to get back salaries of 14 years and 3 months. The authorities in Kuwait tried to convince her sponsors to attend hearings at the police department, but they didn’t bother to show up. Her case was elevated to the local court and is supported by the Sri Lankan Embassy.

Abuse and mistreatment
Another Sri Lankan housemaid named Marina, 47, sought her embassy’s assistance for non-payment of salary, abuse and mistreatment. “I suffered a lot from both my female sponsor and her husband, who is a police officer,” she sobbed while narrating her story. “My employers would always hit my head with anything. He would curse me and my parents and would threaten to kill me. They would grab my neck if I committed any mistakes,” she said.

Marina was born in the eastern Sri Lankan province of Batticaloa, and got married at a very young age. Her husband was completely paralyzed due to cancer 11 years ago. Marina is a mother of four children (two daughters aged 19 and 17 and two sons 16 and 13). Like AR, she went to Saudi Arabia in the 1990s and worked there for several years as a domestic helper. In 2016, she came to Kuwait and worked for a year and got a regular monthly salary. However, for the next seven months she got no salary, prompting her to run away on Feb 16, 2018. “I was taken twice to Saudi Arabia by my Kuwaiti sponsors and worked there for several months with their relatives,” she added. Her case is also being heard at domestic workers’ department.

Nothing but promises
Another maid from Batticaloan, Punyawathie, also sought the embassy’s assistance for non-payment of salary. She claims she hasn’t been paid for the last 15 months. She is a widower with three children. She also went to Saudi Arabia in 2011 and then to Kuwait in 2015. During her two years of stay, she was getting a regular monthly salary of KD 40. But for the next year and three months, she got nothing but promises. She decided to run away and went to her embassy on April 4, 2018.

Abuse and lies
Joy, 37, is a Filipina housemaid who suffered mistreatment and abuse at the hands of her Kuwaiti employer. She hasn’t been paid for almost 10 years of service as a domestic helper. Since running away in 2015, she is at the embassy’s shelter awaiting the resolution of her case. She said her case is dragging due to her uncooperative employer and negligence by the officer handling her case.

“According to the people at the embassy, my lawyer (provided by the embassy) filed my complaint at the wrong office, so my case has been dragging for the last three years. But more than anything, it’s because of my uncooperative employer. If they had paid me in the first place, probably I would not be staying here this long. But thank God, I have made friends here at the embassy and have become an office helper. I stayed because of my case, and I want to fight for my rights until the end. It’s okay for me to stay a bit longer here as long as I get my rights and compensation for the lost years,” she said.
Joy’s employer made her believe that her salary was deposited in the bank and some money was remitted to her family in Manila. She initially believed her employer, but eventually found out that all of those claims were lies. “My family told me that they never received any amount for 10 years. I found out the truth because they said they had been trying their best to find me in Kuwait. I was able to communicate with my family again when I escaped and reached the safety of the embassy. Of course, my family was shocked to hear my voice – they thought I was dead,” she said.

A native of Davao, Joy came to Kuwait when she was 24. At that time, her only dream was to help her parents raise her younger siblings, who were living in dire poverty. Kuwait Times asked her if there was a chance for her to leave her employer during the past 10 years. “No. My boss’ sons and daughters kept me in close watch wherever I went and even in the malls, I was closely monitored,” she said.

Fake receipt
Nora, another Filipina victim of abuse, claims seven years of unpaid salary. She worked with her Syrian employer for 13 years but received no salary during the last six years of service. Since 2012, her employer would tell her that her salary was being sent to her family in the Philippines, showing her a fake receipt of remittance under the sponsor’s name. She has no contact with her family because she was not allowed to have a mobile of her own. At that time, she thought that having a mobile phone was only for those who could afford it.

“Whenever I wanted to communicate with my family, my female employer would buy an international calling card, but that was during my first six years. After six years, whenever I wanted to communicate with my family, she would simply say no, claiming they had no money,” she said. “I wanted to jump out of the window, but was always hesitant due to the fact that I would meet a gruesome death. So I waited for an opportunity to leave – at least my sponsors were not trying to kill me,” noted Nora. “The wife of my sponsor was very aggressive. She got angry even over small mistakes. She would hit me on my head with hard things, sometimes with broomsticks or even a vase. She would also slap me in my face often. The husband would just watch while his wife inflicted pain on my body,” she said.

Nora added she was kept in a small room among the family’s household stuff. “I only had a small space to sleep. I couldn’t move in that room, but stayed because I knew God would help me,” she said. While waiting for the resolution of her case, Nora serves as a houseparent at the embassy’s shelter. She has been at the embassy for more than a year. “I refused to be sent back home during the amnesty because I want to get the money I worked for. I was included in the list of amnesty takers in April but my case is still being heard. I know that I am safe here at the embassy and I can follow up my case at any time. If I go back home, I am sure my case will not progress,” she said.

Irregular pay
Lastly, a Filipina housemaid named Christine claims she has been unpaid for one year and seven months. She worked all around her employers’ house, from being a nanny to cleaning and cooking. She is a widower from Bulacan with two children. “My husband died in 2014 from severe asthma. When he died, I felt I lost my hands. But I couldn’t watch my kids eat unhealthy foods every day just because their father died. At the end of the day, it’s my responsibility to feed them and send them to school, so I told my mother that in order for me and my kids to survive, I needed to go abroad. She agreed so I accepted this job offer in Kuwait,” she said.

“During my first year, I received KD 80 from my monthly salary of KD 110. My arrangement with my boss was to keep the KD 30 every time I got my salary as savings. They agreed, but towards the end of 2016, my salary became irregular, and when I asked for my money, they always said ‘inshallah’. I kept asking until they became irritable. I was rescued from my employer’s house by the embassy’s staff accompanied by a police officer. I have a case against my employer and I have been waiting at the embassy for six months,” Christine said.

Christine used to sleep in a small room with a baby. She slept on the floor while the baby slept on a small bed. She managed to take rest when the baby was asleep, but had to wake up at 4:00 am to prepare breakfast for the family.

By Ben Garcia


This article was published on 10/07/2018