Friday, January 27, 2006

Not in Kansas any more, Toto

Over the next week or so I'm going to post some articles from the Arab Times (no doubt in horrendous breach of copyright, but we'll see how long my luck holds), because some of the articles have to be seen to be believed by the average Westerner. Here's the first:

KUWAIT CITY (AP): Annu, an Asian housemaid, says she worked 19-hour days for a year and was paid nothing. Her eyes well up with tears as she slapped her hand, demonstrating what her employers did when she reached out for food when it wasn’t lunchtime – the only meal they gave her. When she could no longer stand the treatment, Annu fled for help to the embassy of her homeland. The gaunt 38-year-old, her black hair gathered at the back of her head in a plastic clip, said she didn’t want to leave this country and hoped to find a new employer. Her three children back home need the money. “Some Kuwaiti people think that maids are slaves, that should be changed,” said a diplomat at the embassy of Annu’s country. He did not want to be identified by name or country to avoid harming ties with Kuwait.

An average of 15 maids seek refuge at the embassy every day, he said. About 166 maids currently were living in the embassy awaiting the outcome of mediation. With their employers, compensation for rape, or air tickets home. In June, the US State Department named its major ally Kuwait — estimated population 2.7 million — as one of the countries that have too little to combat human trafficking. The report cited abuse of domestic workers and laborers, and the use of boys from South Asia and Africa as jockeys in camel races. The Bush administration then waived the threat of financial or cultural sanctions on all countries on the list but Myanmar, Cuba and North Korea. There was no explanation when the decision was announced in September. The American Ambassador, Richard LeBaron, told reporters last month, that Kuwait had “good intentions and plans,” for change but “concrete actions are what will make the difference in the re-evaluation of Kuwait’s practices that we will need to make by January.”

Mentioning the January deadline suggested a new list could be assembled, but it was not clear if sanctions would be threatened again. Beyond the approximately 450,000 domestic servants, tens of thousands of laborers from the Indian subcontinent herd sheep in the desert, collect garbage, clean streets, hospitals and government offices, and work in agriculture for salaries as low as 20 dinars ($68) a month. Demonstrations by laborers claiming they aren’t paid for months at a time are common. In April, more than 700 Bangladeshi workers ransacked their country’s embassy in frustration. Newspaper columnists have called their plight “slave trade.”

Lawmaker Ali al-Rashed, who heads Parliament’s human rights committee, said servant abuse is an “exception” and some maids “make up” stories of abuse to get out of their contracts. However, he conceded the government must act more quickly to guarantee prompt payment of laborers and punish companies that “harm Kuwait’s reputation,” by not meeting their obligations. Some cleaning workers have told The Associated press they depend on charities for food. Kuwait has activated a ban on boys riding camels in races and robots have been introduced to take their places. The government has a labor claims department, but not all foreign laborers know about it, speak enough Arabic to communicate their grievances or can afford the transportation and time off from work to use it.

A new Cabinet-proposed bill for private sector workers is widely expected to address labor issues, but it has not been deliberated in Parliament, and it does not cover domestic workers. The United Nations’ International Organization for Migration proposed in April 2004 the establishment of a Migration Resource Center which would give guidance and legal services for foreign workers who face problems and don’t know where to find help.

“So far, the proposal is still in the corridors of the Social Affairs and Labor Ministry,” said Mohammed al-Nassery, the IOM’s chief of mission in Kuwait. Al-Nassery said he has not been able to find a way to gain access to maids at their workplaces in a way that would not “compromise” the privacy or the integrity of the Kuwaiti household.

Muslim clerics should preach humane treatment of foreign laborers, and human rights should be included in school books, he said, adding that changing behavior will take generations. A the root of the grievances is the sponsorship system, which allows a Kuwaiti individual to employ house help, dismiss them or send them back home at whim. Although it is illegal, most hold the passports of these workers. The union that represents the 500 companies that recruit domestic workers from Asian nations is writing new contracts to be signed by maids, the sponsor and the recruitment agency. They are said to limit working hours to eight, ensure overtime payments and a day off. The Asian diplomat, however, said the contracts would be pointless if maids, for example, are kept in the homes of their employers and off limits to those who could help them.

Asked if Kuwait would be removed from the US State Department list of countries that have failed to sufficiently combat human trafficking, the IOM official said: “Not yet … they (the government) have shown good will, but they haven’t acted on it yet.” Many Kuwaitis reject outside pressure for change, even from Washington, the leading force in the 1991 Gulf War which ended a seven-month Iraqi occupation of this country. A cartoon published in Al-Watan daily newspaper in November, showed a citizen telling what appeared to be a US ambassador: “I hope that you don’t think we have become your slaves because you liberated us, Mr ambassador.” When the diplomat told him they were using boys to ride camels in races and not giving Asian workers their dues, the man replied: “Oooh, I thought you were talking about something important.”

OK, so I knew that domestic servants are basically slaves, from the first time I saw an ad in the paper asking for anyone who knew the whereabouts of this runaway maid to please contact the nearest police station. And I know that the Kuwaiti govt passes a lot of laws outlawing this kind of thing, which everybody ignores. Just as an example, the article mentions that it's illegal for sponsors to hold their employees passports - well, I don't know of a single sponsor that doesn't hold their third-world employees' passports. When any of my Indian workers go on vacation, I have to write a nice grovelly letter to their Kuwaiti sponsor, telling him that Mr So-and-so needs to have his passport so he can go back to India, and could they please help him out in this respect. Writing a letter that says "It's illegal for you to hold Mr So-and-so's passport, you scumbag" would be counter-productive.

Two punchlines of the article:
1. The comment by the head of the stunningly misnamed "Human Rights Committee" of Parliament, that servant abuse is an exception and maids make up stories to get out of their contracts. Given that any maid that runs away is basically on a fast track to prostitution, I think it's likely their motivation extends a little beyond the desire to weasel out of their contract. It's also enlightening to consider the driving force behind the Committee's work - to prevent harm to Kuwait's reputation. Frankly, among the people who work here Kuwait's reputation in this respect could hardly get worse.
2. What really freaks me out is the maid mentioned at the start of the article doesn't want to leave Kuwait and hopes to find another job. In other words, where she comes from, it's worse than this. Once again I get to feel rich, lucky and depressed at the same time.