Fifteen months after the body of Filipino Joanna Demafelis was discovered in a freezer in her employers’ home in Kuwait, promised legal protections for domestic workers in the Gulf state remain unfulfilled, Asia Times has found.

At a government-run shelter in the town of Jeleeb al-Shuyoukh, 26-year-old Tala burst into tears as she recounted her 23 days in hell”.

The young woman, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, arrived in Kuwait nearly a year after a diplomatic crisis over the Demafelis murder erupted – at the time prompting Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to ban his nationals from working in the Gulf state.

In April 2018, a Kuwaiti court sentenced the employers of Demafelis, a Lebanese man and a Syrian woman, to death by hanging in absentia. They had long since fled the country, but the severity of the sentence was greeted favorably by Manila.

The following month, the Philippines and Kuwait signed an accord meant to ensure better conditions for some 139,000 Filipino domestic workers. The agreement explicitly forbade the confiscation of passports by employers and mandated the Philippines’ approval for the renewal of any contract, paving the way for a full restoration of labor relations.

But according to Tala, official improvements to the law have not translated behind the walls of employers’ homes.

A woman exits the Embassy of the Philippines to Kuwait in Al Siddeeq, Kuwait. Photo: Sebastian Castelier for Asia Times

To serve a Kuwaiti family of 12, Tala says she was made to wake up every day at 7am and work without a break until 2am – seven hours over the legal daily limit. “Yet I was fed coffee and biscuits only,” she said.

When Tala, who is Muslim, wanted to perform prayers, she says her Kuwaiti employer refused, telling her that “work should be completed first”. As a result, she missed prayer times – a violation of her religious rights under the domestic worker law.

“[My employer] said that she bought me,” Tala screamed. “But don’t treat me this way, I am not an animal,” she said, bursting into tears. 

While Tala has found refuge at this government-run shelter, her repatriation to the Philippines is on hold. Her passport was confiscated by her employer.

Law vs reality

Saleh Al Hasan, a legal researcher for the Kuwait Society For Human Rights, does not mince his words when speaking of the plight of women like Tala.

“Kuwaitis do not understand that domestic workers have dignity and should be treated as human, not objects,” Hasan told Asia Times.

Under the kafala, or sponsorship system, which is present throughout the Gulf and greater Middle East, a domestic worker is bound to her employer to maintain legal status in the country. That dynamic makes the system inherently ripe for exploitation, according to Amnesty International. Hasan notes that employers often justify the illegal passport confiscation as insurance against theft, running away, or divulging of any family secrets, such as adultery.

In reality, however, “they keep passports to enslave people,” he said.

According to a 2018 report by the Kuwait Society For Human Rights, 93% of employers continue to confiscate their domestic workers’ passports. “We haven’t seen any changes since Joanna Demafelis died,” Hasan sighs.

At the Philippines Embassy to Kuwait, Vice Consul Charleson Hermosura says his staff now receive fewer abuse-related complaints.

Filipino nationals who work in Kuwait attend a Christian mass in Ahmadi, Kuwait. Photo: Sebastian Castelier for Asia Times

“Kuwaitis got afraid to lose their Filipino employees,” the diplomat told Asia Times. But he acknowledges that once a maid has entered her employer’s house, “it is difficult to follow up”.

He conceded that a bilateral meeting, meant to monitor the implementation of the Philippines-Kuwait labor agreement, has yet to occur.

Manila was reportedly studying a renewed ban on its citizens working in Kuwait last week, Reuters reported, after the death of another Filipino maid in the Gulf state sparked outrage.

‘I have to cry’

The last time 28-year-old Filipino domestic worker Darna saw her passport was in November 2018, when she entered her employer’s house.

“I was promised a weekly day off and a maximum of 12 working hours per day, but there was not,” Darna (not her real name) told Asia Times.

After weeks of forced labor for over 18 hours a day, Darna landed at the same shelter as Norhan, where more than 80 Filipino women have taken refuge. 

Dalisay, a maid who has been working in Kuwait since 2013, says she fled an abusive employer after successive sexual assaults and attempted rape. If it were up to her, she told Asia Times, “I would not let any more Filipino maid[s] work in Kuwait.”

While Dalisay managed to convince the abusive employer to send her back to the hiring agency for a reassignment, she says her fellow Filipinos are often forced to tolerate sexual abuse to make it through their contracts.

Philippine diplomat Hermosura insists Tala, Darna, and Dalisay are in the minority, and that less than 5% of Filipino domestic workers in Kuwait face problems – typically for unpaid salaries.

Rights advocate Hasan calls that a “ridiculous” estimate, which does not account for thousands of unreported cases. Even when domestic workers have the courage to report allegations of abuse to the police, they are not taken seriously, he says. 

“They just laugh at them, sometimes ask for sexual favors and lock them up for running away,” said Hasan, adding that employers can file a complaint if a domestic worker has been gone for more than 24 hours.

Portrait of journalist Michelle Fe Santiago, Middle East Correspondent for the Filipino media group ABS-CBN and co-founder of Pinoy Arabia, a leading Filipino radio streaming across the Gulf. Photo: Sebastian Castelier for Asia Times

While Kuwaiti rights activists like Hasan are key advocates for foreign domestic workers, Filipinos are also taking their fates into their own hands.

Since 1999, Filipino journalist Michelle Fe Santiago has been living in Kuwait and working to highlight abuses faced by domestic workers.

“One of the stories that shocked me the most involved a Kuwaiti policeman who raped a Filipina in the back of the police car, stabbed her everywhere with an ice pick and left her in the desert half dead. I visited her at the hospital and it really broke my heart. I was the first one to report it. She was crying and I told her to not worry – that we will get help,” she recounted.

Her reporting on that case seven years ago had an impact: “A human rights lawyer read my article and took the case, for free. As a result, the policeman was sentenced to death, before it was converted to a life sentence,” Santiago recalled.

“I control my tears in front of interviewees, but when I go back home I have to cry, it is too heavy,” the Middle East Correspondent for Philippines news outlet ABS-CBN told Asia Times.

Santiago in October 2014 went beyond her role as a correspondent, deciding that she wanted to reach her fellow Filipinos in the Gulf, co-founding Pinoy Arabia – an online radio streaming platform. 

The longterm Kuwait resident says that despite the hardships she reports on, she is optimistic about the future – thanks in large part to the power of social media.

“Awareness is increasing among the community thanks to social networks,” she said. Cases of distress, she adds, can now go viral.