UN Talk: Ensuring Decent Work for Domestic Workers

The Office of the UN Resident Coordinator and the International Labor Organization (ILO) are collaborating with the Public Authority of Manpower (PAM), the Kuwait Trade Union Federation and International Organization for Migration (IOM) to organize ‘UN Talk: Ensuring Decent Work for Domestic Workers’ to raise awareness on issues related to domestic workers.

The one-day discussion, which will be held at the UN House in Mishref on Thursday, 27 June, will attempt to explore the recent changes in the domestic work sector regulations in Kuwait. The talks will aim to place these developments in the broader regional and global context, while also discussing the remaining challenges that need to be addressed to ensure a right-based framework that protects both domestic workers and their employers.

UN Talk is a dialogue platform that discusses solutions rather than problems, it seeks collaboration rather than to level criticism. The talks help bring the world near to you and you closer to all. It aims to utilize the power of multilateralism for bringing about sustainable development in Kuwait.

Keynote speakers at the high-profile event include the United Nations Secretary General Representative and Resident Coordinator Dr. Tarek El-Sheikh; Deputy Director General for Manpower Protection, Public Authority of Manpower Abdullah AlMutoutah; the Program Manager ILO Regional Office for Arab States Sophia Kagan; Labor Mobility, Human Development Specialist UN Migration IOM Roberto Cancel; and President, Kuwait Trade Union Federation Salem Shabeeb Al-Ajmi.

The eminent speakers will attempt to shed light on a variety of topics ranging from the role of the Domestic Workers Department within the PAM; providing decent work to domestic workers based on ILO standards; the role of IOM in supporting the protection of domestic workers alongside regional and international efforts; and the role of trade unions in ensuring protection for domestic workers.

A documentary ‘Thank you Soma’ will also be aired on the occasion to highlight the role of household workers in taking care of chores and leaving employers to lead a relatively hassle-free life. A look at the numbers reveal how dependent many households in Kuwait are on their domestic helpers.

With over 675,000 household workers, Kuwait is second only to Saudi Arabia in the number of workers who are engaged as domestic helpers. However, the huge discrepancy between the two countries becomes evident when one realizes that Saudi Arabia with a total population in excess of 34 million has a domestic worker ratio of around 4.5 percent. In contrast, Kuwait with a total population of 4.8 million has a domestic worker ratio of 14.3 percent.

The large number of household helpers in the country and the chaotic manner in which they are currently recruited, deployed and treated has led to numerous cases of abuse and atrocities against domestic workers. Many household workers, the majority of whom hail from India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Bangladesh and a few African countries have been subject to physical violations and suppression of their human rights.

Recent incidents of violence against domestic workers have taken place despite Kuwait enacting an anti-trafficking law in 2013 to ensure that the rights of domestic workers are fully protected. In 2015, for the first time, Kuwait also introduced enforceable domestic labor rights for domestic workers. Law 68/2015 aims to improve protections for domestic workers and includes several rights, such as 12-hour working day with rest periods, a weekly day off and 30 days of annual paid leave. In addition, the new law prohibits employers from confiscating workers’ passports, a common form of rights abuse in Kuwait.

Though the introduction of the law was a welcome move by the government, several human rights activists pointed out that it lacked many of the key protections given by the general labor law to workers in the public and private sector. Moreover, the law lacked teeth, as it did not specify penalties for those violating the law, nor did it include enforcement mechanisms, such as domestic labor inspections.

Meanwhile, the IOM office in Kuwait has been working relentlessly to provide services and advice concerning good migration governance to the authorities and to support migrant workers. IOM’s mission in Kuwait continues to provide any needed support to the government shelter by providing assisted voluntary return and reintegration (AVRR) to vulnerable workers and organizing entertainment events which aim to provide positive support for their emotional wellbeing.

On the occasion of International Domestic Workers day on June 16, the IOM office in Kuwait, organized a series of events to celebrate domestic workers in cooperation with the Social Work Society (SWS). The first event was an outreach activity that took place at the Avenues mall on 14 and 15 June. During the event IOM staff distributed cards reading ‘Thank you’ to employers of domestic workers.  The initiative encouraged employers to pass the cards to their domestic employees as a sign of appreciation. Domestic workers who have also visited IOM’s booth, received flowers and colorful frames where they could keep the cards. This outreach activity was the first of its kind and was well received by the public.

The second celebration took place at the Government Shelter for Female Migrant Workers run by PAM. Several entertainment activities were organized for the shelter residents, including group motivational sessions, yoga classes, art and dance classes. In parallel to both events, a social media rollout was implemented to highlight the domestic workers law 68/2015. The selected articles tackled the most common misconceptions among households, such as withholding documents and transferring employment of domestic workers. The rollout targeted households, with the aim of raising their awareness about the domestic workers law so that they respect the regulations when recruiting.

No doubt, having such events raises the morale of domestic workers, and having enforceable laws such as 68/2015 are better than having no laws. But it is in the implementation of the law by the authorities and changes in employer attitudes to reflect the letter and spirit of the law that will determine how domestic workers are treated by their employers.