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 ordereda “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 passa 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.
Published on HRW on February 21, 2018
The European Union is working with Libyan coastguards to reduce the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea. But many of those intercepted end up in detention centres in Libya, where some migrants say they are used as slaves, as the BBC's Stephanie Hegarty found when she spoke to some Nigerians who have just returned home.
As evening falls on Benin City, outside the mildewed 1960s block of one of the city's many hotels, a group of men and women are sitting on a scattering of plastic chairs, under a sign advertising "exotic cocktails" and "groovy nights".
But they are not here for drinks or dancing, they are about to start the hard work of rebuilding their lives.
They have come from Libya, where most of them were held in detention centres by the Libyan authorities. And they have returned with accounts of horrifying abuse, including being leased or sold as slaves.
'They gave us to their friends'Agen Akhere has a round, baby-face but his small eyes are searing red. He is sniffling as he talks, and looks like he might well up with tears.
He was held for two months in a detention centre in a place called Gharyan. He was registered by the UN's migration agency (IOM), released from the detention centre and flown home - but his friend did not make it.
"It's because of money," he said, pleading and craning his neck to get closer to the microphone. "My friend, he's still there. His name is Samson. He's still there, in Gharyan."
Gharyan is a prison in the mountains about 100km (60 miles) south of Tripoli. And it is a place where all of the migrants we spoke to were taken before they made it home.
Again and again they tell the same story, of detainees horrifically abused by prison guards, starved, beaten, raped - and traded as slaves.
"They come to our caravans [cells], they pick six persons to do their dirty jobs to do farming, brick-laying work," says Lucky Akhanene. He returned in the same group as Mr Akhere and was held in Gharyan for four months.
"They give us out to their friends. They don't pay us. It's just hard labour, if you're not fast with your job you get beaten."
Three separate people spoke about being leased out by the prison for day labour like this. Others said they were sold.
Jackson Uwumarogie and Felix Efe were arrested "on top of the sea", off the coast of Libya and taken to Gharyan.
They said one night a prison guard came and counted out 20 men, he took them outside and blindfolded them.
Mr Uwumarogie overheard the men talking about a price - 1,000 dinars ($735; £550). They were put into a van and taken to a farm.
Mr Uwumarogie and Mr Efe were forced to work harvesting onions and feeding cattle. They slept in a plywood hut and were guarded day and night by men with guns. They were never paid.
Mr Uwumarogie's baggy tracksuit bottoms hang from his tiny waist and a tight woollen polo neck highlights his skinny frame and slightly puffy, swollen cheeks.
He is clearly not well. On the farm they were only given food every few days, he said, and sometimes given sea water to drink.
After six months they and five others were loaded into a pick-up truck and taken to the desert.
"They dumped us there," Mr Uwumarogie said. They were there for two days.
"It was with the help of God that we found the man that rescued us." The man brought them to his house and then took them to Tripoli to meet the IOM.
Stories of black slavery in Libya have been circulating for the past two years. But the number of accounts we heard from recent returnees seems to suggest it has become endemic in the detention system.
And it is tied to something that has been going on for much longer: a dark but thriving industry in which migrants are extorted for money by traffickers and prison guards.
Wrists tied with barbed wire"There was a connection man who normally has a connection to the Mudeen, that is director of the prison. He would call them and he would bail them out," Mac Agheyere said.
He left for Europe in 2015 and was arrested and taken to prison in the Libyan town of Zawiya. "I had no-one to bail me out."
He explained that the middleman would charge up to 250,000 naira ($695; £520) per person.
Mr Aghayere borrowed money from his family in Nigeria to pay for his own release but he was arrested again. This time he could not afford to pay but one day a man came, who paid it for him.
"I thought he was my Messiah," Mr Aghayere said. "I never knew he was an evil person."
The man owned a carwash and some beach huts by the sea. He said Mr Aghayere should work for a month to pay back the release money.
After that, they agreed on a salary. But two months later he refused to pay. Another month went by and he refused to work any longer.
"He beat me with an iron bar," he says. "They took barbed wire and tied my hands and my feet and threw me inside a car and took me back to prison."
Mr Aghayere was told he was being sent back to Nigeria but he was transferred to Gharyan prison and spent seven months there before he was repatriated by the IOM. He said in the time he was there he saw 20 people die.
Again and again we heard stories of horrific abuse at Gharyan prison.
Each of the Nigerian migrants we met, separately, told us that they were given very little food - a piece of bread smaller than the palm of their hand in the morning and watery pasta in the evening. Some said they drank water from the toilet. They were regularly rounded up and beaten.
"They beat boys," Fatima Atewe said. She was one of the only women who agreed to speak to us about what happened in Gharyan.
"Even in prison in Nigeria, they don't beat Nigerian people the way they beat Nigerian people there."
"Many people are dying there day and night. And their cold is not good, their cold is like inside a fridge," Ms Atewe added.
She spent just over 10 days in Gharyan before she was repatriated. She had been arrested with a friend and after three days in prison she said, her friend was sold.
The UN's migration agency, together with various African governments are working to get migrants home. But delegates from each country have to get to the detention centres before they can identify their citizens.
Libya is in the middle of a civil war. With many different militia groups vying for power, travelling beyond Tripoli is dangerous.
'Inhumane'The prison at Gharyan is run by Libya's Ministry of Interior which itself is run by two militia groups.
The Ministry of the Interior is only nominally under the UN-recognised government in Tripoli. As of yet, the Libyan Interior Ministry hasn't responded to requests for an interview.
In recent months, the situation has become increasingly lawless but also on the rise is the numbers of migrants being held in these prisons.
The EU is encouraging Libya to stop migrants from crossing the Mediterranean. It has been training the Libyan coastguard to intercept boats leaving Libyan waters.
Arrivals to Italy have fallen by 70%. But many of the migrants who are stopped end up in detention centres like Gharyan.
Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres says the numbers of migrants in the Libyan detention centres that it has access to have increased tenfold since July, when these policies began.
The UN's human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Hussein has described the policy as "inhumane".
As more and more migrants pile into these centres, conditions will only get worse. The stories of abuse will keep coming. Those that return come with a warning.
"I just want to plead with everyone out there," Lucky Akhanene said. "Libya is not a place to go.
"Most times I wonder if Libya is not from this earth."
Published on BBC News on January 2, 2018