Sponsors view domestic helpers as child-like and untrustworthy, despite the extensive responsibilities they shoulder in caring for the home and children

A recent social media controversy in Kuwait stirred up regarding the working week of domestic helpers in Kuwait. The reality is that the vast majority of domestic workers do not get a weekly day off, despite the legal requirement to do so.

In an informal survey conducted by Kuwait Times with more than 200 Filipino domestic helpers, we found that around 78 percent do not get a day off work each week. The survey confirms that a majority of employers do not follow the domestic labor law, limiting their adult employees freedom and basic working rights.

A memorandum of agreement (MoA) was signed between the Philippines and Kuwait in May detailing working hours and days off that were specifically requested by the Filipino president in exchange for lifting a temporary ban he had imposed on sending Filipino workers in Kuwait. However, two months after the signing of the MoA, more than two-thirds of Filipina housemaids still do not get a weekly day off from work.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte imposed the ban in February in the wake of reports that Filipino workers were abused and even died in Kuwait, including domestic helper Joanna Demafelis, whose body was found in a freezer at her employers' residence.

"I really hope and pray that one day, we are allowed to go out regularly. This is my wish - I really need a break after the long week of work. We are human beings and have all the right to take a break and enjoy life," said Lina, a maid in Kuwait for more than 12 years.

"I only get a day off every Christmas - that's it. But given the chance, I want to enjoy life during off days, but I don't get any," said Felicitas. Another participant in the survey said she only gets 2-3 hours off per month. "At least I can send money to my family in the Philippines," she said.

Sponsors often treat domestic helpers, especially younger women from the Philippines, like little more than children. Though these women are legal adults and given huge responsibilities including the care and feeding of children, they are not permitted to leave the sponsors' homes without chaperones.

"My mama (female employer) doesn't allow me to visit Kuwait City or any other place without 'bodyguards' (ie without being accompanied by someone from the family) as they do not trust anyone mingling with us, especially strangers. I think this is okay - I am being cared for and protected," said 56-year-old Amfaro F, a housemaid who has remained with one sponsor for the past 20 years.

Quite often sponsors cite possible risks including the helper obtaining a boyfriend and getting pregnant - a crime that can result in the helper going to jail, since sex outside of marriage is illegal in Kuwait - or the domestic worker absconding.

A 2015 report by the International Labor Organization on employers attitudes toward domestic helpers in Kuwait cites similar ideas:

"Another practice that reinforces the power and control of employers over domestic workers was the perception that it is up to the employer to grant a day off, rather than the domestic worker's right to a rest day. Furthermore, if days off were granted, it was perceived that it is up to the employer whether the domestic worker could spend the day off outside or inside the home. "If the worker leaves the house she would later bring problems to the house." "It is for her [domestic worker] security to stay at home.""

The last hints at another major problem. Sponsors view domestic helpers as child-like and untrustworthy, despite the extensive responsibilities they shoulder in caring for the home and children. This extends to the government on both sides as well.

In his recent visit to Kuwait, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) Deputy Administrator Arnell Arevalo Ignacio floated an idea of a day care center for Filipino domestic helpers. Local agency owners initially agreed to the idea, but nothing has been heard about it since then.

"The memorandum of agreement is there and it was signed. But it is just a piece of paper and we have to do more, for example, the implementation, mechanism and some groundwork to meet the needs of all stakeholders. The president wants me to work on details. We didn't sign this agreement just to leave it hanging," Ignacio had said.

Initial talks on the MoA were held in July in Kuwait, to be followed by a second round of talks in the Philippines.

By Ben Garcia