The treatment of migrant domestic workers is one of the defining stories told about the Arab Gulf states. Every year hundreds of news media and human rights reports detailing migrant domestic workers’ experiences of exploitation and abuse circulate globally. The narratives of these accounts are remarkably consistent. They often begin with the story of an impoverished woman from the global South, who, in order to improve the situation of her family, migrates to the oil-rich Gulf states in search of work and a more prosperous future. Confined to the household, she works long, arduous hours, and is subjected to the dictates and whims of her employers, who may withhold her salary, force her to work under unconscionable conditions, or abuse her physically and sexually. Explanations for this occurrence of abuse and exploitation are usually taken as self-evident — having to do with the cruel logic of asymmetrical power relations between the haves and have-nots, the rich and the poor, the master and the maid.
This essay, which is based on over two years of research in Kuwait and South Asia, focuses on the changes in how states have sought to govern migrant domestic workers — a realm often elided in these accounts. I argue that in order to effectively redress the situation of migrant domestic workers in Kuwait, and the Gulf more generally, we must account for the gendered ways in which certain migrant populations and categories of work come to be included or disregarded by state institutions, and the important role played by labor recruitment agencies as intermediaries between domestic workers, employers, and governments.
The oil boom of the mid-1970s marks the beginning of domestic workers’ large-scale migration to Kuwait. Flush with petrodollars, Kuwaitis increasingly began hiring women to cook and clean, as well as care for their children and the elderly. Having domestic workers became an expected, often taken for granted part of Kuwaitis’ everyday lives and their understanding of themselves as modern, affluent subjects. Fewer Kuwaiti women, however, were willing or found it necessary to undertake paid domestic work.
Demand for domestic workers was met through the recruitment of women from the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and more recently, East Africa. Wave after wave of these women migrated to the Gulf due to the worsening economic situation of their home countries, a situation that had developed because of their countries’ spiraling trade deficits and foreign debts brought about by oil price hikes. From the mid-1970s to the late 2000s, Kuwait’s migrant domestic worker population grew from 12,000 to 500,000, and the percentage of Kuwaiti households employing domestic workers increased from 13% to 90%.
Kuwaiti state institutions were initially unable — and unwilling — to manage this burgeoning population. Led by the Al Sabah family, the country’s ruling elite, state formation in Kuwait was focused on two interrelated objectives: the control and distribution of the country’s oil revenues through the development of state welfare institutions, and the production and consolidation of Kuwait’s national body through the activities of these rentier state institutions. Kuwait’s private sector was carved out in contradistinction to the state, one ceded to the country’s influential merchant families and nascent entrepreneurial class. Within this context, the everyday governance of migrants working in the private sector became the responsibility of their kafeel — citizens who sponsored, employed, and acted as guarantors for migrant workers.
Similar to construction workers, street cleaners, sales associates, company managers, and other migrant worker populations, migrant domestic workers’ everyday activities were regulated by the kefalah system. Domestic workers, however, did not fall under the purview of Kuwait’s labor laws. Kuwait’s labor laws were passed in 1964, before the large scale influx of migrant domestic workers. Similar to labor laws throughout the world, domestic work was excluded from the provisions of Kuwait’s labor laws. A gendered understanding of “labor” underpins these laws, one in which work undertaken within the household, the work of social reproduction, is not considered “labor.”
Despite this, domestic workers who experienced problems — an estimated 10% of the total population, the bulk of which pertain to salary or contract disputes (7-8%) and the rest to incidents of physical and sexual abuse (2-3%) — were not without recourse. They could file criminal charges in situations of physical or sexual abuse, and file civil legal cases related to contract disputes. Few did so, however, due to language barriers, and to the widespread perception that the courts were favorably disposed towards Kuwaiti citizens, or were unable to properly address the types of contracts disputes domestic workers had. More often than not, when disputes or conflicts arose, domestic workers would seek informal assistance from friends and family members (should they have any in Kuwait), or formal assistance from embassies, officials, or representatives from labor recruitment agencies.
Under increasing pressure from their embassies, overseas citizens, and informed domestic populations, the governments of labor-sending countries began adopting policies to redress the situation of their migrant domestic worker populations in the Gulf. Formerly, labor-sending states had played a minimal role in these matters. The reasons were myriad and overlapping: governments typically focused on the policing of migrants coming into their countries rather than those leaving; they were concerned with the governance of populations within their borders; they have limited jurisdiction to assist citizens residing abroad; and the state institutions of these countries had been systematically dismantled or crippled by years of structural adjustment programs in financing their foreign debts.
The policies that these governments eventually adopted — restricting or banning the outmigration of women to the Arab Gulf states, and imposing stipulations on domestic workers’ contracts — had limited, and in many cases contradictory effects. Labor-sending states had little capacity to enforce contract stipulations, and with the exception of Pakistan, the out-migration of women from these regions continued unabated. Migrant domestic workers circumvented restrictions placed on their out-migration by traveling via third party countries. Considered illegal by their home countries, their journeys to the Arab Gulf states became more hazardous, subject to the workings of grey and black markets, and the arbitrary actions of government officials at the interstices of these realms. Once in Kuwait, these migrant women could no longer, or could not easily, seek the assistance of their home country embassies.
Faced with dwindling options in the face of difficulties, domestic workers began seeking assistance from the Kuwaiti labor agencies involved in their recruitment. Initially conceiving of themselves as market intermediaries, these agencies increasingly (and in many cases reluctantly) started to take on state-like functions. They mediated and adjudicated problems between domestic workers and their employers. They developed systems to ensure domestic workers’ regular and timely pay. Some also established temporary lodging facilities (i.e., shelters), provided legal assistance, and started insurance programs for domestic workers. In Kuwait, labor agencies also developed a union responsible for coordination between and the policing of members, and for lobbying and coordinating collaborative efforts with state governments. In the late 2000s, they played an instrumental role in the passing of new laws related to migrant domestic workers — laws which included a minimum wage requirement, stipulated work hours, and rest times, and that outlined the responsibilities of both domestic workers and their employers. Labor agencies also became the intermediaries through which labor-sending states began overseeing and regulating the situation of their migrant domestic worker population in the Gulf. Labor agencies had to register with Labor and Foreign Affairs Ministries within labor-sending states, and had to receive permission from these institutions before seeking to recruit women from these countries. Labor agencies acquired these permits only by passing the evaluations conducted on an ongoing basis by embassy officials overseas.
The focus of much reporting on the situation of domestic workers in the Arab Gulf region is on their relationships with their employers. Extending labor laws and abolishing the kefalah system are often presented as means of redressing the exploitation and abuse experienced by these migrant women. In this essay, I have discussed briefly issues elided and presupposed by these reports; namely, the difficulty state legal systems have had in recognizing domestic work as “labor” due to gendered understandings of the term, the problems state legal systems have had in adjudicating this realm of work, and the willingness — and capacity — of states to reform the kefalah system and improve the everyday experiences of migrant domestic workers. In discussing these matters, this essay also has underscored the significant role played by labor recruitment agencies in the formation of Kuwait’s domestic work sector. Their activities, in turn, point to the important role played by state-like institutions in not only knitting together global processes, but in mediating and facilitating state institutions’ ability to expand their governance of their transnational citizens in a global context.
. Nasra Shah et al., “Foreign Domestic Workers in Kuwait: Who Employs How Many,” Asian and Pacific Migration Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2 (2002), pp. 247-69.
. Jill Crystal, Oil and Politics in the Gulf: Rulers and Merchants in Kuwait and Qatar (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990); and Jill Crystal, Kuwait: The Transformation of an Oil State (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992).
. Crystal, Oil and Politics in the Gulf and Kuwait: The Transformation of an Oil State.
. Anh Nga Longva, Walls Built on Sand: Migration, Exclusion and Society in Kuwait (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997); and Anh Nga Longva, “Keeping Migrant Workers in Check: The Kafala System in the Gulf,” Middle East Report, No. 211, Trafficking and Transiting: New Perspectives on Labor Migration (Summer 1999), pp. 20-22.
. This figure was one widely used and circulated by embassy officials, human rights activists, labor agencies, ministry officials, police officers, lawyers, and others involved in Kuwait’s domestic work sector.
. Examples include: 1) migration restrictions and bans passed by the governments of Pakistan (mid and late 1970s), Bangladesh (early 1980s), India (early 1990s and late 1990s), the Philippines (late 1980s), and Nepal (late 1990s); and 2) contract stipulations passed by the governments of Pakistan (mid-1970s), India (mid-1990s and 2007), the Philippines (2006), Sri Lanka (fall 2007), and Indonesia (fall 2007).
. For example, Nepali women traveled via India, and Indian women traveled via Sri Lanka.