By Kareem Fahim
KUWAIT — With nowhere else to go, dozens of Nepalese maids who fled from their employers now sleep on the floor in the lobby of their embassy here, next to the visitors’ chairs.
In the Philippines Embassy, more than 200 women are packed in a sweltering room, where they sleep on their luggage and pass the time singing along to Filipino crooners on television. So many runaways are sheltering in the Indonesian Embassy that some have left a packed basement and taken over a prayer room.
And in the coming weeks, when Ramadan starts, the number of maids seeking protection is expected to grow, perhaps by the hundreds, straining the capacity of the improvised shelters, embassy officials say. With Kuwaiti families staying up into the early hours of the morning, some maids say they cook more, work longer hours and sleep less.
Rosflor Armada, who is staying in the Philippines Embassy, said that last year during Ramadan, she cooked all day for the evening meal and was allowed to sleep only about two hours a night.
“They said, ‘You will work. You will work.’ ” She said that she left after her employers demanded that she wash the windows at 3 a.m.
The existence of the shelters reflects a hard reality here: With few legal protections against employers who choose not to pay servants, who push them too hard, or who abuse them, sometimes there is nothing left to do but run. The laws that do exist tend to err on the side of protecting employers, who often pay more than $2,000 upfront to hire the maids from the agencies that bring the women here.
The problems in Kuwait, including a lack of legal protection, are hardly unusual or even regional; this summer, New York became the first state to grant workplace rights to domestic employees in an effort to prevent sexual harassment and other abuses. But human rights groups say the potential for mistreatment is acute in several countries in the Middle East, especially those with large numbers of migrant workers who rely on a sponsorship system that makes employers responsible for the welfare of their workers.
That system is particularly entrenched in Kuwait, where oil riches allow many families to have several servants, human rights advocates say. And conditions for some workers here are bad enough that the United States Department of State in a 2010 report singled out Kuwait, along with 12 other countries, for failing to do enough to prevent human trafficking.
The report noted that migrants enter Kuwait voluntarily, but “upon arrival some are subjected to conditions of forced labor by their sponsors and labor agents, including through such practices as nonpayment of wages, threats, physical or sexual abuse, and restrictions on movement, such as the withholding of passports.”
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