A humanitarian crisis is looming among Filipino domestic workers unable to work in Kuwait in the wake of Manila’s recent total ban on deployment here. Most domestic workers use their Kuwaiti salaries to help support large, extended families in the Philippines, providing them with funds for education, housing, farming, food, and medical care, among other things. Arab Times spoke to Filipino domestic workers in Kuwait and contacted other workers on leave in the Philippines who are unable to return to their jobs in Kuwait because of the ban. Most of the workers were anxious and distressed about losing their source of income.
Many disclosed that in order to raise the money to pay the agency’s fees to come here they had mortgaged their family home, land, or farm, or borrowed money at high rates of interest. With no income to repay the loan or the mortage they face the prospect of losing everything.
The unemployment rate in the Philippines is high, especially for unskilled workers, and available jobs pay very little, they stated. Large numbers of domestic helpers here come from farming communities in the Philippines. With crop damage from extreme weather and typhoons now an annual occurrence, having a breadwinner abroad has become a necessity in order for farming families to survive, they disclosed.
Sheryl Sibbaluca has worked for the same employer in Kuwait for eleven years. Her situation is typical of many domestic workers here. “My whole family back home depends on me. I have a young child, an elderly mother, and seven brothers including two attending university. I have to send them money every month for food, tuition, medicines for my mother, and milk for my little boy. I’m also trying to build my house. It won’t be easy to go back to the Philippines. There aren’t any jobs. And even if you’re very lucky and you do find work, you won’t make more than the equivalent of two KD a day,” she says.
Her cousin Gina Pauig, who works for the same Kuwaiti employer, echoes her words. “Here in Kuwait we are able to save all our salaries and use the money to support our families. In the Philippines the salaries are so low, and you also have to pay all your daily expenses, so it’s impossible to survive.” “I use the money I make in Kuwait for the education of my four children, to help my husband pay for the fertilizer, seeds, and other supplies he needs for farming, and for my mother’s medical care. She is a widow and she is old and can no longer work.” “Here in Kuwait we’re lucky,” her cousin Sheryl continues. “We’re allowed two months leave every two years and our employer even gives us a longer vacation so that we can spend more time with our children.
In Hong Kong, for example, the domestic workers are only given fifteen days vacation every two years. But now those of us in Kuwait who were scheduled to go home to see our families have cancelled our vacation, because if we leave then we can’t come back. So although we really want to visit our families, in order not to lose our jobs and for their sake, we can’t go see them.” Like all domestic workers, Sheryl and Gina miss their families, especially their children, but they’re quick to point out they feel comfortable and content in their employer’s home. “We’re not their family by blood, but we’re their family by heart. We feel loved. We also feel settled, safe, and stable in Kuwait. That means a lot.”
Crispina Sibbaluca is a relative of Sheryl and Gina who is also a domestic helper in Kuwait. She says she came here to fulfill a dream. “My dream has always been to build a house for my mother and father, so they can live comfortably in their old age. They live a very hard life in the mountains, they don’t have electricity and they have to walk a long way to get water. They don’t own land so they have to work as agricultural laborers for different farm owners, and often they’re treated very badly,” she says with tears in her eyes. “With the money I’ve earned in Kuwait I was able to buy a piece of land and start building a house, but if I don’t have work, how can I finish it? I really want to give my parents a better life.”
Noralyn Morales’ voice breaks with emotion when she talks about her situation. “I’m a single mother, working to support my son, my mother, and my grandmother. I’m the only breadwinner, there is nobody else to help us. When I heard about the ban I was so upset. It’s not fair for those of us with no education, it’s not fair for those who have good employers. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to work?” “I love my life in Kuwait, I’m happy with my employers, and I enjoy going out with my many friends.” A surprising number of Filipinas have spent the better part of their lives living and working in Kuwaiti households.
Maria Rosa Camarista, for example, has worked here for 35 years, and Yolanda Etrata, has been here for 34 years. “Kuwait is my second home,” says Maria Rosa. “My employers are like my family, I have no problems here. I wouldn’t stay here so long if they didn’t treat me so well. It’s unfair for us not to be allowed to continue working in such favorable conditions. There should be exemptions.”
Yolanda expresses similar sentiments. “I’m used to staying in Kuwait, my life is here. It will not be easy if I have to leave my employers and never come back to them. It will be like leaving my family behind for good.” Other long-time workers in Kuwait concur. Eman Lllano has been here for 18 years and says she has never experienced any problems. “My employers have been very good to me and they have helped me a lot.”
Agnes Abrenilla has spent 15 years in Kuwait and is also very happy with her employers. She was set to go home on holiday but has cancelled her trip because of the ban. “I’m a single mom supporting my children and their studies. As much as I want to see them, I had to sacrifice my holiday in order not to lose my job. I would not be able to find a job in the Philippines with a good salary.”
Nineteen-year resident of Kuwait, Veronica Callueng, has also cancelled her home leave for the same reason.
Sally Bauet, twelve years in Kuwait, says her employers are very kind and they help her and her family with extra financial support. She wants to continue working with them so she can finish building her home in the Philippines.
Twelve-year resident of Kuwait, Nieva Alcazarin, is a widow who is putting her son through college. “My employers always treat me fairly, they have always been giving me my weekly day off, and if there is extra work then they pay me extra,” she says.
Miriam Balceta is also a widow who has worked here since October 2006. She has five children and four of them have graduated from university. Now she would like to save for her retirement so she hopes she can continue working here for some years. “I’ve gotten to love it here,” she says. “I have very good employers.”
Chita Macabeo has worked in Kuwait for seventeen years. “My life here is happy because my employers are so good to me,” she says. “I send my salary to the Philippines every month to support my father and my granddaughter. My father needs medication and it is very expensive in the Philippines. I also help out my sisters and brothers.”
Benilda Abello is devoted to her Kuwaiti employer of 21 years. “My employer is like a sister for me, there’s nobody like her, she’s number one in my life,” she says with feeling. Benilda’s employer has a physical disability that forces her to be in a wheelchair. With the help of Benilda she is able to lead an active life, travelling and managing her own household, working together as a team. “I don’t feel like I want to go back to the Philippines, since 2010 I haven’t been back and that is my choice,” says Benilda. “My employer and all her family are so good to me, they’re my second family. And my family at home is happy that I send them money. Why should I go back home when I wouldn’t be able to find a job? I love it here.” Domestic workers caught unaware by the ban while on leave in the Philippines have been particularly hard hit. Large numbers of workers had gone home for the holidays in December and now that their leave is coming to an end, they are not being allowed to travel to Kuwait to resume their work. Those contacted by Facebook and WhatsApp expressed shock and dismay at losing their source of livelihood so unexpectedly, with no chance to prepare for the scenario of being unemployed.
Wea Paraiso has been happy working in Kuwait for eight years. She states that her employers have been very good to her. All her siblings are dependent on her for their school tuition and without her salary they won’t be able to continue their education. She is upset and frustrated at being stuck in the Philippines with no source of income.
Dandin Balboa is in a similar situation, with her family depending on her wages. She was grateful when her Kuwaiti employers gave her extended leave to spend more time with her family, but now she wishes she were back in Kuwait.
Glenly Ariola, a nine-year resident of Kuwait, was also given a long vacation so she could enjoy more time with her family. Now she is very stressed about the prospect of not being able to return to her job in Kuwait, where she feels appreciated, satisfied, and secure. “If anyone feels they’re not working in a safe place then they shouldn’t go back. But those who have good employers should be given the option to return,” she says. “It’s very difficult to find a good job in the Philippines and we need the money for our families. In my case I have a daughter that is still going to school and I have a loan to pay off. My husband has no job so my wages are our only source of income.”
Comments from Filipino domestic workers who wish to keep working in Kuwait continue to pour in to the Arab Times. They feel they’re a silent majority and wish to go on record that they are happy and well treated, and that their jobs here are essential in order for them to give their families a better life.
They reiterate that while a ban on new workers is understandable, they feel it is unfair for long-time workers with good employers to be penalised. They pointed out that if they have to apply for work in other countries they will be forced to pay large sums of money again, with no certainty that they will find a good employer or satisfactory working conditions.
By Claudia Farkas Al Rashoud
Special to the Arab Times