How domestic workers got organized in Kuwait

By Ann Abunda

Ann Abunda is from the Philippines and lives in Kuwait. She is Head Volunteer and Founding Chairperson of Sandigan Kuwait and Sandigan Kuwait Domestic Worker Association.

My name is Ann. I am from the Philippines. I arrived here in Kuwait in the year 2000.

I worked as a domestic worker for four years, but I wasn’t treated right, I was being abused and maltreated. Afterwards, I started working in sales.

Then, in 2008, some of us decided to form a group of domestic workers to spend leisure time together, cooking and playing games. At the time, that was the only purpose of the group, but as time went on, workers were coming to us to tell us their story. They wanted help.

That is when we started to study the issue and we created some focus group discussions with workers, especially domestic workers.

In 2010, we founded Sandigan Kuwait, a more serious group that advocates for the protection and welfare of domestic workers.

Sandigan Kuwait is a volunteering group. We gather volunteers depending on the activities that we have. In the beginning, we studied the processes of our embassy and of the government, and we started looking at the more serious problems domestic workers face. It’s not only here in Kuwait. These problems also occur in the countries of origin.

The workers’ organization is very important, especially the domestic workers’ sector of the organization.

It’s very important that domestic workers can air their problems. They will be the ones to tell the government, “Hey, this is the experience that I have. You need to do something about this.”

Because of what we are doing, organizing the workers, we are able to create a better recommendation to our government and monitor the workers and monitor the policies that we have in order to ensure that the workers are being protected.

As an organization, Sandigan Kuwait and Sandigan Kuwait Domestic Workers Association, we assist and assess workers’ cases from different nationalities, from different work sectors. We have a repatriation programme, we offer legal aid, we also have psychosocial activities. We have the livelihood programme for domestic workers, every Friday. At the moment we are running a sewing class for them. We have already finished our first session. Now we have our second session for the Ethiopian domestic workers. They really enjoy learning new talents and new skills from this training.

It’s a safe place for domestic workers, especially on their days off, where they can learn a lot of things. Aside from going out on their day off, at least here they will learn something new.

Every year we have an award programme for domestic workers and their employers. Many of them stay together for 30 years. When you hear their stories, I think the basic factor that helps to make the relationship good is respect. Respect each other regardless of the nationality, regardless of the work. They should respect also the law, the rights, the culture, and tradition of each other because they decided to be together. They could easily say “Khallas, I’m finished,” but they choose to be together.

The most important convention that helped us when we started our advocacy, is the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention, Convention 189, because that was the basis in 2013 for when we started lobbying for the Domestic Workers Law here in Kuwait.

And then in 2018-2019 Sandigan oversaw the creation of the Sandigan Kuwait Domestic Workers Association, a domestic workers organization.

There have been a lot of changes over the past 13 years!

Still there are a lot of challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic has had an especially big impact on domestic workers. Most of them have been working 24/7 because the employers have stayed home. One of the challenges I can say is that domestic workers are not a priority when it comes to health care, especially when a domestic worker has COVID – even if she has COVID, she is sometimes expected to work.

Before, nobody talked about domestic workers. They were there, but nobody could see them. But over the past 13 years, there have been a lot of changes. Sandigan has added value to the dignity of domestic workers. We are making sure that they are visible, that people are talking about them, about the issue. And I think being part of the creation of the Domestic Workers Law here in Kuwait was a big achievement. We are part of the long journey for domestic workers.

Fast Facts

► Migrant domestic workers face multiple issues through the migration journey, including incurring high recruitment costs, contract substitution, non-payment of wages, lack of decent living conditions, trafficking and forced labour, and discrimination in employment and occupation.

► In 2015, the Kuwaiti government passed a law governing the basic rights of domestic workers in the country. Sandigan was part of the consultation process to formulate the law.

► According to Kuwait’s Public Authority of Civil Information, there are around 732,000 domestic workers in the country comprising a quarter of the total workforce in the country (December 2000).

► This is the second highest percentage of domestic workers in a labour market after Saudi Arabia.

► With the ILO’s support, the Sandigan Kuwait Domestic Workers Association, in 2020, became the first affiliate of the International Domestic Workers’ Federation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Members of Sandigan have travelled to other countries to meet and learn from other domestic worker organizations. The ILO also supports training activities of domestic workers in Kuwait.

► These activities are part of the ILO’s FAIRWAY Programme, which seeks to address the interlinked structural, behavioural, and practical barriers to improved labour migration for migrant workers in vulnerable situations, including domestic workers.

► June 16, 2021 marks the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers, Convention 189. Its objective is to improve living and working conditions for the millions of domestic workers throughout the world, guaranteeing them a decent job that provides them with protections equivalent to those enjoyed by other workers.

Watch Ann’s video testimony:

See the full story on ILO’s multimedia storytelling platform Voices:

Press release from the International Labour Organization

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