Migrant Worker Turned Activist Speaks Out About Gulf Slavery Following Cruel Rant by Kuwaiti Makeup Queen
Exclusive: MPN spoke to Pinky Alamo of SANDIGAN, an ex-migrant worker in Kuwait, and MIGRANTE International’s Arman Hernando to discuss the plight of abused migrant workers across the Gulf.
Such is the case for Kuwaiti Instagram personality and make-up superstar Sondos Alqattan, whose July 10 video on Instagram not only managed to go viral after being broadcast to her 2.3 million followers – normally a measure of success – but also outraged an entire nation.
It also once again shed light on the bone-chilling conditions faced by hundreds of thousands of Filipino domestic workers across the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.
In the video, which has since been deleted, Alqattan complained about new changes to the Kuwaiti Kafala guest-worker regime. The reform, agreed to in a bilateral deal with the Philippine government, allows migrant workers to hold onto their passports and allots them four days off per month.
How can you have a servant in your house who gets to keep their passport with them? If they ran away and went back to their country, who’ll refund me? I disagree with the law. And what’s worse is they even have a day off every week!
Honestly, this new law and these new contracts means I don’t wish to hire a Filipina. She goes out one day a week and works for six days, which brings her total days off to four per month and we have no clue what happens during those four days when her passport is in her possession.”
International cosmetics giants who sponsored Alqattan — Anastasia Beverly Hills, Chelsea Beautique, MAC, Max Factor Arabia, and a number of other Western brands – distanced themselves from her cruel “ethics and attitude,” effectively terminating her career as a brand ambassador.
MIGRANTE International, a Philippines-based advocacy organization with chapters across the Filipino diaspora, quickly condemned the social media star’s derogatory rant and denounced her “slave-owner” style and what they described as a clear “intoxication in her overinflated ego and false sense of superiority.”
Along with fellow Filipina group the Association of Domestic Helpers in the Middle East – known by its Tagalog acronym SANDIGAN – MIGRANTE called on her to apologize and invited her to visit the Philippines so she could see first-hand “the appalling poverty that grips many Filipino families and find out what hardships OFWs [Overseas Filipino Workers] had to go through in government agencies before they can finally be deployed abroad.” Failing that, the group demanded that she be “blacklisted” and permanently barred from hiring domestic workers.
Yet Alqattan was unmoved. Rather that attempting to defuse the outrage, she tried to deflect it by casting the backlash as Islamophobic hysteria. “After seeing all this, I felt there’s an attack on Islam, saying ‘look, she is wearing the hijab, look at the Muslims, of course [it’s] the Kuwaitis in particular, and similarly the people of the Gulf region, look at the Arabs,’” she reasoned. Her logic was especially bizarre considering the Muslim plurality among migrant workers in Kuwait and across the Gulf, where Muslims comprise about 70 percent of the migrant population, according to Pew Research Center.
Last update from me on this story: Sondos now suggests controversy about her maid comments is a conspiracy. Claims she’s been criticised coz of her hijab. Intended targets are Kuwait, Islam & Arabs. Ignores fact first of her critics were also Kuwaitis, other Arabs & Muslims! pic.twitter.com/euKDsss84w
As callous as Alqattan was, her attitude reflects a pervasive Gulf culture of entitlement and cruel disregard toward a modern-day slave force seen as mere property, MIGRANTE International spokesman Arman Hernando explained to MintPress News.
“The video of Sondos Alqattan is an attestation of the miserable state of the domestic workers not only in Kuwait, but all over the Middle East and the whole world,” he explained. Continuing, he said:
It is common among Filipina domestic workers to work excessive working hours and without days off. Even with the assurance of various laws and their contract stipulations, recruiters and employers blatantly violate them because domestic workers are powerless in asserting their rights inside the workplace.
With the overwhelming odds against them, most domestic workers have accepted the sad reality that their rights will not be recognized and will only cope with the situation.To push for genuine protection and the advancement of the rights of the domestic workers, Migrante initiated the establishment of SANDIGAN or the Samahan ng mga Domestic Helpers sa Gitnang Silangan (Association of Domestic Helpers in the Middle East).”
The Gulf slave-trade
Under the kafala regime, workers are forced to remain with their employers for the duration of their time in the country and are unable to change employers or leave without the express permission of employers. About 600,000 domestic workers live in Kuwait, most of whom are from Africa and Asia, with Filipino nationals accounting for about 250,000 workers and residents according to Manila’s figures. Approximately 120 Filipino workers died last year, most due to what authorities claim was suicide.
According to a Human Rights Watch report on the country:
Migrant workers remain vulnerable to abuse, forced labor, and deportation for minor infractions including traffic violations and ‘absconding’ from an employer.”
Last April, a horrifying video went viral. The video, shot by a Kuwaiti woman, showed her Ethiopian maid dangling helplessly from the balcony. As the woman filmed, she mocked the maid, who then fell seven stories down and miraculously survived. While the woman was later arrested for failing to assist her desperate maid, such abusive employers rarely see their day in court.
The legal changes Alqattan complained about largely resulted from the brutal death of Filipina maid Joanna Demafelis, whose body was discovered in her employer’s freezer last February, a year after she went missing. The murder of the 29-year-old woman, which entailed strangulation and torture, provoked a major diplomatic crisis with the Philippine government, which temporarily banned work in the country and tried to shuttle out 1,000 distressed workers. President Rodrigo Duterte even called for all workers to return, a situation resulting in chaos.
“The situation of Demafelis is actually a common story and every domestic worker relates to what has happened to her,” Hernando noted.
Sexual violence happens with alarming regularity, yet victims often conceal these experiences from their loved ones due to the painful nature of the ordeal. Many domestic workers also return to their home countries with severe mental illness.
The torment of domestic servitude
The main factor pushing women in the Philippines to seek work in the Gulf is the all-sided poverty and inequality prevailing from the city to the countryside. As is common across the undeveloped world, wealthy oligarchs and urban elites enjoy lives of luxury – including their own household slaves – while upwards of 25 million rural folk, poor workers, and poverty-stricken indigenous people face degrading conditions of squalor and unemployment.
In order to stem unrest and encourage the inflow of remittances, the Philippine government has promoted job opportunities abroad for those unable to find work. Thousands, mainly women, leave the country daily to toil in gendered trades as live-in nurses, hospitality workers, caregivers, and domestic workers. Hernando noted:
Since the Philippines opened its labor force to the international market through its Labor Export Program, Filipino domestic workers suffer from unimaginable forms of maltreatment and abuse.”
For Pinky Alamo, an organizer and spokesperson for SANDIGAN, the rant by Alqattan is typical of the “inhumane” overseers she encountered in Kuwait, where she and many others are deprived of their mobile phones, passports, and the basic sense that they are human beings rather than beasts of burden. Alamo has called on migrant Filipinas and former OFWs to denounce the social media influencer’s accounts across the web in order to “discredit and eliminate her influence. ”
“We are commodities, business items; in the Middle East there is a ‘master and slave’ culture,” Alamo told MintPress News.
In February, 2014, Alamo traveled to Kuwait through the Overseas Employment Program in a bid to finally gain the means to feed her children. She soon discovered that her work contract was deceptive, and listed completely different conditions and responsibilities from those she faced.
Her experience entailed unauthorized pay deductions; skipped meals or ones consisting of rotten fish and filthy rice; verbal abuse; and grueling round-the-clock shifts with little rest in between. She was also traded between employers as if she were mere chattel. In the meantime, the males she encountered subjected her to constant sexual harassment.
“My sense of claustrophobia was developing during those times, I felt like jumping through the window – I couldn’t breathe,” she explained. Continuing, Alamo said:
The psychological, emotional, mental and physiological stress was eating me up. Due to the loss of dignity from how they treated me as a woman [I felt] so trashy, it made me so depressed and afraid.
I was [eventually] hospitalized and injected with medications I didn’t know about. I tried asking what they were and was never informed due to the language barrier. I was on four types of meds … I wasn’t feeling sane after that. I was just floating… mindset and focus [lost].”
Alamo was eventually able to escape as a result of the intervention of her brother, who pressured the government to allow her to leave. By June, she was dumped in Dubai before finally gaining permission to return home.
She now volunteers for SANDIGAN, which advocates for the rights of migrants and offers to counsel and train them to avoid the pitfalls and manipulative labor arrangements that led to her grinding ordeal.
No end in sight?
“I challenge everyone to listen to us; we are victims of human rights violations and abuse. This has been going on for too long and still there is no solution,” Alamo stressed. “It’s time to hear our voices.”
Both SANDIGAN and MIGRANTE are demanding that the Duterte government stop diverting public attention toward “senseless, trashy issues,” and finally end the systemic abuse of Overseas Filipino workers.
SANDIGAN and MIGRANTE both agree that the bilateral treaty between the Philippines and Kuwait, which led to the modest labor reforms, is far from enough and lacks any oversight mechanism to ensure the implementation of the rules. The two have pushed forward a range of demands to end modern-day slavery, such as justice and compensation for OFWs, and the nationalization of the government’s Overseas Employment Program. Hernando said:
The labor export program of the Duterte regime will not [bring] anything to the families of migrant workers but poverty and continued desperation to work even as a slave in the foreign lands.”
The two advocacy groups are also campaigning for a fundamental reform to government policy: that it reorient its labor exporting scheme toward national development and a focus on creating dignified, adequate employment opportunities at home.
Otherwise, the forces pushing the people of the Philippines to seek work in places like Kuwait will inevitably produce more victims and further remorseless abuse from vain, heartless slaveholders like Alqattan.
Top Photo | Protesters picket the Senate at the start of the probe in the death of an overseas worker in Kuwait, Pasay city south of Manila, Philippines. The Philippine president says a ban on the deployment of workers to Kuwait, where a Filipina was found dead in a freezer, will continue and could be expanded to other countries where Filipino workers “suffer brutal treatment and human degradation.” Feb. 21, 2018. Bullit Marquez | AP
Elliott Gabriel is a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador. He has taken extensive part in advocacy and organizing in the pro-labor, migrant justice and police accountability movements of Southern California and the state’s Central Coast.
Stories published in our Daily Digests section are chosen based on the interest of our readers. They are republished from a number of sources, and are not produced by MintPress News. The views expressed in these articles are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect MintPress News editorial policy.