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Sheikha Bibi at forefront in fight for rights of expat workers
May 1, 2018, 9:33 am
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‘Changing behaviour and attitudes remain difficult’

As founder and head of the Social Work Society (SWS), Sheikha Bibi Nasser Al Sabah has been at the forefront of fighting for the rights of the disenfranchised migrant workers in Kuwait, reports Al-Rai daily.

In the pursuit of justice for the most victimized, the founder spends most of her time between police stations providing support for workers filing complaints; in hospitals, checking on abused workers and documenting information for cases; in courtrooms, coordinating with lawyers, and anywhere between the SWS office, embassies, and shelters, collaborating with migrant community organizations, advocates, and embassies.

“The SWS was registered in 2005, long before the labor law reforms of 2010, before the trafficking laws, before the domestic worker’s law. Our work has preceded and advocated for these policy reforms, Al Sabah pointed out.

As a Kuwaiti organization, the society’s access, influence and privilege are critical not only to directly supporting workers but to the formal and informal migrant groups who provide indispensable, often underthe- radar, relief and rescue.

While the most gruesome of abuses do receive outrage, day-to-day exploitation is normalized. Kuwait has passed a number of reforms to its labor migration system in the past decade but changing behavior and attitudes remain difficult.

Recently, the SWS and Human Line Organization launched a national campaign under the theme ‘One Roof’, to change the perceptions of domestic workers and raise awareness about the rights of domestic workers. In the run-up to the launch, Al- Sabah spoke to Migrant-Rights.org, which is concerned with promoting the rights of migrants and refugees, on what it means to do the work she and her colleagues do, and the challenges facing the society.

In reply to a question from Migrant- Rights.org, she disclosed, “initially, when I started working I didn’t know how to balance politics and activism. I would just go in one direction just plain advocacy until I realized it really upset everyone.

I learnt over the years how to use politics. She went on to say, “It’s all about language here, especially in the Arab world. You can get what you want if you know how to use the right terms. You need to know how to approach the subject. Being harsh and direct doesn’t always help. I went from seeing everything as black and white, to seeing grey, as that’s where you get the work done.

“One thing which helped is to keep out of the media. You can then do the work without getting entrapped in politics. “With the newly-launched One Roof campaign,” she went on to say, “we are walking on eggshells. We need to talk to people about this grave issue without attacking them. That needs a mature approach.

The campaign is about changing perceptions.” The One Roof campaign aims to change attitudes towards domestic workers and raise awareness about their rights through legal guidelines printed in 15 languages, lectures, panel discussions, short videos and a national media campaign, she says. The One Roof campaign, which is a partnership between the Human Line Organization and SWS, works in collaboration with the Ministry of Interior and encourages both sponsors and domestic workers to learn more about their rights and responsibilities.

Speaking about herself, she says, she graduated in 2003 and was working for a museum. “I remember complaining about the heat and how hot the steering wheel of my luxury car felt. And then I saw men working under the direct heat of the sun. Though I mention this one incident, it’s more than that,” she said. “You can’t live in this part of the world and disregard inequality. Probably as a woman in this society, I empathized more. Which is not to say our (the workers and her) situation is comparable. Of course no,” she added.

She says, people disregard inequality and it angers that people are oblivious to all these issues. Of the people around she says, “I would ask people around me how you can be so comfortable? Before I became calmer and more measured, people being oblivious to all these issues used to be a major issue.” She says, she wonders how they can be so desensitized until you realize that when people are comfortable they don’t see things and nudge them. “And you have to be conscious of how you do it, the language,” she added. “We’ve seen the difference. If you only keep on about the bad and share horrific images and stories people will switch off. You should do it, but balance it,” she stressed.

For example, she said recently, the society has been seeing a lot of injustices happening in beauty parlors and when she decided to shed light on her personal media handle on all the positive, good, ethical beauty salons.

Speaking to the staff of the salons she went to, she felt they were treated well, worked eight hours a day, got paid for overtime work, a day’s off and then she would share the same on her social media handle without speaking to the owners. People too started paying attention. They started asking these questions when they went to a salon. Her friends also ask her to check out some salons before going there, she said. On the question of ‘A Trip Advisor of sorts’ she says, “Yes, exactly. You don’t want to keep hearing bad things.

This way you know there’s a problem, but you also know which (salons) are the good ones. When Al-Sabah was as if there compassion fatigue? ‘Is that why people are tired of hearing bad stuff? Syria, Yemen, racism, Gulf crisis…, she said, “It is different. There are bad things happening around the world, and there might be some fatigue on that. But people will always want to know what is happening in their community locally. You can’t bombard them.

Even that information has to be well curated … because there’s just too much out there. With regard to this, she says, “I’ve learnt to disconnect as much as possible and try not to get emotionally attached. But some cases just tug at your heartstrings. An African worker was accused of witchcraft because she kept speaking of this ‘guy’ in her head.

“She was put in jail. It took a while for her to open up to speak to me. Maybe it was a spiritual leader in her community that she was referring to. But she definitely didn’t deserve to be locked up by the police.” When asked how sensitized police are, she said, “We are in touch with most stations and are constantly chasing them. There was this case of an Indian woman who was locked up for four years and she didn’t complain because she was always paid.

“When she wasn’t paid for three months, she managed to get out and file a complaint. The cops let her go back to her employers because they ‘promised’ to pay her and send her back to her country. It was ridiculous and we had to take it up. She went on to say people even nicknamed her ‘maid lady’ when her society began the fight to raise the minimum wage ceiling. People would tell her that they hire four or five maids and how could they afford paying all of them but, she added, these are the same people what she called ‘from her peer group’ carrying handbags worth thousands of dollars by complaining about “my fight for minimum wages and I would tell them that it’s really embarrassing that you are talking about this while carrying that bag.” Her efforts paid off in the long run although it didn’t make sense at that time, she says.

Also the recruitment agencies were supportive in this area when they awakened a feeling in them that they pay so much to get a worker but the worker gets nothing. This is because some people it’s just money and the workers are commodities. On the issue of theft charges filed against domestic workers, she says, there was a time when police would look at the face value of the complaint and start looking for the maid without any proof, but now police have realized many are cooked up cases, so they ask for receipts of the goods stolen but employers became more smart and blame the worker of stealing cash. When asked if she sees any change in the long run, she said, “I love my country so much. It’s not about me or SWS. It’s about Kuwait. The reason I do what I do is because I love my country so much and I am so comfortable here and it upsets me that other people are not.

“We want people (house workers) to have dignity, to see that everyone is equal. I want to see they get a day off so they enjoy life, then I think about them getting their promised and fair wages. “They should come and work here and have great stories. We used to hear so much about all the success stories, ordinary people who worked in Kuwait and built their dreams. It’s no longer those stories. People are leaving with horror stories now. I want that to change. I want them to leave saying they had the most amazing experience living and working here,” she concluded.

Source: Arab Times

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