The Kafala System’s Failure to Protect Domestic Workers

By Caleb Sanders

In late January 2023, the world faced a tragedy that is one of many cases of abuse stemming from the power that Kuwaiti employers abuse under the Kafala system. On January 21, Jullebee Ranara, a 35-year-old Filipino woman working domestically in Kuwait, was found dead with her body charred and skull smashed, abandoned in the desert. It was later learned in an autopsy that she was four months pregnant at the time of death. It is alleged that Jullebee was impregnated by the person responsible for her death. This man is the son of Jollebee’s employer and is still unnamed by authorities. He was arrested within 24 hours of the body being found after authorities learned about a phone conversation between Jullebee and her family back home, a day before she was murdered. In this phone call, Jullebee discussed her concerns with her family about her safety living with and working for her employer and his family.

Jollebee’s employment agency also claimed to have had a message conversation a few days before the murder where she said that everything was alright and she was safe and happy. This employment agency is now blacklisted, which is a step in the right direction. However, this is only one of the many agencies associated with known abuse, let alone the countless ones associated with unknown abuse. Tighter regulations were put on Foreign Recruitment Agencies (FRA), which only allow those with clean records or those without stayers at the welfare home and without a request for assistance. It is rumoured that the 17-year-old son’s reasoning for the murder was because he and Jullebee had engaged in sexual relations months before and found out that she was pregnant. Of course, this is not confirmed, but if it is the case, it’s fair to say that it was not consensual sex based on her fear of the son.

Kuwait officials claimed that this was a stand-alone incident and that justice would be brought to the perpetrators, although there are many other cases where the same thing was said in response. Let alone countless other cases that seemed to have not received enough publicity for any accountability to be taken by the government or employment agencies. There was another woman named Joanna Demafelis, who was another victim of her employer’s unregulated abuse. Joanna Demafelis was found dead in a freezer an entire year after she had been tortured and killed by her employers. That is an entire year that her family had not heard from her or the employment agency, and still, there was no investigation. This triggered the Philippine government to ban Filipino citizens from working domestically in Kuwait, and over 10,000 domestic workers in Kuwait were flown back to the Philippines. In response, Kuwait called for more Ethiopian workers to replace the missing Filipino ones. This happened just after Ethiopia’s domestic worker ban on Kuwait was lifted, established five years prior, in response to similar counts of abuse. Later on, the Philippines also lifted their ban, perhaps with better regulations and laws, but not enough to protect Jullebee Ranara. This goes to show the patterns of abuse that are not just ignored but also covered up by some nationals.

The Kafala system gives employers of migrant workers, in this case, Overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and especially domestic workers, almost full control over the worker’s life. Instead of the government controlling workers’ visas, they are put into the employers’ hands. This leaves the worker completely vulnerable to the employer. If the employer terminates the worker’s visa, the worker will no longer have access to food, shelter, or, in most cases, any money for a flight home. Even with these workers’ extremely low wages, it is common for employers to deduct pay with no real moderation unlawfully. Sometimes, the workers are starved, cut off from their families, and verbally, physically, and sexually abused. In reality, there is usually not much responsiveness from the employment agencies that are supposed to protect workers, even when the worker is allowed by their employer to use a phone, which is rare or not at all in some circumstances.

Under the Kafala system, domestic workers are also not allowed to change jobs or terminate their contracts themselves. Only their Kuwaiti employer has the right to do so. The Kuwaiti employer also gets to keep the worker’s passport physically and has, in many cases, destroyed them with little or no repercussions. Also, the contracts that domestic workers sign for their jobs are often in languages they do not understand, and they are given a false verbal description of what it consists of. Even if the worker is suspicious of this, options are limited as there are not many legal supports for them to access in this process. Also, workers given the opportunity to work in Kuwait have limited options, even if they are aware of the potential abuse that lies ahead of them prior to signing contracts. In the Philippines, it is common to make around a tenth of what would be made overseas, which even still is very little.

I think the next step to preventing this kind of abuse would be to have proper outreach systems for migrant workers to use that will take it seriously and have the capacity to effectively pursue immediate and ongoing situations, especially for domestic workers. This might look like an app to message the employment agency or perhaps even a video meeting so that it is ensured that it is the worker on the line and that they are in a safe place to talk. As well further widespread education to migrant workers about their rights and access to resources is necessary. There is mandatory training for domestic workers to learn the culture and expectations of Kuwaitis, though they are short and not as informative as they need to be. This training should not only go over expectations for the workers but also what they are entitled to and what they need to do when their needs are not being met. Workers must also have access to legal support during the employment process, especially because of the corruption of FRAs. These ideas have been part of the discussion for a long time, but it is really time to put them into action.

If you want migrant workers in Kuwait that are in need to get the help they deserve, you should first do further research about the corruption of the kafala system as well as FRAs. Then once you have an understanding, research initiatives that your skills, services, or products would be most useful to, and reach out. There is always a need for more hands to guide this kind of change. There are also a few ways you can support us in making change. You are more than welcome to offer your time volunteering in various ways. Check Get Involved for more information. You could also purchase an item from our shop where proceeds will go into our initiatives that support the vulnerable in Kuwait. Another great way to help would be getting more attention on our social media and podcast. You can find us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and on many podcast streaming services.



The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Canada Kuwait Aid Network.”

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