Kuwaiti Instagram star, Sondos Al Qattan, last week posted a video which has since gone viral, criticizing new laws expanding Filipino domestic workers’ rights. The blogger and make-up artist, who has accumulated 2.3 million followers to her Instagram account, voiced her disagreement with recently introduced legislation requiring Filipino workers to be given one day off each week and allowing them to keep their passports, rather than the documents being confiscated by employers. Kuwaiti nationals employ approximately 700,000 domestic workers and a huge proportion of these are from the Philippines, with this latest controversy bringing global scrutiny to the two nation’s increasingly strained political relations.
‘How can you have a servant at home who keeps their own passport with them?’ Al Qattan said in her since-deleted video, ‘what’s worse is they have one day off every week. If they run away and go back to their country who will refund me? Honestly, I disagree with this law. I don’t want a Filipino maid anymore.’
Her comments have drawn international condemnation and have been likened to those of ‘a slave owner’ by Migrante International, an advocacy group for overseas Filipino workers. The same group criticised Al Qattan for her ‘backward outlook which literally belongs to the dark ages.’
A widespread social media campaign has ensued to boycott any brands sponsoring the blogger. On Tuesday, Al Qattan again took to Instagram seeking to clarify’ her comments but refusing to apologize or revoke them, instead claiming to be the victim of a foreign media attack against Kuwait, Islam and the Hijab: ”All I said was that the employer was entitled to keep the servant’s passport and that many Kuwaitis and Gulf nationals agree with me,” she argued, continuing that she has ”not, on any circumstances in the present or the past, mistreated, degraded or in any way mistreated an employee of mine.”
Unsurprisingly, the damage has been done, with several high-profile beauty brands terminating all commitments, most notably Max Factor and MAC cosmetics, who previously paid Al Qattan to use and endorse their products in her makeup tutorials. Max Factor Arabia was shocked by the comments made by influencer Sondos Al Qattan,’ it voiced in a statement to The National.
Al Qattan’s actions, and those who agree with her, are securing the widely-held perception of Kuwaiti nationals as being oppressive to their domestic employees. Her lack of empathy or insight into the positive implications of the new legislation shows there is a long way to go in protecting the rights of the often-exploited Filipino workers.
Kuwait and Manila introduced the new laws On May 11, after the brutal murder of a Filipina maid earlier this year resulted in a diplomatic crisis. Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, enforced a partial ban on workers travelling to Kuwait, however, tensions further escalated in April when footage emerged of Philippine embassy staff helping workers escape from employers accused of mistreatment, and Manila’s ambassador was expelled from the Gulf nation.
Other than those legislative changes criticised by Al Qattan, the agreement guarantees numerous other freedoms. Domestic workers must be given a one-hour lunch break for each 12-hour working day as well as a fully-paid 22-day holiday each year. Each staff member must be provided with a mobile phone and internet connection and after two years, must be given a ticket home.
It is encouraging to see the international community rally in support of Filipino workers and these legislative changes must be praised. However, they can be seen only as a foundation for cultural change, and significant diplomatic effort is clearly still needed to change the perceptions and experiences of employees and employers alike.
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