KUWAIT (Reuters) - Lucy Cometa, a Filipina maid in Kuwait, hasn't had a single day off work as a domestic helper for four years but considers herself lucky because she is paid regularly and gets to take breaks during her workday.
Kuwait, long criticized along with other oil-exporting Gulf states for its treatment of foreign workers, introduced a minimum monthly wage of 60 dinars ($209) in April in a move that affects hundreds of thousands of Asian laborers.
But the new minimum wage, a first for Kuwait, has come under fire because it excludes roughly 560,000 domestic workers, prompting lawmakers to consider a separate law to set a minimum salary for maids and impose rules protecting them from abuse.
"This is the first step. It is a most welcome legislation because it protects our household workers," said Vivo Vidal, the labor attache at the Philippines Embassy, adding he wanted the bill to guarantee wage payment.
Draft legislation currently on the table would set a minimum wage of 45 dinars for household staff such as maids, drivers and cooks, and extend them protection from overwork, non-payment of salary and physical abuse.
That could mean a world of difference for many who work 16-hour days without breaks.
"They need to treat them well," Cometa, who earns a salary of 60 dinars but is not granted days off, said of less fortunate domestic workers. "Some of them, they don't give them food or rest. Sometimes they wake them at night to work."
The new rules, if passed into law, would limit working hours to eight a day and bar employers from holding the passports of workers. It would also give workers one day a week and public holidays off from work.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said last month that Middle East governments had taken steps to improve the treatment of domestic workers and respond to abuse, but change had been slow as many critical reforms were lagging behind.
"Reforms often encounter stiff resistance from employers fearing higher costs and fewer entitlements, labor brokers profiting off a poorly-regulated system, and government officials who view migrants as a security threat," HRW said.
Some critics say while the law would in principle impose fines on employers who fail to pay their household staff, there was little apparent enforcement mechanism. The bill ensures access to courts, but only after other mechanisms are exhausted.
"Who will monitor the employer?" an Asian diplomat who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity said, adding most sponsors don't allow domestic helpers to call their embassy or to leave home unaccompanied.
Some workers end up fleeing their workplaces and seeking refuge at their embassies, and the government has opened a shelter for runaway maids where they can stay until they resolve differences with employers or be repatriated if they choose.
Under the sponsorship systems in place in much of the Gulf, nationals or companies can hire migrant workers who are dependent on their employers for food and shelter. The United Nations has urged Gulf countries to scrap their sponsorship systems, but the proposed Kuwait law would not change that.
Thabet al-Haroun, Kuwait representative of the International Labor Organization, said it would have been better to include domestic workers in the labor law, under which the minimum wage was introduced for all other private sector workers.
The Asian diplomat agrees: "They should be covered by labor law. They are also workers. They are not animals," he said.
Reporting by Diana Elias; Editing by Samia Nakhoul