KUWAIT CITY // With little to do each day but cook, clean and eat, more than 200 maids who ran away from their sponsors to take shelter at the Philippine Embassy in Kuwait have plenty of time to gossip as they pass months - sometimes years - waiting for their cases to be resolved.
But on the compound yesterday the women spoke about current events with a little more passion than usual. This week the Philippine government announced that the vice president would visit Kuwait on a diplomatic mission that is close to all of their hearts: Noli de Castro will plead for clemency for a Filipina maid who has been sentenced to death for murder. The government's statement said the vice president would deliver a letter to the emir from President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, asking him to intercede on behalf of the woman, Jakatia Pawa, who was sentenced to death in 2008 for stabbing her employer's daughter to death the previous year, a verdict that was upheld by the Court of Appeals this month.
"I believe they should cancel the death penalty for Pawa; I pray to God for her," said Cynthia, a former maid who has been living in the embassy for the past eight months after leaving her sponsors when they did not pay her salary for nearly two years. "The ladies here all see it the same way. People are afraid that this is something that could happen to them. "I saw on television that Noli de Castro is coming here for this case. Maybe he can settle it. I think it's good that the Philippine government is taking an interest in this case," Cynthia said.
The government's statement did not specify a date for the vice president's trip. The case has drawn international attention because Philippine officials, the woman's lawyers and migrant workers' rights groups have questioned the evidence. The Philippine News Agency reported that the ambassador, Ricardo Endaya, was dismayed with the court's decision. He said the knife that was used in the murder did not have the woman's fingerprints on it and there were no bloodstains on her dress or body that could link her to the crime.
The Philippine government is trying to persuade the victim's family to accept "blood money" in a return for forgiveness, which would save the woman from the death sentence, the statement said. It said the president's office has approved money for the payment, without specifying the amount. Another former domestic helper living at the embassy, Anne-Marie, is sceptical that the diplomatic mission will succeed. Anne-Marie said she worked for a Kuwaiti family with six children for two years, from 5.30am to 2am every day with no holidays. When she decided not to continue because of exhaustion, her sponsor withheld her last four months of pay and renewed her contract without her permission, so she ran away.
"Even for me, how many times did I call, try and talk to them? If I had done something wrong I apologised, but their hearts were hard," she said of her employers, adding that she expects the government to be the same in dealing with Jakatia Pawa. Anne-Marie is one of the more fortunate migrants in the embassy. She said that last Sunday her former employers paid four months' worth of outstanding wages and returned her passport. She will travel home next week.
Other maids at the shelter have less luck, and with little protection from the law, they often wait for years for their sponsors to have a change of heart. Cynthia said because the economy is so bad in her home country she will not leave Kuwait until she is paid in full. Until that time, she will sleep on a mattress on the floor of a congregational sleeping area with hundreds of other distressed expatriates.
All embassies in Kuwait from South and South East Asia - which supply the bulk of the country's domestic workers - have a problem with "runaway maids". More than 700 Indonesian migrants were repatriated - many from the embassy's shelter - at the end of last year, leading to that country's barring domestic workers from going to Kuwait. Incidents like these have dented Kuwait's international image, and the rights abuses have led the country to be put on a human rights blacklist: the lowest rank in the US state department's annual human trafficking report. Parliament did not include domestic workers in a new law this year that seeks to protect the rights of those working in the private sector.
The Population Reference Bureau in Washington estimated that nearly eight million Filipinos - around 10 per cent of the country's population - are migrant workers, many in the states of the Arabian Peninsula. Their remittances provide a huge source of revenue for the impoverished country. The Philippine Embassy estimates that 150,000 Filipinos work in Kuwait, including 65,000 domestic helpers. The Philippine labour attaché, Josephus Jimenez, did not want to talk specifically about the case of the convicted woman, Ms Pawa, but spoke in general of the plight of his country's maids. He said some of the women worked for too many hours, were not given enough food and were shouted at by their employers.
"If I was the president of the Philippines, I'd abolish domestic help," Mr Jiminez said. "Our people are college graduates; why should they be working as domestic helpers? Can you imagine if you are a college graduate and you work in a house? "We have to re-examine the philosophy of depriving the family of a mother and the husband of a wife." firstname.lastname@example.org