By Nejoud Al-Yagout
On January 22nd, the charred remains of overseas Filipino worker (OFW) Jullebee Ranara were discovered in Salmi, Kuwait. In an act of noble and supreme diplomacy, our Foreign Minister, Sheikh Salem Al-Sabah, met the Charges D’Affaires of the Philippines Embassy, Jose Cabrera, to express his heartfelt condolences for the despicable murder of Jullebee. In addition, the President of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who attended the wake of Jullebee, has promised to hold a bilateral meeting with Kuwait to discuss the protection of OFWs and to see whether there are factors which can be addressed to ensure that such a heinous crime does not occur again.
Many people, local and foreign, also expressed their profound grief for the murder of Jullebee, who, it was found, was raped and burned to death by the 17-year-old Kuwaiti son of her employer. But it was the usual victim-blaming, along with a perverse denial of the racist and misogynistic undertones of the crime, which remind us that there is a lot of work to be done in Kuwait.
In order to know whether a country is considered civil, one cannot ask the citizens. It is always the minorities who can help us assess whether we are on the right track in terms of humanity and inclusivity. There have been many instances of abuse of domestic helpers and mistreatment toward foreigners and those considered “the other” for us to ignore. One would be hard-pressed to find an expatriate in Kuwait – specifically one who hails from a low-income country – who is not intimidated by us.
Instead of arrogantly arguing our case that we are welcoming or telling foreigners that if they don’t like our attitude they should leave, what is required by each of us is self-reflection. We need to spend more time with people from certain nations and ask them what they would like us to do to feel more respected, more included. We can’t afford to continue to become defensive when reports of human rights abuses in Kuwait are exposed, or when we top the list of worst countries for expatriates. We must assess why. Instead, we resort to pointing fingers back at those who exposed us or claiming they have an agenda and want to ruin our reputation.
How many more times do we need to be investigated for our mistreatment of others? How many more Filipinos, or those from other countries, need to seek refuge in their embassies or run away to agencies for being beaten up or deprived of food or not being paid their salaries? There is a serious problem in the service industry, a problem which gives employers a sense of entitlement to take away the phones of their domestic workers, abuse them, keep their passports away from them, and only give them one day a week off.
Domestic helpers must be treated as respected employees who deserve rest and good treatment. To even emphasize this is embarrassing. What has become of us that we need to be told how to behave toward others? Why do we infringe upon the freedom of our fellow brothers and sisters in humanity? How would we feel if we had to stay in our office buildings all day and were only granted one day in the weekend, for a few hours, to see our friends? Again, it is a tarnished mindset of arrogance – a false sense of entitlement- which we use to exert control over others we deem inferior to us. And this arrogance will be our downfall if we don’t remedy it. We are not only destroying the lives of others – we are also eroding the soul of our nation.
Employers should be required to sign a contract before hiring a domestic worker to ensure they will protect their rights. That way, the law can protect those who work in our homes. The contract should include clauses which give workers rights, such as days off, the right to use and keep their phones, guarantees that they will be treated with respect and kindness, and guarantees that they will be fed and paid. Although this has been discussed, it is still not being implemented. The contract should also protect employees from physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental abuse.
Each employee should also be given a list of lawyers who are willing to work pro bono to protect them in the case of any infringement upon their rights, since the exorbitant fees of lawyers can prevent someone from seeking help. We can’t just show our support in words. Action needs to be taken since, unfortunately, there is a mindset of I-am-Kuwaiti-and-this-is-my-country-not-yours. If we are not ready to transform our attitude, then we need stricter laws in place to train us to behave in a better manner. Too much time has passed, and too many crimes and abuses have been committed, for us to continue to remain silent and wait for headlines to pass.
The death of Jullebee is not just a tragedy, but a reminder of what transpires when we see others as non-entities, under our control, and not worthy of a life of dignity. May we wake up as a population and ask ourselves whether there is more we can do to ensure that future transgressions of human rights can be averted. Though the answer is yes, there is much more we can do. May we be strong enough to face our darkness and remedy it before we pollute our minds and hearts even further. We still have time to transform ourselves. All it takes is humility and honesty.
For now, let us send love to the family and friends of Jullebee, and to all those who grieve her murder. Let us reassure them that there are many of us here who stand with Jullebee. And let us reassure them that we are aware that racism and discrimination exist in our country. After all, when more of us locals are ready to dissolve self-denial and work on ourselves instead of mistreating others, we will know that Kuwait is ready for change, ready to welcome all, ready to embrace the so-called “other”. The time is now, however. Only now.