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A maid begged for help before falling from a window in Kuwait. Her boss made a video instead.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/6/2017 Avi Selk

The floor looks clean in this high-rise apartment, seven stories above Kuwait City traffic. Not a smudge in sight on the picture window. On the other side of the glass, the maid is hanging on by one knuckle, screaming.

“Oh crazy, come here,” a woman says casually in Arabic, holding a camera up to the maid.

“Hold on to me! Hold on to me!” the maid yells.

Instead, the woman steps back. The maid's grip finally slips, and she lands in a cloud of dust, many stories below.

The maid — an Ethiopian who had been working in the country for several years, according to the Kuwait Times — survived the fall. The videographer, her employer, was arrested last week on a charge of failing to help the worker.

It's still unclear what led to the fall. But it was not the first time a domestic servant had fallen off of a building in Kuwait, an oil-rich country where foreign workers are cheap, plentiful and live largely at the mercy of their employers.

Human Rights Watch has spent years documenting cases of workers abused, exploited, attacked or driven to desperation by a draconian labor system called kafala, in which foreigners surrender rights to get a work visa in the Persian Gulf.

Like thousands of others, its investigators are disturbed by the Kuwait City video.

“I've talked to workers who said they had to figure out a way to escape, and scrambled off buildings to do so,” said Rothna Begum, a researcher for the rights group. “What was shocking about this video is that the employer had filmed it from inside the flat — while she [the worker] is asking for help.”

The woman, who reportedly landed on an awning and broke an arm in the fall, is one of more than 600,000 foreigners working in Kuwait, according to a Human Rights Watch estimate.

That's about one servant for each family in a country of about 3 million people, Begum said.

“It's becoming quite trendy,” she said. “Even low- and middle-income families will have a domestic worker. They're considered to be incredibly cheap, and you can exploit them.”

In a 2010 report, the rights group collected anecdotes from workers across Kuwait, including an Ethiopian woman who called her boss “Mama.”

“Mama would close the fridge; we were not allowed to take any food,” the woman is quoted as saying. “She also beat me if there was anything wrong, like a tiny speck of dust. I worked from 6 a.m. until 1 a.m.”

It's not uncommon for employers to lock their servants inside apartments and compounds, Begum said — even though they can be arrested and deported for leaving without their employers' permission.

A Filipina worker — called Alida in the report — told Human Rights Watch what happened when her boss found out she'd sought help after working long hours with little food.

“After returning home, the employer hit Alida in the face and said, 'I’ll let you die first before you go,' " the report reads. “She [dragged me by] my blouse in her two hands and pushed me. She threw me out of the window from the third floor.”

Alida woke up in a hospital, according to the report, and learned that her employers had filed charges against her and said she tried to kill herself.

“I came here to work, not to kill myself,” she told the agency.

The Ethiopian woman's fall was also reported as a suicide attempt, according to local reports. So were the injuries of eight other women Begum said she and her colleagues interviewed.

“All of them said they were trying to escape abuse.”

In 2015, Kuwait passed its first protections for foreign workers — prohibiting employers from confiscating their passports, granting them one day off each week, paid vacation and a maximum 12-hour working day.

But with no way to enforce those protections, Begum said, the draconian practices of kafala endure — with workers often held prisoner in their employers' homes until their contracts run out, abused in return for meager wages, occasionally jumping to escape.

As bad as they were, Begum said, Kuwait's laws “happen to be the most progressive the Gulf has.”

A few years ago, Abigail Hauslohner reported for The Washington Post from a labor camp in Qatar — miles from the high-rises and museums, where foreigners slept in crowded, bug-infested bunks after working all day to build the rich cities.

Last year, The Post reported, an Indian man made a tearful video about his horrendous working conditions in Saudi Arabia.

Like the maid's plummet in Kuwait, that video went viral.

Saudi authorities then arrested the worker for the “spread of misinformation,” and his employer had the video taken offline.

Azhar AlFadl Miranda and Abigail Hauslohner contributed to this report.


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