What seemed like a normal trip to the hospital to visit a family member recently turned out to be a lot more than I ever could have imagined. My sister-in-law was recovering from gall bladder surgery and I visited her early in the morning to drop off some essentials. The recovery ward was quiet and I was the only visitor as most of the patients were still sleeping. It just so happened that it was time for breakfast to be served in the ward. The smell of eggs and something â€˜tomato-eyâ€™ hit my nose hard as I had skipped breakfast. I snuck a peek from behind the privacy curtain that surrounded my sister-in-lawâ€™s bed and was stunned at what I saw.
The woman in charge of delivering breakfast was talking animatedly with the head nurse, clearly trying to divert her attention from the food cart. Meanwhile, no less than five of the female janitors busied themselves opening up each of about two-dozen trays on the cart. They stuffed all the fresh fruit, juice boxes and milk cartons down their shirts and in their pockets. One by one, they went into the janitorâ€™s closet and unloaded the loot. Then it was business as usual. The trays were delivered to the patients.
When my sister-in-lawâ€™s tray arrived, I immediately opened it to inspect what was left and there was not much – a half of a piece of pita bread, one boiled egg, a tomato slice and half a cup of hot water to make tea. Had I not known that the rest of the breakfast had been stolen I would have complained that the hospital was stingy! I was enraged at the theft given that all the patients were recovering from surgery and their meals were planned by the doctor to ensure maximum nutrition and also because of the germ factor. Janitors handle garbage and infectious waste. They have no business handling patientâ€™s food let alone even touching the trays.
I went to complain to the head nurse but stopped when I saw one of the workers who had just stolen the food. I wanted to give her a chance to tell her side of the story.
And this is what she told me. Her name is Printi and she hails from India. She came to Kuwait about 6 months ago to work as a janitor for a salary of about $200 a month. However, when she arrived she found out her salary was only a paltry $50 a month. She works for a contracting company who gets a big fat contract from the government to supply workers for the governmental hospitals. In turn, the company stuffs as many workers as they can into tiny apartments and gives them a limited supply of food. Printi shares an apartment with twenty other women and they all manage with one bathroom and one kitchen. She told me that they often fight over food and there is not much room for privacy in the apartment. She also said that she and the other workers have no choice but to steal the patientâ€™s food to supplement their insufficient diets. They also do a lot of begging for tips when they help a patient do a task, like packing a suitcase or bringing extra towels.
The plight of workers in the Gulf is nothing new. They often struggle to survive and somehow manage to scrape together a few dollars to send to their families back home each month. This is just one story out of hundreds of thousands, a tiny glimpse into the life of someone who is oppressed and does not have the means to escape the exploitation.