The newspaper stories are shocking: Man stapled maid several times and left her disfigured…Heated nails hammered into Sri Lankan maid…Housemaid plunges to her death from Sharjah tower…Ethiopian domestic worker beaten on camera commits suicide…
Open any newspaper in Lebanon or the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and you will likely find similar stories of domestic workers who have run away or committed suicide as a result of unpaid wages, confinement to the house, lack of food or sleep, exhausting work hours and/or verbal, physical or sexual abuse by their sponsors.
Scope of the Problem
Employment opportunities in the Gulf attract as many as 3 million women from the developing countries of South Asia every year. The International Labor Organization (ILO), a U.N. agency dedicated to workers’ rights, estimates that Arab countries host more than 20 million migrant workers in all, one third of them women coming from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia, the Philippines and Ethiopia. Typically, these women find jobs through labor recruiters in their home countries. Although some recruitment firms are legitimate, many others are not licensed and have been known to trick women with false promises. Quite often, once these women arrive in their host countries to work as housemaids, they discover that labor laws do not apply to them and that there is little help available if they feel exploited or violated in any way.
And so before the work has begun, migrant domestic workers find themselves indebted to a degree of desperation. – U.S. State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, June 27, 2011
Shackles of ‘kafala’
Nadim Houry,deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division and director of HRW’s Beirut office, says domestic workers in the Middle East are generally recruited through the “kafala” system – a legal sponsorship that ties the employment and the residency of a domestic worker to a specific employer. The system requires all unskilled laborers to have an in-country sponsor, usually their employer, who is responsible for their visa and legal status.
This practice has been decried by human rights organizations for creating easy opportunities for the exploitation of workers, as many employers take away passports and abuse their workers with little chance of legal repercussions. As Houri puts it, “Housemaids can’t leave their employers or switch jobs. The employer basically says, ‘Look, I’ve had to make an upfront investment to bring you over, I have to pay the agent’s fees, and so I need to’ – quote, unquote, this is how they say it – ‘protect my investment.’”
Some employers withhold salaries for months – even years – at a time, until the “debt” is paid off. Many inflate it to include food, clothing and other expenses.
Working undefined hours
A 2001 ILO survey of migrant domestic workers in Kuwait found that housemaids were working an average of between 78 to 100 hours a week cleaning house, cooking and caring for children – and sometimes doing extra duty in the houses of their sponsors’ relatives.
They work for undefined hours. They are not able to practice their own religion freely, they are not given days off and there are cases of non-payment of salaries… in addition, more than 40% report physical, verbal or sexual abuse. — Bahrain Commission on Human Rights
Making matters worse, sponsors usually control migrant workers’ passports. “This makes it very hard for domestic workers,” Houry says. “They lose that residency status if they ‘run away’ from their employer and they face detention and possible deportation.”
Does kafala then basically amount to forced labor? “Yes,” says Houry, “it does facilitate and lead to situations akin to indentured labor, in many, many situations.”
Few get lucky
Marguerite (not her real name) uses stronger terminology to describe the kafala system. She is the chairperson of GABRIELA UAE, a chapter of a Phillipine women’s organization that works to promote women’s rights. “Housemaids,” she says, “are not classified as laborers. They are classified like slaves.”
She cites the case of a young housemaid GABRIELA UAE recently helped out of a difficult situation. “The sponsor didn’t [pay] her salary for almost eight months and he was trying to rape the girl. What the girl told me, she was sleeping with a knife under her pillow.”
Marguerite advised the girl against arming herself. “Either she would be stabbed herself or, if she injured her sponsor, she would end up in prison” Instead, Marguerite advised her to break a lesser law: Run away – straight to the Philippine Consulate in the UAE. The rights worker then assisted the girl in writing an affidavit – without which, the consulate would not be able to act.
Luckily, things turned out well for this particular young housemaid. “The employers had to pay back all the salary,” Marguerite said. “And they had to buy a plane ticket for her.”
But Marguerite says not all runaways are so lucky. She guesses that as many as a hundred Philippine runaways are currently in prison in the UAE – “maybe more.”
The 2003 United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families is an international agreement governing the protection of migrant workers and families. It aims to ensure that migrants enjoy the same rights and work conditions as do nationals – including safe living and working conditions, protection from physical and mental abuse, freedom of thought and religion, access to information regarding their rights, access to legal, education and social services, and the right to participate in trade unions.
So far among Arab states, only Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Syria have signed the Convention. According to Human Rights Watch, Jordan has made the most significant progress in protecting domestic workers, amending its labor laws to guarantee them regular salaries, days off, paid sick leave, vacations and a maximum of 10-hour workdays. Other countries say they are considering – or in the process of changing their laws.
Nadim Houry places the responsibility for protecting migrant workers squarely in the laps of governments. “If there were clear laws, in terms of labor regulations,” Houry says, “if there were prosecution of employers who confine workers to the house and don’t let them out, I think we would see an automatic change in behavior.”
After all, says Houry, it’s one thing to educate employers. But for real, lasting change to occur, employers must be made to recognize that what they are doing is a violation of basic human freedom – and that this violation will not go unpunished.
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.