Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East

Return to research Posted on Nov 20 2012

This past July, Ethiopia imposed a ban on female domestic workers to the UAE. The Ethiopian government cited employer abuse, recruitment agency abuse, and trafficking as the proximate impetus of the moratorium. Less than three months since its implementation, the ban is set to be lifted following a new set of labor agreements. The accord is not yet public, but officials announced its contents include minimum wage and insurance guarantees for both all Ethiopian migrant workers.

However, these ‘new’ commitments do not ensure improved working conditions, primarily because mechanisms for enforcing migrant worker legislation remains extremely weak. The impotence of such labor agreements was evidenced most recently by the UAE’s unapologetic contravention its labor treaty with the Philippines. Despite pledging new minimum wage standards, the UAE eschewed responsibility for the sustained underpayment of Filipina domestic workers. Officials took cover under the sponsorship system’s configuration, misplacing responsibility for enforcement to recruitment agencies and employers – the very stakeholders these agreements are intended to regulate.

This phenomenon is a fixture in negotiations between migrant-sending and receiving nations. Labor bans tend to spur renewed commitments to migrant worker rights, but meek enforcement efforts preclude substantive change to working conditions. Ineffective enforcement is due in part to current framework of sponsorship systems, which inhibit administrative regulation of employer-worker relations. Until governments re-appropriate accountability for domestic worker and migrant labor conditions, these “new standards” will remain merely nominal.

Not all legislation affecting migrant workers is entirely futile, but the majority of effectual policies are reactive rather than proactive – that is, they may redress migrant worker conditions, but they do little to actively correct them. For examples, legal confrontations involving employees and abusive employers transpire with more frequency. Additionally, the Ethiopian Consul General noted that illegal workers are no longer fined when leaving the country (illegal workers tend to be synonymous with absconded workers, who usually breach employment contracts due to exploitative conditions.) While these adjusted policies are marks of improvement, they impact only the consequences of the nation’s unenforced policies.

In general, labor moratoriums have historically proven ineffective, and even detrimental, to securing migrant rights; not only are the resulting agreements falsely heralded as evidence of progress – furthermore perpetuating the status quo as a consequence – but the “cost” of these empty promises is born almost exclusively by migrant workers. Desperate migrant workers can circumvent bans to work illegally, rendering them even more vulnerable to underpayment, abuse, and other forms of exploitation.

Currently, it remains unclear if Ethiopia has resolved the principal issues which prompted the labor ban. The Ethiopian Consulate endeavored to encourage sponsor accountability and discourage the use of illegal recruitment agencies, topics which the labor agreement does not appear to address. The full accord will be disclosed in two months, at which time a more extensive analysis will be possible.

Housemaids, Legislation, Research, UAE, Workers

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Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East