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Gulf states 'fail to curb abuse of maids'

On November 14, 2007

The Financial Times reports:

The governments of the Gulf are failing to curb the abuse of domestic workers, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.

The pressure group called on states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait to widen existing labour regulations to cover maids, most of whom come from India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

“Governments in the Gulf expose Sri Lankan domestic workers to abuse by refusing to guarantee a weekly rest day, limits to the workday, freedom of movement and other rights that most workers take for granted,” said Jennifer Turner, a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Too many abusive employers and unscrupulous labor agents get away with exploiting these workers without any real punishment.”

The report, released in Colombo, focuses on the plight of many of the 125,000 Sri Lankan maids who move to the Middle East every year, with around 50 a day returning home in distress. The group also called on the Sri Lankan government better to regulate the recruitment process.

The campaign follows an effective drive by the group to improve the conditions of construction workers in Dubai. The resulting international scrutiny, along with a series of violent worker strikes, put pressure on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to act. It tightened regulation of the labour market and set up committees that are considering how to introduce collective bargaining and a better wage structure, interpreted as possibly leading to a minimum wage.

HRW said 90 per cent of the 660,000 Sri Lankan women working abroad as domestic helpers are in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Lebanon. From 170 interviews with maids and officials, HRW reported that domestic workers were charged excessive fees by labour agents in their home country, as well as working days of 16-21 hours a day with no breaks or rest days, for wages of 15-30 US cents an hour. HRW also said some maids had reported physical and sexual abuse. The routine confiscation of passports and withholding of wages combined to leave many Sri Lankan maids in a situation of forced labour, HRW said.

While conceding its system is a work in progress, the UAE government said it was disappointed at the report’s poor research methods. The only affected government to volunteer a statement ahead of the report added that many of its recommendations for the protection of domestic workers were in place or in progress in the UAE.

Anwar Gargash, UAE minister of state for federal national council affairs, said the UAE was drafting a law to afford maids the same protection given to other workers.

”The initiatives undertaken by the UAE to protect domestic workers are in contrast to the assertions in the HRW report that such laws and mechanisms are not in place in this country,” he said in the statement.

Earlier this year, it introduced a standard labour contract to regulate their salaries, accommodation and healthcare. The report mentioned the standard labour contracts used for maids in the UAE and Kuwait, but noted that the protection offered did not match laws for other types of workers in these countries.

Mr Gargash also said last year it had become easier for domestic workers to change employer, while the UAE has signed cooperation agreements with five South Asian states, including Sri Lanka, to tackle the role of illegal employment agents in the recruitment process.

Remittances, which totalled $2.3bn in 2006, form a major part of Sri Lanka’s economy, contributing nine per cent to the island’s gross domestic product, more than the island’s tea exports.

Reviving its manual labourers campaign, Human Rights Watch urged the New York-based Guggenheim Museum to ensure that labourers who will build its branch in Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, are not exploited.