By BARBARA SURK for the Associated Press.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Foreign housemaids in the oil-rich Gulf sometimes work 21-hour days without medical care, enough food, or the right to go home, and they also face violence and harassment, a human rights report said Wednesday.
Dubai's government, shaken by a rash of recent labor protests, quickly disputed the charges by New York-based Human Rights Watch, saying it is taking steps to improve conditions of the thousands of Sri Lankan maids working here.
But the report criticizes a range of Gulf states — as well as Lebanon — for failing to curb the abuses and for not protecting Sri Lankan migrant female workers under normal labor laws.
More than 660,000 Sri Lankan women work abroad as domestic workers, 90 percent of them in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Lebanon, where their work contracts fall not under labor laws but the jurisdiction of immigration authorities.
That deprives the housemaids of basic labor rights, Human Rights Watch said.
"Governments in the Middle East 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 for the group.
HRW said the abuse begins in Sri Lanka, with labor agents there charging excessive fees for their services, leaving the women heavily indebted.
Once abroad, the housemaids sometimes work 16- to 21-hour days, seven days a week, without vacation or sick days — often for less than 33 cents an hour. And their wages are often withheld, HRW said.
The group listed reports of forced confinement, physical and verbal abuse of the housemaids, as well as sexual harassment and rape by employers.
"Whenever I asked for my salary, the fight started," one 52-year-old Sri Lankan housemaid in Saudi Arabia told HRW. "I asked for money and they would beat me."
A 23-year-old domestic worker in Kuwait told the group that she once asked her employer for an hour of rest. "You are like my shoes, and you have to work tirelessly," the woman recounted her employer as saying.
Mideast employers routinely confiscate the maids' passports, HRW said. During the July 2006 war in Lebanon, many Lebanese employers refused to let their Sri Lankan maids go home.
But Emirates officials dismissed the criticism, saying the rights' group chose "to ignore many of the positive steps adopted" in the wealthy city-states.
"While we ... acknowledge that our system is a work in progress, we have and will continue to strive ... toward ensuring the protection of all people who visit and work in our country," said Emirates' minister for federal affairs, Anwar Gargash.
Sri Lanka's minister in charge of foreign workers, Keheliya Rambukwella, said Colombo authorities were aware of difficulties the maids face but cautioned there are limits to what they can do, since theirs is just a "country that sends workers" to the Gulf and "abuse happens at the other end."
Wasanth Senanayake, Colombo's top diplomat in Dubai, said there are about 30,000 Sri Lankan housemaids working in the Emirates, earning up to $163 a month. He receives 30-40 complaints a month, mostly about delayed pay and lack of contact with families back home.
The Sri Lankan government has extracted an agreement from the Emirates to raise the maids' salaries to as much as $200 a month next year, Senanayake said. Also, the Emirates have begun drafting a new law last month to include domestic workers in the federal labor law.
Dubai's apparent move to address worker grievances comes in the wake of a surge of labor unrest earlier this month among low-paid immigrant Asian workers, including a strike of 40,000 laborers at the construction site of the world's tallest skyscraper.
In April, the government put in place mandatory employment contracts to regulate domestic workers' salaries, housing, health care and working hours. But Nisha Varia, another women's rights researcher with HRW, said the group believes the domestic workers' rights would be better protected under the national labor law.
Colombo has also asked for domestic workers' contracts in the Emirates to include the right to medical treatment, a maximum 10-hour workday and a weekly day off, Senanayake said. The Emirates has yet to respond.
HRW also criticized Saudi Arabia for requiring an employer to approve exit visas for his domestic worker to leave the country. This "traps them and greatly increases the risk of abuse and forced labor," the group said.
Maids from other Asian countries such as the Philippines also work in the Gulf but the Human Rights Watch report focused only on domestic workers from Sri Lanka.
The group said it interviewed 170 Sri Lankan housemaids, government officials and labor recruiters in Sri Lanka and the Middle East.
Associated Press writer Francis Krishan contributed to this report from Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Read more about the conditions of Sri Lankan maids here.