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Migrant Domestic Workers in the Middle East: Exploited, Abused and Ignored

On April 30, 2010

A new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report about the rights of migrant domestic workers focused heavily on the Middle East, and for a good reason: most regional governments do not include domestic workers under the protection of its labor laws, and the current regulations leave domestic workers open to exploitation and abuse.

The extensive 26-page report surveyed the conditions of domestic workers in Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Bahrain (as well as Malaysia and Singapore). The report remarked that the conditions of migrant domestic workers are gradually, albeit slowly, improving. However, domestic workers are still extremely vulnerable and under-protected in the Middle East.

The report details how migrant domestic workers can be subjected to exploitation by several actors, starting from recruitment agencies in their own countries and up to policemen in their country of destination if the approach to report abuse. As the report states "the failure to properly regulate paid domestic work facilitates egregious abuse and exploitation, and means domestic workers who encounter such abuse have few or no means for seeking redress."

The vulnerability begins at home, where recruitment agencies often provide false information to migrant workers about their future conditions and pay. Those agencies usually demand a high fee for securing the work visa, forcing the future workers to go into debt. The burden of debt to the agency makes the domestic worker fearful about reporting abuse and possibly losing their job and being unable to repay the "loan" to the agency. Once a worker arrives to his county of destination, recruitment agencies sometimes substitute the contracts the woman signed back home with a new contract with poorer conditions. We have covered a case of such worker, Grace from the Philippines. She was promised a job in Qatar as an executive secretary for 700 QAR per month, but upon arrival she was informed that she'll be taking care of a child, with no days off and for 600 QAR ($165) per month.

Domestic workers in the surveyed countries require a local sponsor, to whom their work visa is tied. The sponsorship creates dependency and vulnerability and makes exploitation much more likely. As the report remarked "As the immigration sponsor, the employer can typically have the domestic worker repatriated at will, provide or withhold consent on whether she can change jobs, and in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, obstruct her ability to leave the country. In practice, termination of employment often means the worker is obliged to leave the country immediately with no opportunity to seek redress for abuses or settlement of unpaid wages... Migrant domestic workers who leave their employment without their employer’s consent lose their legal status, making them subject to immigration penalties and deportation."

We've previously reported how an unpaid Indian worker (read: slave) resorted to hiding in an airplane bathroom to be able to return home, after his abusive employer wouldn't return his passport and give him permission to leave. Other employers, once their domestic workers muster up the courage to report the abuse, often counter-accuse the worker of committing crimes like theft of running away, and the police sometimes takes their side. We previously reported about a Sri Lankan maid who ended up in a Jordanian hospital after her employer beat her. When she complained, the employer accused the maid of theft and child abuse and the maid was arrested while still recovering from her injuries.

The invisibility of domestic workers in the homes of their sponsors to the outside world creates an increased risk of abuse, sexual harassment, food deprivation, and forced confinement. "In the worst cases, domestic workers may become trapped in situations of forced labor, trafficking, or slavery, or they die from murder, botched escape attempts, or suicide", the report states. As we've documented, the high numbers of domestic workers taking their lives in Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is extremely worrisome and attests to the poor living and working conditions those housemaids have to endure.

The justice system in most Middle Eastern countries discriminates against migrant workers. As the report remarked, "Human Rights Watch has documented patterns in which the combination of poorly conducted investigations, lengthy trials, and weak enforcement of judgments combine to pressure victims of violence into accepting small financial settlements, a return ticket home, or nothing at all." Last year we mentioned the case of an abused Sri Lankan maid who ran away from her Bahraini sponsor and approached the police, only to be returned to him. We also reported about the case of an Indian maid who was severely abused by her Bahraini sponsor who returned to India five months after the case was filed, and yet no charges was brought against her abusive sponsors.

Labor and Immigration Reforms

The report discusses the positive reforms in the labor and immigration laws made by regional governments. Unfortunately, other than in Jordan, regional governments do not include domestic workers under the protection of its labor laws. Other regional governments, like the UAE and Lebanon, introduced the standard employment contract, which regulates the domestic worker's wages, but "falls short of providing the comprehensive protections provided under national labor laws", the report noted. The contracts, which are also in use of private recruitment agencies in Saudi Arabia, do not give housemaids a weekly day off, it does not limit their working hours, and permits employers to forcibly keep their maids indoors. The reformed laws in Jordan still allows employers to hold their domestic worker's passport and prohibit them from leaving the house, even on rest days. Changes in the sponsorship system in Kuwait and Bahrain excluded domestic workers.

Exposure to Racism and Sexism

The report notes that "Government officials, employers, and recruitment agents often make arguments against reform that reveal deep racial and gender stereotypes about migrant women and men, and the insecurities of wealthy elites that may feel physically and culturally threatened by large migrant populations but are also deeply dependent on them." As we've shown, media reports in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE portray domestic workers as abusive sneaky witches, lazy liars and criminals. In addition to this "A second set of tensions around immigration reform center on sexual stereotypes and fears. Employers commonly describe their fear of migrant men or express stereotypes of migrant women as either sexually loose or as innocent and naïve in order to justify their practices of confining migrant domestic workers to the home and prohibiting them from taking a day off", the report states.

The Human Rights Watch report paints a bleak picture about the rights of migrant domestic workers in the region. Despite the reforms, there is still a long way to go before domestic workers can arrive to the Middle East without fear of being abused, exploited, discriminated against and ignored by authorities.