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Lack of privacy endangers domestic workers

On August 25, 2012

The personal lives of domestic workers are heavily constrained by their employers; some are forced to work 7 days a week with only a yearly vacation, leaving little time to participate in life outside of work. Their in-house presence is often overly monitored as well, with some even denied the use of cell phones or the internet. Employers justify these aggressive measures as necessary to prevent maids from underworking or from absconding.

Restrictions on domestic workers extend beyond physicality as they can entirely consume their social existence. Workers may fear retribution for disobeying their employers, even if their "infractions" are exclusive of their work life, and particularly when they involve extramarital relationships. Though most expats are required to abide by Gulf cultural norms publicly, the punishment for migrant workers is potentially much more severe. Expats may be required to pay a fine or serve jail time, but migrants caught by their employers are likely to lose their only source of income. For example, the following charges were laid on a pregnant woman who absconded:

"The court jailed her one year for having consensual sex and two months for breaching the residency law.

Jail-time for extramarital affairs occurs frequently (for example, here, here, here, and here), and migrants are aware of the risks they face if their relationships are discovered. This fear often exacerbates situations because migrants are desperate to avoid punishment from their employers, who are often the ones that report them to authorities.

There are several recent examples in which migrants endangered their own lives or the lives of others in order to avoid such unforgiving punishment:

In this case, a maid threatened to kill her roommate after discovering she had a boyfriend.

In this example, a maid murdered her baby because she feared facing charges for extramarital sex, as well as her employer's reactions.

"When I asked her why would she put the baby in a bag, she said she was scared she would be caught for having an illicit relation and an illicit child."

In this case, a migrant worker murdered his girlfriend (a maid) and her baby after she alleged the child was his. His fear of legal repercussions and loss of employment are likely to have factored into his crime, especially as the woman threatened to inform his manager of their relationship.

Workers involved in relationships may also abscond to avoid legal repercussions.

The intensity of employers' entitlement to dictate the personal lives of their workers, compounded by unnecessarily strict local laws, aggravate otherwise harmless misdemeanors. The severe, entirely avoidable, repercussions affect all parties involved.

Some argue that employers only report or reprimand maids because they conduct illicit activities in their own homes. But domestic workers who are forced to forsake their personal lives do not enjoy the opportunity to discreetly hide their extramarital activities as other expats do. Migrant workers are no more 'licentious' than the rest of the population, but they are disproportionally punished because they are constrained in their ability to keep their private lives private.

The restrictions employers place on their workers varies widely, but this variance is nonetheless problematic as it reflects the absence of codified domestic worker rights. Some nations in the Gulf have recently drafted new regulations pertaining to domestic workers, but similar legislation proposed in the past either failed to come to fruition, or remains effectively unenforced. Most notably, no migrant-receiving nations have adopted the the ILO's Convention no. 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, the first ILO convention to comprehensively address domestic worker rights. Amongst the Convention's most relevant elements is the right to "one day off per week and the regulation of working hours and leave days."

The fairness of imposing cultural standards on migrant workers is a complex issue, but their right to privacy and self-determination - particularly manifested in the form of time off to enjoy a personal life - is a fundamental human right that must be protected.