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Conceptualizing the Rights of Domestic Workers

On September 23, 2012

The universality of human rights is a concept embraced by most in the contemporary world, but its practical realization is stunted in the realm of migrant rights. The rights of domestic workers and laborers at large should not be contingent on the largess of employers. Workers who are treated fairly should not consider themselves "lucky". The humane, equitable treatment of workers should represent the minimum standard of employment guarantees.

But frequently, Gulf-based commentaries and op-eds reflect this partial conceptualization of migrant rights; authors distance themselves from physical abuse, but qualify their endorsement of these rights. Many are quick to denounce the "demonization of Arab employers" they claim unfairly implicates employers while ignoring domestic worker crimes. For example, in this brief response to a positive article, an individual writes "For Every BAD employer stands a BAD helper". This common rationalization disregards the context of such transgressions: Domestic workers are chronically disenfranchised, a consequence of an enduring complex of factors that include the sponsorship system and indifferent social perceptions of transient migrant communities. In contrast, domestic workers (and migrant workers at large) who commit crimes often do so in response to abuse. Otherwise, domestic worker misconduct is randomized, and irrelevant to analyses of employer-worker relationships.

Additionally, this mentality suggests that abuse, physical or otherwise, comprises a justified reaction to "badly behaving" workers. Similarly, some pieces misrepresent the gratuitous actions of employers towards workers as a counterweight to negative reports. These stories are sometimes presented as the "norm" or to emphasize that "good employers also exist!" While many magnanimous employers do exist, the premise that their actions "balance out" widespread and implicitly lawful exploitation is grievously unsound. The only 'counteraction' to workers should be conducted in the confines of a legal system that codifies the rights of both the employer and the worker. Workers must be legally guaranteed proper treatment - not subject to the whims of their employers.

Recently, a handful of very encouraging pieces have been published by Gulf media. These articles recognize domestic worker rights much more extensively than contemporary law and practice reflect. Reports such as this National piece acknowledge that the basic rights of workers extend beyond safeguards against physical abuse and include less conspicuous rights such as habitable living conditions, time off, timely payment, and occupation mobility.

Unfortunately, such pieces combat a decade's worth of less equitable perspectives that still endure. For example, these perspectives undergird the claims of employer victimization that implicitly seek to maintain the status quo. A series of articles published in Emirates 24/7 reflect this tendency to eclipse domestic worker struggles with those of employers (here, here, and here). The disparagement of migrant conditions illustrates the incongruent conception of worker rights as compared to local employer rights.

The rising scrutiny of migrant issues in the Gulf and wider Middle East highlights systematic transgressions on foreign worker rights; such reports are not intended to "demonize Arabs," but to elucidate the exploitative nature of the sponsorship system, and of the anarchy that characterizes domestic worker (un)regulation. Such employer-centric policies perpetuate the conception of workers as subservient to their sponsors, rather than as equal-standing employees fulfilling their end of a contract - a recipe for exploitation in any nation.