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GCC Unified Contract for Domestic Workers to be Discussed in November

On May 23, 2014

Since early 2013, the Under Secretaries of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Ministries of Labor have promised a unified contract to regulate the recruitment and employment of domestic workers in member countries. The contract was postponed repeatedly due to disagreements over certain clauses and reported efforts to improve domestic legislation prior to its finalization.

But last week, council official Aqeel al-Jasim, announced that another draft of the unified contract will be discussed during the committee’s November meeting in Kuwait. Al-Jasim explained that parts of the draft are not yet finalized but will be ready by this next meeting. During the last round of meetings, some member-states disagreed over clauses such as a mandatory day off and maximum working hours.

Though the Gulf states have heralded the contract as a measure to protect domestic worker rights, al-Jasim announced a surprising addition to the contract: the new draft will reportedly include some cooperative mechanisms with African countries, in order provide for an alternative to Asian countries "who make exaggerated demands for recruitments." These demands include the $400 monthly minimum wage now required (though not generally enforced) for Filipino workers. The announcement is also surprising in light of recent backlash against Ethiopian domestic workers in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait imposed a temporary ban on the recruitment of Ethiopian domestic workers following hysteria against alleged abuses. Oman has also stopped recruiting Ethiopian domestic workers as part of its nationalization efforts.  Ethiopia itself placed a moratorium on the recruitment of domestic workers to the UAE and Saudi in light of recruitment and employment abuses.

Though laws regulating domestic labor in GCC countries vary, domestic workers generally lack basic labor rights because protective legislation either does not exist or is not enforced. Domestic workers in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE are excluded from national labor laws and consequently from regulations relating to maximum working hours, safety conditions, mandatory break periods, and other minimum standards. Because most domestic workers live with their employers and because their residency status is tied to their employment, workers' mobility and access to redress mechanisms is also circumscribed.

In Bahrain, 2012 reforms provided for annual vacations and access to mediation in labor disputes, but failed to provide domestic workers with rest days, minimum wage, and fixed working hours. In 2013, Saudi Arabia issued a new decree whereby domestic workers are entitled to 9 hours of rest each day and a paid month vacation after two years of employment, but also face severe penalties for any misconduct.

Last March the UAE announced a draft of its own standardized contract. Reports indicate the move is driven to meet the demands of "unhappy sponsors" paying high recruitment costs rather than to guarantee domestic worker rights. However, if the contract approximates the 2012 draft law for domestic workers, it could stipulate a paid day off, two weeks of paid annual leave, holidays, and 15 paid sick days. The 2012 draft was never finalized, and received criticism for neglecting to regulate working hours or rest break, and for its harsh punitive measures;  the draft contract punished domestic workers with six months to one year in jail and a 100,000 Dh fine (27,000) in case of "revealing secrets of employers," a punishable offense also found in the GCC wide unified contract.  The draft also levied  imprisonment and fines for those aiding or sheltering absconded workers.

Qatar has announced also plans to implement a standard contract several times over the past few years, but have yet to follow through with reform.

A 2010 study on domestic workers in Saudi Arabia and the UAE highlighted prevalent contract issues, some of which have not been solved as of the last contract draft; a questionnaire showed that only 73% of those surveyed had contracts, only 58% could read it, and only 35% received copies of their contracts. The study referenced cases in which domestic workers were promised salaries in US dollars but after arrival, were given the same amount in local currencies. Many also reported contract substitution, whereby recruitment agencies provided them with enticing contracts in English and must less favorable contracts in Arabic – the latter of which is the only version recognized in Emirati courts.

The study also evidenced the danger of ambiguous language in domestic worker contracts; for example, in Saudi, sponsors must pay for a worker's return ticket unless “the domestic worker does something wrong” or “wants to end the work relation prematurely for personal reasons.” Employers are advantaged when they can define their own contractual obligations. In contrast, the burden of proof lies on the domestic worker to prove they have been wronged by their employer, which is particularly difficult when workers have very limited access to legal services. Vague language that unfairly empowers the employer was still an issue in the last published version of the draft contract; for example, the contract requires employers to provide domestic workers with adequate accommodation, without prescribing actual minimum standards. urged the GCC committee to revise the 2013 draft contract, which did improve protections for domestic workers but still omitted critical rights, including core components of the ILO's Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers.  The convention, adopted by the ILO in 2011, enumerates minimum standards and rights specific to domestic workers while affirming that all other migrant, labor, and human rights conventions are also inclusive of domestic workers.  No states in the Middle East or North Africa region have ratified the convention.