“GCC Unified Contract is for Guiding Purposes Only,” says Aqeel al-Jassim

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May 30 2014

Aqeel Ahmed Al-Jassim, the GCC Labour and Social Affairs Ministers' Council Executive Bureau Director General, responds to criticisms of the unified contract for domestic workers and offers new insight on the next draft in an interview with Migrant-Rights.org. The draft contract is scheduled for discussion in November.

In 2013, Migrant-Rights.org urged a revision of the draft contract to address problematic provisions and critical omissions that failed to ensure minimum labor and human rights standards for domestic workers. Since March 2013, states delayed finalizing the contract in order to reform their own laws first.  Al-Jassim noted that Qatar's latest decision to abolish the Kafala system had further delayed discussion of the contract, likely as many clauses refer to relationships between the sponsor and domestic worker.

Al-Jassim refrained from disclosing details of the prospective draft but revealed enough to limit expectations of the final contract; a particularly important point he emphasized is that the contract will not be a binding law, but rather a guideline for states to adopt at their will – similar to international frameworks relating to labor and migration. Consequently, the contract should stipulate the highest standards for domestic workers. But instead, the contract fails to provide for even minimum standards of recruitment and working conditions.

MR questioned al-Jassim about a number of the 2013 contract’s weaknesses:

In response to the absence of maximum daily working hours for domestic workers, al-Jassim held that “this is a decision for the sponsor to make.” He argued that

“domestic workers are family members living in our houses and it will not be suitable to specify their working hours.”

When inquired about documented cases of abuse in which domestic workers are on duty for 16-hours a day, with no day off, he reiterated that domestic workers are just like mothers, taking care of the family.

This claim that workers are akin to family is an oft-used justification for domestic workers' exclusion from labor law and the absence of adequate regulation.  But domestic workers are not mothers. Domestic workers are not family and they are certainly not treated like family – they do no eat with the family, they do not rise with the family, they do not enjoy vacations with the family, and they are not permitted the same freedoms as members of the family.

The notion that domestic workers are like family only highlights the fact that working conditions are dependent upon the benevolence of their employers rather than on law, and again allows the state to cede responsibility for workers’ well-being. Employers can force domestic workers to work 100 hours a week, provide them with no breaks, and take the job of nanny, cook, and cleaner – without violating a single law in many of the GCC states (Saudi Arabia is a recent exception, though workers can still work up to 90 hours per week. Kuwait and the UAE are expected to follow - though they have not yet disclosed the limit on maximum working hours).

Furthermore, Al-Jassim’s logic perpetuates the dangerous myth that domestic work is not real work– that it is not a productive and essential component of the economy, that it does not require the same regulation as real work, that it does not require the same compensation as real work – that a perfunctory display of affinity somehow constitutes in-kind compensation for this work, and somehow justifies low wages and excruciating work hours.

Additionally, this paternalistic argument justifies restrictions on domestic worker rights, including the confiscation of their passports, limitations to cell-phone or computer use, as well as physical confinement. Al-Jassim even states workers would not be ensured right to day off because it would be unsuitable to allow workers to leave the house without supervision.

These restrictions are not a result of familial instincts to protect workers, but to protect investments.

According to the 2013 draft, employers must guarantee domestic workers a private roombut no other form of privacy is protected. Workers should have private access to a cellphone, but al-Jassim again held that “to have a cellphone is a decision for the sponsor to make. These days, it is not hard for housemaids to have a cellphone. They can also use home lines.”

Al-Jassim also noted that “GCC countries run hotlines for complaints of domestic workers.” It is true that several states have launched hotlines for domestic workers, but these are only reactionary measures that do not protect against abuse – they provide only a response to it. Furthermore, their effectiveness requires certain conditions for domestic workers – for example, time and private access to a phone, as well as knowledge that the hotline exists. States have not indicated an effort to spread awareness about the hotlines prior to domestic workers’ departure and after their arrival. States have also not released information about the success of hotlines in resolving disputes or rescuing distressed workers.

Al-Jassim indicated that no other measures would be implemented to monitor the conditions of domestic workers.  In response to suggestions that regulators check-up with domestic workers either inside or outside of the house, he stated “it is impossible for states to organize regular checkup visits” to ensure and protect domestic workers.

However, states that also have a large domestic worker workforce, such as Uruguay, do monitor workers’ conditions. If GCC states are reluctant to mobilize these efforts, then domestic workers should be allowed to meet regularly with an embassy or consulate official – this of course requires that the worker is allowed to leave the home without supervision.

Al-Jassim also held that origin countries must share more of the responsibility in regulating recruitment and employment; in response to suggestions that the contract be available in the language of the domestic worker, al-Jassim argued that this task lies with origin countries.

But domestic workers should always have access to a contract of his or her language, from pre-employment to return. GCC states should work to ‘share more of the responsibility’ by improving coherence in recruitment, for example to ensure that domestic worker’s contracts are not substituted for a less favorable contract in destination states. In order for recruitment agencies to comply with minimum standards dictated by origin states, which necessarily entails an accurate translation of Arabic contracts, GCC states must require that contracts be available in the language of the worker.

In regards to the right to employment mobility – to change jobs and sponsors if workers are unhappy– the decision remains within the hands of sponsors. Sponsors can terminate contracts if domestic works breach contractual obligations with little threshold of proof needed, but domestic workers face much greater impediments to changing employers if they are dissatisfied with their working conditions or wages. Al-Jassim restated a recurrent official narrative that absolves GCC states from international rights conventions, holding that

our traditional societies cannot allow for new regulations that change the preexistent labor dynamics.

But migrant domestic workers responsible for up to 99% of parental duties, including housework, are a relatively new phenomenon in the Gulf.  Furthermore, one cannot claim that domestic work is bound to unchangeable labor dynamics while simultaneously arguing that workers are not actually laborers, but members of the family.

Al-Jassim countered criticism of the January 2013 draft more generally as well, holding that “the West continues to demonize the Kafala system for no reason.” The Kafala system, he explained, is necessary because “it does not make sense to bring migrants over and let them move without the necessary supervision.”

However, the Kafala system is not the only means of ‘managing migration.’ While migration systems in other states may not necessarily be applicable to the Gulf, any system should nonetheless approach recruitment and labor from a rights-based perspective. The Kafala system in its general form has been criticized, in part, it cedes regulation to recruitment agencies and binds migrants legal residence to their employers, rendering migrants overly dependent on the benevolence of both actors. GCC states claim that evidence of abuse under the Kafala is merely ‘anecdotal,’ rather than systematic. But components of the system are either inherently exploitative or facilitate exploitation; in fact, they are elements of forced labor and human trafficking highlighted in the 2013 ILO report on the Arab region:

Inability to leave employer (due to threat or penalty) – includes consequences and facets of the sponsorship system, such as the inability to change employers, sponsor’s ability to refuse the release of workers or charge high release fees, as well as sponsor’s ability to withhold wages and personal travel documents to prevent workers from running away. Exorbitant and illegal recruitment fees can also prevent indebted migrants from leaving unfavorable employment situations.

Individual sponsors and numerous leading firms continue to confiscate employees’ documents to “protect” their investment from leaving the country or escaping to another employer. In a recent case disclosed to Migrant-Rights.org, a sponsor required her domestic worker to pay 600 dirhams for her release to another employer, and thereafter prevented the worker from obtaining other employment. The worker escaped to her agency, but was told to return because her employ was rich, and because her embassy would not intervene on her behalf. The worker remained in limbo in a Dubai-based recruitment agency, with no security for remuneration or for future employment.

Other aspects of the sponsorship system that lend to exploitation are detailed on our campaign page.

An immediate overhaul of the Kafala system is a lofty goal, one that is likely to suffer from the superficiality of Bahrain’s abolishment and the failed promises of other GCC states. But gradual reforms targeted at these keystones of the Kafala will eventually dismantle the system.

The Unified Contract has some promising clauses but there is still much to be done to change the paradigm of thought on domestic work.  Al-Jassim’s statements indicate that the contract does not target the structural relationship between domestic workers and employers; the sponsor will still wield  control over a worker’s basic rights, and there will still be minimal preventative measures against abuse.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East