Institutional Failures: Why do so many domestic workers return from the Gulf physically and spiritually bruised?

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Apr 26 2015

Mutilated and exploited, the recently exposed experience of an Indonesian domestic worker in Qatar represents an extreme.  But how does it get to the point where a woman is trapped into forced labor, unable to escape daily beatings for two years? How can it be that no one knew of her abuse or else, did nothing about it? How does it get this far?

In large part, because laws do not provide protection against extremes.  A domestic worker’s experience depends on the luck of the draw – on the benevolence of an employer.

The psychology underpinning employers’ abuse of workers raise important questions that require their own space for discussion. Here, we examine only the proximate legal environment that governs the relationship between employers and domestic workers.  It is, however, difficult to disentangle Qatari sponsorship and domestic worker laws on the one hand, and individual abuse of power on the other. This messy image is further complicated by the ambivalent role of sending-country embassies in protecting their most vulnerable citizens.

As with many countries, laws that govern domestic workers in Qatar differ from those that govern other laborers. But one reason domestic worker abuse is so much more frequent and severe in Qatar and the GCC is largely due to the sponsorship system, which permits employers a wide latitude to treat workers.  Domestic workers’ mobility tends to be heavily confined due to the interplay of kafala and domestic worker laws; most workers are required to live full time with their employers, who can and do often control their mobility and access to communication. Many workers cannot leave the house without their employers, even on their off time. Employers may restrict mobility for a number of reasons, though they often cite their legal responsibility as sponsors for workers’ actions, or related fears that workers will become involved with men and distracted from their work.  Employers may restrict access to communication for similar reasons. The Kafala system empowers them to exercise nearly unchecked control over workers. This control does not always take the form of physical abuse and the power of employers is not absolute.  Yet, the nature of domestic work conducted in the private sphere of the home can enable this control to take on a mental and physical severity that exceeds the already low standards for treating domestic workers normalized in the Gulf.

According to Doha News, police still had not taken the woman’s statement days after she was admitted into the hospital.

Still, the issue extends beyond the difficulty (or reluctance) of monitoring employment in the private sphere of the home. Even when abuse became public in this most recent case, institutions from both receiving and destination countries failed to provide the victim with support or recourse. According to Doha News, police still had not taken the woman’s statement days after she was admitted into the hospital. Nor has she been visited by any representatives of social services. There is an evident lack of protocol in addressing cases of extreme abuse, let alone intermediary or preventative measures. The support mechanisms for workers are extremely limited. Embassies run hotlines, but most workers don’t know about them. Workers can only rely on the unpredictable intervention of bystanders – such as the neighbor this worker escaped to – for help. Traditional media has also been largely silent on this issue.

The kafala system hampers workers access to justice by making it unduly burdensome to follow through with cases against employers. The burden of proof in cases of abuse is on the domestic worker. Meanwhile sponsors can easily lodge criminal cases against workers, a threat even more intimidating following recent reforms that blacklist convicted  migrants from entering GCC states.  Consequently, most abused and exploited workers are eager to return home as quickly as possible, taking whatever concessions are offered to them at the time, which in some cases is merely a free plane ticket. While some cases can go through without the presence of the defendant, the court is unlikely to hold employers responsible. Accountability depends upon resource-strapped embassies or pro-bono lawyers alone. The state does not launch its own investigation against employers, in some cases does not uphold rulings against employers, and in no case prohibits abusive employers from sponsoring more domestic workers. Only recently have Filipino embassies begun to blacklist employers as an independent initiative.

Thus, the contracts workers sign with employers and the other meager laws covering domestic workers become virtually unenforceable. But this is not a passive process.  On the side of the Gulf states, the exclusion of domestic workers from labor laws, the fierce resistance against base regulations on working hours and break time; on the side of origin countries, the lack of proactive measures to curtail abuse, to provide adequate support mechanisms for victims, to hold employers (and recruiters) responsible – these are all active policies that maintain the status quo on migrant labor; to provide relatively cheap labor, in this case domestic workers treated as indentured servants, to the Gulf states, in exchange for remittances and the development that follows. These are not only institutional failures, they are failures that have been deliberately institutionalized.

In previous conversations with the Indonesian officials, MR learnt that domestic workers’ issues are not considered critical due to the moratorium currently in place.  However there are several thousands already in employment here, and hundreds of others are trafficked into the country monthly (a detailed report on this will be published in MR next month). As MR has previously detailed, these bans and moratoriums do little else but make the position of workers more vulnerable. While Gulf institutions serve employers, the institutions of sending countries struggle to do much at all.  

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East