Isolation renders housemaids more vulnerable to abuse

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Oct 21 2015

The writer is the Associate Editor of and Strategic Adviser to the Shelter Me Project.

There are over two million* female migrant domestic workers in the GCC, most of whom are from the Philippines and Indonesia.

For illustrative purposes only. Photo courtesy Stephan Geyer, on Flickr.

For illustrative purposes only. Photo courtesy Stephan Geyer, on Flickr.

They are inarguably the most vulnerable of all migrant workers, with scarce protection under labour laws and no access to provisions under the civil law. In extreme cases, justice under the criminal law hinges on the smooth and seamless functioning of agencies that can protect them – the police (under Ministry of Interior), their embassies and an active civil society. The last is virtually non-existent. For the first two, the protection of the “invisible” workforce  is far from a priority. Since domestic work is not recognised as work, migrant women are further dehumanised.

Domestic workers come from cultural backgrounds vastly different from their employer’s. In a region that is highly xenophobic with little tolerance for critical viewpoints or diversity, foreigners, particularly from non-Western countries, are seen as immediate threats to both national identity and cultural mores. Since domestic workers work in intimate proximity to the employer/family, they are treated as an even more precarious menace. Misperceptions of domestic workers are reproduced to justify employer's mistreatment of workers and of the state's refusal to intervene.

According to the report Essential yet Invisible: Migrant Domestic Workers in the GCC:

“Employers may deprive the MDW of food, health care, and adequate rest time and sleeping arrangements; they may also forbid the MDW from communicating with their families or friends, restrict their mobility outside the household, and verbally insult and humiliate them (often on racial or religious grounds).

The fear of the other impels employers to violate the rights of the workers. In interactions with employers in various forums**, ‘safety’ is the oft-stated justification for exercising control over their maid or nanny’s mobility. The reason they are treated with suspicion is because there is no awareness of where the worker comes from, and the unfamiliar is threatening.

While changing mindsets is a slower and more strenuous process, policy changes and implementation of existing laws should be simpler. But for agencies tasked to protect domestic workers , the trickiest part of providing security and rights is that it will require scrutiny of private households. In the region where societies are close-knit, even a whiff of intrusion into the high walls of personal property is frowned upon.   

Yet, inspections are integral to protecting the rights of domestic workers and to holding employers accountable. Even the UN Special Rapporteur Francois Crepeau in his report on human rights of migrants in Qatar recommends:

“Undertake labour inspections in private homes to inspect the working conditions of domestic workers.” 

Power of a mobile phone

The most drastic cases of abuse are linked to  isolation, a lack of access to counsel/help, and insurmountable pressure to continue living in an unsafe environment.

Like the case of Indian housemaid in Saudi Arabia, Kasturi Munirathinam, who after three months of abuse protested, only to have her hand chopped off by the employer.

Case in point is the Ugandan maid who died in detention in the UAE. Domestic workers including housemaids have also reported that their employers restrict their access to mobile phones and the Internet, often the only means many low-income migrant workers have to stay in contact with families in their homelands.

Similarly, the case of an Indonesian domestic worker who was brutally abused over two years, having had no access to communication to seek help.

The only practical recourse for the worker is to leave her place of employment without her employer’s knowledge, and run the risk of becoming a ‘runaway’ or ‘absconder’, which is a criminal offense in all GCC states.

The solution to deal with isolation is straightforward, simple and economic. A mobile phone.

Though does not have access to the bilateral agreement between Saudi and Bangladesh, according to civil society activists, Saudi has committed to ensuring access to a mobile phone for MDWs.

In Article 3(b) of the agreement between Indonesia and Saudi Arabia (19 Feb, 2014) on the placement and protection of domestic workers: ensure the fulfillment of the right of Indonesian domestic workers [...] to communicate freely with their families.

Which in essence means uncontrolled access to a phone.

There is resistance to even this simple measure.

Employers are reluctant to allow their housemaids a phone**. The reasons vary from ‘her own safety’ to ‘she will be distracted from work’. Other reasons include ‘the more she speaks to her family the more homesick she will be’, ‘she will talk to her boyfriend’, and ‘if she talks to other maids, our security is at threat.’

While Bahrain and Kuwait (links) have made some progress in including MDWs in labour law, none of the GCC states directly address their isolation and need for mobility. In 2011 the Domestic Work Convention, ILO Convention 189, was adopted, including by all of the GCC countries; however, not one has since ratified the convention to bind itself legally to this important international treaty. In doing so they would have to recognise domestic work as real work, include MDWs in the labour law and allow them a host of other rights, many of which are denied to all migrant workers under the kafala system including freedom of association.

*There are no official figures available, and available numbers vary depending on the source, but hover around two million.

**Insights on employers perception of workers they employ was gathered through surveys and focus groups in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as part of the Hivos' Shelter Me project.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East