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East African domestic workers union demands more protection for its workers in the Gulf

On April 27, 2016

Leaders from East African domestic worker unions assembled in Tanzania this week to demand their governments do more to safeguard the rights of migrant domestic workers going to the GCC.

The unions criticized East African embassies, especially those in the Gulf, for failing to address cases of their citizens abuses. There are several reasons for their ineffectiveness, including an unwillingness to antagonize their hosts, and political correctness, said Vicky Kanyoka,  the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF)’s Regional Coordinator for  Africa.

“Embassies also lacked facilities like a working shelter to accommodate their citizens who were victims of abuse,” she said.

A three-day capacity building workshop in Dar es Salaam, organized by the IDWF in conjunction with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) explored the extreme abusing facing workers in the Gulf. The workshop brought together leaders of domestic workers unions, rights activists and policymakers from Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Africa and Tanzania.

Participants identified other challenges facing East African workers, including lack of access to key data, lack of cooperation between origin and destination countries,, unscrupulous recruitment practices  and insufficient pr- departure training for prospective migrants.

"...domestic work is often characterized by unsafe and abusive working conditions, low wages, extremely long hours, no rest days or holidays..."

In the past few years, East African countries have reported an increase in number of migrants coming to the Gulf, and consequently increases in cases of abuse. In response, several countries have banned workers from migrating to the region.

In January of 2016, Uganda slapped a ban on recruitment of domestic workers to Saudi Arabia following reports of severe abuse of its citizens . In 2014, Kenya also attempted a temporary ban on domestic workers to Saudi Arabia.

The leaders also called on East African and Gulf countries to ratify International Labour Convention 189 of 2011 to improve the conditions of domestic workers including migrants. The convention addresses minimum labour standards for domestic workers rights and decent working conditions.

“This convention is the first of its kind to address issues related to the poor conditions of domestic workers,” said Judica Amri Lawson, former deputy regional director for Africa ILO. “But so far, not a single East African country has ratified the Convention.”

IDWF president Myrtle Witbooi said it was disheartening that in the whole of Africa, only two countries, South Africa and Mauritius, had ratified the convention on domestic workers - despite the fact that all countries had domestic workers, and are now actively sending citizens to work abroad as domestic workers. According to the International Labour Organisation, 84% of the estimated 53 million domestic workers globally are women. Their work consists of cleaning, cooking, and taking care of children and the elderly in private households.

“However, domestic work is often characterized by unsafe and abusive working conditions, low (or no) wages, extremely long hours, no rest days or holidays, and a lack of benefits and social protection,” said Elizabeth Tang the IDWF General Secretary. “These poor conditions are further compounded for migrant domestic workers and child domestic workers due to particular vulnerabilities inherent to those sub-sectors.”