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Business & Human Rights: Companies can use their Leverage to Protect Migrant Domestic Workers

On July 5, 2016

In the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), domestic workers – nannies, housekeepers, drivers, chefs and gardeners – are largely excluded from labour law. A majority of domestic workers are migrant women from impoverished backgrounds and countries that do not have mechanisms in place to protect them at home or when they work abroad. They arrive in the Gulf with hopes to build a better life, but with little or no awareness of their rights and the restrictions they must work under.

Almost universally, domestic workers face restrictive employment conditions and a lack of protection in labour law, including in the UK where restrictive visa conditions prevent visiting domestic workers from changing jobs. For those of us working closely on these issues, the ultimate goal is inclusion of domestic workers in just and fair labour laws and proper implementation of the same.

In the interim, there is a need to fill a gaping information gap and to take proactive steps that can minimise the risk of exploitation. There is scope for business leadership to emerge on this issue.’s target audience is the Gulf citizen (and non-national residents) and our primary task is to advance the rights of migrant workers in the Gulf. There is a vacuum when it comes to information and productive debates on these issues in the region, and is the only platform of its kind that is local and understands the context of issues pertaining to labour migration in the Gulf. To challenge and change the dominant negative narrative of migrant labour in the region, we need to provide an alternative for our local audience.

Changing attitudes toward domestic workers

The Shelter Me Project (a partnership with Hivos) is an extension of this, where we engage with people on the ground and advocate for a change in attitudes towards domestic workers. We are doing this through surveys and focus groups of employers of domestic workers. We have realised that exploitative behaviour by employers is not always out of malice. Often such actions are due to lack of information and knowledge of best practices among employers.

A significant obstacle is that protective practices (that reflect the policies of the State) further isolate and marginalise workers, even if employer’s intent is above board.

Countries of origin formulate policies that either stop their female citizens from migrating or make it very difficult for them to do so through regular means. They defend these policies saying their women need to be protected from the vagaries of labour migration.

In countries of employment, policies seek to ‘protect’ the employer and the worker: the former from both corrupt recruitment agents and ‘untrustworthy’ workers; the latter from their own vulnerability as a female and a migrant. As a result, these policies fail to recognise the agency of the individual and their right to economic productivity. This lack of agency is further compounded by the absence of formal employment contracts and need for clearly articulated working conditions.

In the GCC, space for rights-based activism is limited at best and non-existent at worst. To achieve a level playing field – where domestic workers are assured decent work – we need a multi-stakeholder commitment to human rights. Our advocacy has resulted in the creation of an Employers Guide, a simple and accessible tool that helps formalise domestic work and provides guidelines for a smooth and empowering relationship that benefits the employer of a domestic worker and the worker themselves.

Crucially, businesses and organisations that employ a large number of senior expatriate staff have to play their part. These executives are often the employers of domestic workers and their behaviour is a reflection on a business’s core values. However, in some countries, including Qatar, for an expatriate to be able to sponsor a domestic worker, they must receive a letter from their employer. At this juncture, the organisation becomes (indirectly) a part of the recruitment and employment process. This is both a responsibility and an opportunity to guide their (usually senior) staff on best practices. There is significant room for companies to exercise leadership and leverage, and scope to insist that where employees seek to engage the services of a domestic worker they do so following formalised conditions that respect the rights of the worker.

Why should businesses consider rights and protection of domestic workers?

  • [tweetable]Human Rights are universal, and there is no cherry picking a cause. There are over 53 million people involved in domestic work across the world.[/tweetable] In Qatar alone there are over 150,000 migrant women in the domestic work sector. Kuwait has over 620,000 domestic workers; Over 1.5 million in Saudi Arabia; and 750,000+ in UAE.
  • They work upwards of 58 hours a week, to even about 16-18 hour workdays.
  • By setting proper standards, businesses influence their workforce, and bring about a change in the larger community.
  • While inaction may not have a negative impact on the situation, action will have invaluable effect on the lives of the vulnerable.

What can businesses do?

  • Share the Employers Guide with employees that are both current and potential employers of domestic workers.
  • Consider drawing up a policy that is in keeping with the corporate culture and core values - including a code of conduct for staff.
  • Look at forming a community group within the organisation to discuss human rights issues, formulate best practices in both recruitment and housing a worker, and also upskilling domestic workers in their employment.
  • Look at the facilities available in the housing provided for staff (if the company does so). Will it accommodate a live-in worker?
  • Discuss with home state officials and other diplomatic missions whether they have standards for hiring and employing domestic workers and encourage them to distribute the Employers Guide.

Shelter Me is conducting workshops with businesses to start a discussion about the role that companies can play in protecting domestic workers. We are reaching out to businesses to encourage them to use the Employers Guide and propose the creation of community organisations either in their compounds or workplaces that look at skills training for workers on key issues like language, first aid, and financial literacy. These are all merely suggestions. Even a small initiative would go a long way.

Some organisations have shown the way, creating binding terms for their employees to engage domestic workers. For instance, in 2000 the American University of Beirut (AUB) issued an amendment to its Housing Rules and Regulations that was specific to household help, listing the rights and responsibilities of the university employees (sponsors of the household workers). As a result, staff living in university housing who employ household workers had to register the household employee with the university. They also had to submit work permits and contracts. AUB also clearly states any abuse or harassment would ‘give rise to legal proceedings by AUB on behalf of the Household Employee against the responsible Employer or household member.’

Businesses working in the GCC must decide for themselves how much they can take on, and how far they can go, in terms of protection of domestic workers. But, without an argument, they must take some measures immediately.


(This op-ed was published originally on the website of Institute of Human Rights and Business.)