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Dangerous stereotypes persist in UAE debate on domestic worker rights

On June 5, 2017

The UAE’s Federal National Council passed the latest draft law on domestic workers last week. It now requires final approval from President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. If enforced, the law would offer the most progressive regulations for domestic workers in the region.

Once again, a workers’ right to a day off outside the home became a particular focus of the six-hour debate on the law last Wednesday. Some FNC representatives strongly endorsed the clause.  Speaking to the FNC,  Said Al Mutawa, argued that “Every human has the right to go out, this is not prison. This should not be negotiated “

But another Emirati MP,  Mohammad al Ketbi, championed a common stereotype used to justify limitations on domestic workers' rights.  Speaking to the National, al Ketbi argued, "If I have a maid and I allowed her to go out, she will get involved in illicit relationships and tomorrow she will come back to me pregnant, and then there will be a problem”

Ketbi’s statements reflect the prevalent sexualisation of domestic workers as well as a wider consequence Kafala system, whereby even otherwise fair employers may be hesitant to allow workers to leave the home in the fear that they would be held responsible for any illegal activity involving the worker.  Al Ketbi’s perceptions were not held by all, but reflect perceptions of domestic workers engrained in both existing law and society at large.  In focus groups conducted by’s advocacy program Bridges, employers often expressed concerns on their workers’ ‘morality’ if allowed to go out alone and mingle with men.

Restrictions on mobility vary between employers. Some employers may allow workers a small scope of mobility to meet with compatriots at churches and mosques, others allow workers to do as they wish on their day off, while others may not permit domestic workers to leave the house without supervision, or do not allow a day off at all. 

Importantly, the guarantee of a day off outside the house allows for a worker to truly be able to enjoy his or her time off as leisure time.  It also empowers and enables workers to more easily report issues to authorities. 

Domestic workers discovered to be involved in a consensual extramarital relationship, or the victims of rape, are criminalised by law. Other female migrants, too, can be subjected to detention and deportation for sexual relations outside of marriage.

Whether the law will come into enforce remains a question. The last version of the draft law was also passed by the FNC in 2012 but was not signed into law.