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Challenging the monopoly of live-in domestic work

The predominant model of employment in the region is the live-in arrangement, where millions of workers are subject to the stranglehold of an individual employer and their household. What are the viable alternatives to this prevalent model?

On September 22, 2019

Domestic workers across the world, and in particular migrant domestic workers in the Gulf – 3.77 million as of 2016 – are amongst the most isolated and exploited constituents of the labour force. With little to no formalisation of their work, the few laws that regulate domestic work in these countries only attempt to legally corral workers into an exploitative framework. Furthermore, recent recruitment reforms are aimed at reducing costs for employers rather than protecting workers’ rights.

The predominant model of employment in the region is the live-in arrangement, where workers live in their employer’s home. In most of the GCC states, with some exceptions in the UAE and Bahrain, the live-in model is the only legal option for domestic workers. Millions of workers are consequently subject to the stranglehold of an individual employer and their household, completely obscuring the line between personal and professional. The majority of these workers are female, which means they are also subject to the patriarchal mores of both origin and destination countries. This leads to sexualising of their work, moral policing and attempts to control their mobility under the pretext of safeguarding ‘culture’.

Discussions around live-in and live-out employment models is a debate around how to manage domestic worker employment relationships and worker freedoms. Any effective alternative would weaken the Kafala system, and hence is met with resistance.

Monopolies of agents and employers

Neither bilateral negotiations nor legislative reforms challenge the monopoly of this model, under which power is firmly vested between recruiters agents and employers, with the worker exercising no agency of his or her own. Despite the tragically systemic abuse this system fosters, there has been no concerted effort to shift the paradigm.

Executive Director of Uganda’s Platform for Labour Action (PLA) Grace Mukawaya is strongly opposed to mandatory live-in systems, as it “isolates the domestic worker from the rest of the world and even with the existence of social media and other forms of technologies, (this isolation) is disempowering.”

Amongst Mukawaya’s key concerns are that the workers are unable to determine the hours of work and have limited access to information and support services restricted to their place of work 24/7. A 2017 PLA survey found that live-in domestic workers, even without the additional vulnerability of migration, experienced a wide range of abuses abuses including physical abuse, sexual assault and long working hours. Though the baseline survey was conducted with domestic workers in Uganda, her experience with migrants to the Gulf reflect a similar reality.

Though live-in employment has been the only option for regular migrant domestic workers in the Gulf, International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) General Secretary Elizabeth Tang doesn’t see this issue prioritised by the federation’s executive committee. “In Qatar, for instance, (where IDWF now has partners), a weekly day off, minimum wage and abolition of exit visa are seen as top priorities above pushing for live-out as an option. The important thing to understand is that all of the different issues raised by domestic workers are interlinked.”

This reluctance to push for live-out employment could be because it would be prohibitively expensive for workers to seek their own accommodation, as the cost of living in Qatar, like the rest of the Gulf states, is very high. 

If they were paid fair living wages, a live-out arrangement might not put such an overwhelming strain on their resources. But with minimum wages (set bilaterally between origin and destination countries) ranging from as low as US$180 to a still-modest high of US$400, the choice is snatched away from workers.

What do workers want?

“They are forced to be live-ins because they are not given any tangible options. The choice to freely find their own homes should always be there. They will find their community, family and friends and make that choice. And that action should not be criminalised in any way,” says Tang.

And this is precisely what we see amongst workers who flee abusive workplaces but attempt to meet their migration goals before returning home, either voluntarily or forcibly. When they leave their original sponsor’s home, workers are aware that they will be criminalised. Many will remain under the radar, moving in spaces they feel safe in, finding employers willing to turn a blind eye to their visa status. In our interviews with workers at Kuwait’s national shelter for domestic workers,  for instance, we find two groups of workers: those who voluntarily approach the shelter because they no longer wish to work irregularly and want to return home, and those who were apprehended by the police for lack of papers. 

On exploring alternatives, Tang says Japan piloted a live-out model in two prefectures (districts). “The recruitment agents were responsible for their housing and had to provide dormitories. But the sample size of this workforce is so small we cannot draw any definitive conclusions from it.”

Ann Abunda of Kuwait’s Sandigan Domestic Workers Federation believes that “Even with the best laws, a mandatory live-in model will always have problems.” Abunda strongly feels governments should work on the culture of dependency on domestic workers, which is prevalent across the region. Currently, governments seem to be deepening this dependency in their drive to secure domestic workers (cheaply and abundantly) for their labour markets. 

Mukawaya’s suggestions also try to flip the current model. “[GCC government should] set up more cleaning, home nursing and domestic work service companies, and good day care for children. Recruitment agencies can also have living facilities for domestic workers.”

While some of these alternative employment models are more easily achieved than others, shifting responsibility from an individual employer to a company or agent would only shift the problems around, not rectify the situation. This is because domestic work itself is seen as menial and not requiring any skill, and hence those who participate in the sector are seen as somehow incapable of exercising agency. Even if the worker were to fall under the labour law, the worst provisions of the kafala still apply, and companies still have the authority to restrict workers’ mobility. 

Exploring options 

Cleaning companies

Any discussion on alternatives invariably lands on the cleaning company model.

Cleaning services companies are gaining popularity across the region. But they work in a grey area and are un- or under-regulated. These companies employ workers under the labour law, and not on domestic worker visas. Workers are often under the impression that they are being brought in to work in establishments – offices, malls, hotels – and not in individual homes. The workers are then deployed by the hour to individual homes that are clients of the company. Though cleaning company workers have a technical legal advantage in being covered by the labour law, they can still be subject to repressive working and living conditions similar to domestic workers. 

Some sending countries believe that it is safer to send female domestic workers to work in companies rather than in households. As MR previously reported, Indonesia, for instance, bans females from migrating for domestic work, but its manpower ministry officials told that it plans to tap into the ‘cleaning sector’ to place workers. However, they did not make a distinction between working in private households versus working in companies. “Even if they work in private households they will not live there, and this will protect them.”

Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia all seem to hold similar views and encourage women to seek employment in these companies. Recruitment by cleaning companies also helps bypass moratoriums and heightened regulations on migration for female domestic workers.

But the Philippines thinks differently; since April 2018, it has suspended processing of recruitment documents for labor supply, cleaning and hospitality companies in Qatar. The Philippines’ decision was based on complaints of non-payment and underpayment of salaries, withholding of benefits, and other contract violations. 

Tang also does not believe it’s a particularly good option to shift the responsibility of sponsoring domestic workers to companies. “Without regulations in place we cannot ensure decent living conditions.”

These are not isolated concerns.

“It will be best if there is state-run accommodation that the worker can live and work by the hours stated by the law. Because, workers in cleaning companies in Kuwait are also being abused,” says Abunda.

Government initiatives

Kuwait set up Al Durra company to provide both live-in and live-out domestic workers at more reasonable costs, however, well over a year into operations, the company struggles. MR spoke to a senior official at Al Durra earlier this year who discussed the challenges of both recruiting workers and deploying them. They also are unable to bring down employer’s costs significantly. Recruitment fees range from KD875 (USD2330) for Sri Lankans to KD 460 (USD1250) for Indians, and salaries are discriminatory based on nationalities).

Al Durra, which had initially announced it would provide live-out workers, has not yet rolled out this service. One reason could be that the demand for live-in services is high, and unmet, as of yet. An Al Durra official also complained about getting visas for countries that had the greatest demand from employers. “There’s demand for Nepali and Filipino workers but we either don’t have agreements or don’t get enough visas from the ministry. We get a big lot of visas for Vietnamese workers but no one wants to recruit them. Same for Ethiopia.” Without the network and experience of conventional recruitment agencies, its operations have faltered.

In fact, Al Durra has had to use the services of Kuwaiti recruitment agents to bring in workers from India, as they were unable to identify agencies in India on their own. They were in the process of revisiting this arrangement earlier this year, when MR spoke to them.

Bahrain launched its Flexi Permit scheme in April 2017, permitting some low-wage migrant workers to pay a fee for a visa that classifies the holder as “self-sponsored” or “self-employed”, outside both the traditional sponsorship system and the protections of the private sector labour law. This scheme is not officially open to domestic workers. However, in March and April 2019, it did include 149 ‘former’ domestic workers following an agreement with the Philippines Embassy, with the embassy paying a bulk of the fees. The costs of the Flexi Permit are BD749 (nearly USD2000) for a two year flexi visa – BD500 flexi fees, BD144 health care fees, BD15 residency extension fee and a refundable deposit of BD90. The workers also have to pay BD30 (USD80) monthly fee. That’s close to USD4000 for a two-year period in fees alone, not including expenses of housing, food and transportation. These costs would be unaffordable for most domestic workers, whose annual gross income is normally around USD3000.

For the Filipino domestic workers included in the scheme, their embassy covered the first two months of the monthly fees and contributed BD454 towards the rest of the fees, making it far easier for the workers to obtain flexi permits. It is not clear, however, if they were allowed to continue working as domestic workers.

An official from the embassy says that though they have not followed up with individual beneficiaries,, some Filipino domestic workers who availed the Flexi-permit reported that they were working by themselves in more than one house or with cleaning companies.

According to the official, the Flexi-permit was a good programme but too expensive. “The government has increased the fees, many Filipinos cannot afford it, domestic workers now cannot apply for it. The last assistance we provided consumed our budget a lot and  we cannot provide any financial assistance this year.” 

The UAE is also exploring alternatives through its Tadbeer centres, a public-private partnership model that provides domestic workers services. Tadbeer aims to completely replace private recruitment agents, and all domestic worker-related services will have to go through them.

The centres provide live-in models both on individual and the centre’s sponsorship, or part-time and full-time live-out services on the centre’s sponsorship. The full-time live-out arrangement is significantly more expensive for the employer than the live-in. The Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation (MOHRE) sets a ceiling of AED3500 per month for live-in workers, but no such controls on live-out arrangement. An example of the rates from one centre illustrates the cost differential: A live-out worker costs AED5000 per month, plus a one-time administration AED8000 fee. These costs include the worker’s accommodation, food, visa renewals, and other costs otherwise born by the employer.  A full-time, live-in service from the same centre starts at AED2300. 

These are all monthly fees paid to the centres, and not the salary paid to workers themselves.  The centers pay workers directly, at a far lower fee ranging between AED800 to AED1400. Salaries for both live-in and live-out workers are fixed based on nationality, according to MoUs signed with countries of origin. 

Qatar recently set up WISA, a public-private enterprises to provide, amongst other services, domestic work to individual households. It is too early to analyse this just yet.

Workers bearing the legal risk 

The other common alternative that occurs quite frequently is workers perform a risk-benefit analysis and design a model that works best for them. These workers who work extra-legally are either undocumented (having entered through irregular channels or have expired work permits) or work on a ‘free visa,’ whereby they pay a local sponsor to maintain their residency and work freelance. Social media platforms are used effectively for these kind of job placements. In countries like the UAE where visitors can enter on tourist visas and convert them to work visas, workers live with their own communities and find different employers to work for. While they incur more personal costs and are exposed to more risk, these workers often report that freedom they enjoy makes it worthwhile. While the UAE allows those on tourist visas to change status via a Tadbeer centre, those on irregular status are unable to regularise their status in a similar manner.

Several Ethiopian workers MR spoke to shared their stories from Lebanon and Kuwait. “We know even with the best employer we will suffer. But if we stay with our own we eat what we want, we are able to speak our language, be comfortable… yes it’s expensive, but we also make more money.”

Challenges to independent living

While exploring alternative models, it is important to recognise the challenges related to live-out situations that are not mediated by a company. The worker would have to secure and maintain one or multiple employers, negotiate pay, be responsible for their own health or medical cover (which can be expensive in some Gulf states), find decent accommodation and cover their own daily living expenses including commute to work. 

Even if legalized, the live-out model doesn’t necessarily remove exploitation by employers. Workers may still be exposed to abuse and irregular payments,  and any such model that the government permits or supports, should include a standard freelance contract and a strong grievance redressal system.

Another problem live-out workers often raise is exploitation by their own peers and dependence on that network to find jobs, which means they can do little to escape the situation. An Ethiopian worker we interviewed recalls how she had repeatedly been raped by the driver who promised to help her find jobs. However, since she was irregular and knew no one else, she could not file a complaint against him.

While the cost/benefit analysis of live-in versus live-out work should be made by the worker, the vulnerabilities of each situation need to be understood and corresponding recommendations should be made. 

We already know that the live-out decision made by workers is often on the advice of their compatriots, and while this advice may not always be legal or accurate, that ‘whisper’ network is a potential partner.

Tang insists that first and foremost countries should ban mandatory live-in arrangements. “Begin with that and then explore options based on national context.”

Right or privilege?

Domestic work services are not considered a luxury in the region, but a necessity and even a right, given the void of public spending on social services such as childcare, elderly care, and public transport. 

Mukawaya says if everyone feels entitled to hire a worker, then even households that may not have the financial means to maintain a domestic worker will also exercise this right. “This results in domestic workers reporting incidences of poor working conditions such as denial of food, or being given little food, non-payment of wages, no privacy where domestic workers are reportedly sharing space with pets or farm animals.”

Abunda cites the Al Dhurra company as an example of the difficulties in providing alternatives to live-in domestic work without changing the overarching system. “They failed. The government itself should take direct responsibility, and one way of doing it is through Government to-Government model of recruitment, and then allowing civil society to participate in its design and monitor the system.”

Much of what is being suggested is already the system designed, with relative success, by irregular workers. The greatest vulnerability many of these workers report owed to their legal status, as they can be detained and deported if they are caught by authorities. 

This article is part of a series of research and analysis on the recruitment of domestic workers and their living and working conditions.