Kate and Mia* were on a domestic work visa but the employer had housed them in separate accommodation and they were put to work providing services for other households and establishments. While they had their Qatar ID (QID) with them, their passports had been confiscated. When Covid-19 put paid to these jobs outside, the two women were abandoned without a salary or allowance to cover food. “We were not given any food. Not even sanitary amenities. Some kind people helped us with all this.”
In May, both of them received an SMS informing them of absconding charges filed against them. “We were still in the accommodation provided by the madam. How can we run away?”
A counter-complaint with the ministry and weeks of negotiations later, the workers were picked up by the ‘madam’ and dropped off at their embassy shelter, along with an open air ticket and their passport. They received none of their due wages.
The employer received not even a rap on the wrist despite flouting several laws – passport confiscation, allowing those on their sponsorship to work for third parties, non-payment of wages, and not providing them with food or allowance during the pandemic.
The single-most powerful tool in the hands of sponsors is the ability to slap an absconding charge on migrant workers, throwing them in the midst of multiple vulnerabilities – forcing them to work in abusive conditions, becoming irregular, hefty fines, detention, deportation if they manage to pay the fines, loss of income, ban on re-entry, and not to mention the toll on their mental and physical health.
Absconding charges are filed by employers against workers who absent themselves from work. However, there is little recognition of the reasons why an employee might do so and the ways in which these charges continue to be misused.
Gulf states not only ignore the rampant misuse of absconding charges but often incentivise or facilitate easy reporting.
Dubai recently announced that residents “who report absconding household helpers to authorities will receive AED10,000 refund if their former staff are found to be working illegally elsewhere.” Residents were also warned of fines up to AED50,000 if they failed to report these cases. (The refund would be taken from the AED50,000 fine imposed on those who hire such workers.)
In Saudi, reporting absconding workers is ‘just a click away’. There are practically only two ways of getting out the ‘huroob’ complaint: Turn yourself in at Tarheel centres, pay a fine of up to SAR10,000, then be deported and banned from re-entry for five years. If the sponsor has also filed a theft charge (read our piece on Matloobs) then this avenue is closed to the worker. Or, pay ‘agents’ or the kafeel a hefty fee to drop the charge. In Bahrain, several workers we spoke to report being held ransom by employers who demand hefty fees to drop runaway cases.
In Qatar, the Metrash system similarly facilitates reporting with just a push of a button to "save time and effort". Not a fraction of this ease or any of these incentives is extended to workers who file complaints against abusive employers, paradoxically forcing them to run away in the first place or self-preservation.
Revathi arrived in the UAE in 2012 to work part-time in households with a cleaning company. Though she had a cleaner’s visa, which falls under UAE’s labour law, she undertook domestic work. Due to the lockdowns, Revathi and her colleagues received no assignments in the past six months. Neither did they get their salary, food or accommodation allowance.
“We asked for allowances and they refused. Then a month into the lockdown, they called us to the office and asked to work as live-in housemaids. We didn’t accept it. They then pushed us to resign and sign a form to cancel the visa. I refused.”
Soon after, Revathi received a notification from authorities that her employer had slapped an absconding charge against her. The employer had also confiscated her passport, which is illegal as per UAE labour laws.
“Others with fewer years of service gave in and resigned because they were not owed much. I could not. I have worked for eight years and I have a right to my dues and end of service. If I resign, I will lose all that. I told Twafouq [centres which provide mediation services to resolve labour disputes] the same. So now I have a case in labour court.”
She had to first pay AED95 (USD26) to remove the absconding charge and another AED160 (USD44) to the ‘typing centre’ (Tasheel) to file a case against the employer. After eight years in the company, she was receiving a monthly salary of AED1600 plus food and housing allowance of AED300 and 500 respectively. She is owed close to AED13,000 as final settlement and return airfare.
Revathi wants to receive her dues and either leave the country or change employers.
Unlike fairly straightforward (even if still discriminatory) codes of the labour law regarding non-payment, termination of contract and repatriation, absconding charges straddle multiple jurisdictions and there is little to no information available to workers to navigate justice mechanisms and clear the charges. An exit permit, where it still exists, has a due process which is within the worker’s ability to access. Job change (with or without the employer’s permission) is clearly defined as well.
None of these is fair terms of employment. But the sheer criminality of intent is most stark in absconding charges, with Gulf states taking extra effort to make it as easy as possible to use and misuse. As with all rights violations, absconding charges also affect women and domestic workers the most.
Domestic work in the GCC predominantly follows the live-in model. Even in the countries where there is a domestic workers law, grievance redressal mechanisms are weak, and almost all of them require the worker to appear in person to file a complaint. The space for negotiation in such cases is narrow and often requires the worker to return to the home of the employer they’ve complained against. When there is neither a system that prioritises workers’ grievances nor adequate shelter facilities for those who leave abusive homes, there are only two options available to the domestic worker: to continue in abusive employment conditions in the hope things improve, or take a risk and leave the household. Understandably, workers are compelled to ‘escape’ and find secure spaces of their own.
During Covid-19, in the hands of irresponsible and vindictive employers, absconding charges were used to renege on contractual obligations, including providing accommodation and food, even when salaries were not paid. These false charges were also foisted on workers deemed troublesome – that is those who demanded they be paid on time and as promised.
In one WhatsApp exchange that MR was privy to the worker insists that she receive her three-month due wages before rejoining work. The employer vows to have her in jail ‘crying’ in the next few days.
Predictably, the employer filed an absconding charge against the worker. This charge did not hold as the worker had just a day earlier filed a labour complaint for non-payment. The next day she was still arrested and produced in front of the judge and went through a process she could scarcely understand. As the case transpired, the employer accused the worker of theft in addition to absconding from work. Two months on, the worker remains in custody, without the resources to clear her name of these charges.
Hamad arrived in Qatar in April 2018 on a two-year contract to work as a limousine driver. He was supposed to receive QR1600 as basic pay, a food allowance of QR300, accommodation and medical cover. On arrival, he was given a car by the company and was told he would not receive a salary, but instead would have to pay QR2500 monthly to the limousine company from what he earns on rides for hire. His passport was taken away. Over the next several months he received no wages and struggled to pay the monthly retainer to the company. In January this year, the car was taken away from him as he had failed to pay the monthly fee and had accumulated arrears.
With no income and already in dire straits, the Covid-19 lockdown was particularly hard on him. His QID had already expired. Hamad was in constant touch with the employer and tried resolving the issue. However, in the third week of January 2020, he received an SMS from the Metrash service notifying him of an absconding charge filed against him.
From Sri Lanka, Hamad spoke no Arabic and very little English. He was referred to the Criminal Evidences and Information Department (CID) Office under the Ministry of Interior (MoI), by the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs (ADLSA). It is here that he would be able to clear these charges before applying for a sponsorship transfer. His first attempt failed because he had no one to help interpret the processes. A companion who knew Arabic was lined up for the second attempt the following Sunday. But a couple of days before he was to appear at the CID, Hamad developed severe stomach pain and was rushed to Hamad General Hospital for an emergency appendicitis surgery. While his undocumented status did not interfere with his access to healthcare (which was free), the hospital reported him to authorities, and he was taken directly to the detention centre. A few weeks later he was deported.
The entitlement of companies has no limits, according to Hanan Abdulrahman, a Qatari lawyer who does pro-bono work with migrant workers. “Once a person stops showing up at work, a normal thing to do is to terminate their contract, not get them jailed. An employer with a click of a button can mess with the worker’s life with no serious investigations into the allegation.”
In all of the GCC countries, provisions under the labour law allow employers to take disciplinary action against workers who go AWOL. For example, in labour laws of UAE Article 120 (para 10), Bahrain Article 107 (para 4) and Qatar Article 61 (para 9).
Filing an absconding charge when these labour law provisions exist only serves to harass the worker. They almost always privilege the employer and, as we see through the testimonies and complaints processes, Gulf states in fact incentivise employers to file them.
Eileen was told she would be taking care of one elderly person before she left Kenya. When she landed in Bahrain, she was tasked with taking care of a large seven-person household. With not enough food or sleep, she tried to return to the agency office several times and requested the sponsor to send her back. With all pleas falling on deaf ears, she eventually managed to leave the household. Her passport that had been taken away as soon as she had landed was still with the employer.
A ‘runaway’ charge has been filed against her, and she cannot pursue new job offers unless the charges are dropped and her passport is returned.
“They were threatening me saying they would lock me up and not allow me to speak to my family. I was scared to stay on. I had no choice. I had to leave. I was scared for my life, I have my family back home,” she says.
Eileen is waiting, in limbo, and says she has no plans as she doesn’t know how to go about extricating herself from this situation.
“I am waiting for a miracle.”
Abdulrahman stresses that in her experience, absconding charges are never used because the employee hasn’t shown up at work. “It’s mostly to scare the employee that filed a case against them – which always works in the worker’s favour by the way; or to scare the rest of the employees in the company into not acting. It is a brainwashing mechanism to turn the scale off of who's the abuser and who's the abused.”
While there are processes to lift these charges, they are not clear to the layperson and are extremely time-consuming even for those in the know. Where civil society presence is limited or non-existent, migrants facing absconding charges are in greater peril. Each country has a different system and requires a particular set of knowledge to help workers. Several workers deported from Saudi on ‘huroob’ and ‘matloob’ charges told MR that there were thousands like them still languishing in the Kingdom’s jails and detention centres, who had no means to raise money or knew no one who could help them.
Chito, a caseworker with the Social Work Society, says, in Kuwait, if the complaint has been made directly to the police, then chances of dismissing the charges are slim. “There are two types of absconding in Kuwait. One is when the company files the complaint to the Ministry of Labour. This can be removed, once the worker visits the department and clarifies his position. The other is more complicated and is when the employer files in the police station under the MoI). This cannot be removed. You can’t do anything about it. You lose your rights and will be deported.” It is similar in Bahrain as well, where complaints filed at the Labour Market Regulatory Authority are relatively simpler to clear than those filed with the police.
In the special circumstances where absconding charges can be removed, such as when there is a crime that can be proven against the employer, the process goes through the criminal court and is often extraordinarily long, he says. The transfer of domestic workers from the jurisdiction of the MOI to PAM's was intended to improve protections for workers but has also created new hurdles to accessing justice.
“When the domestic worker department was under the MoI, if workers filed complaints first the runaway complaint would not be entertained. But now the domestic work department is in the Ministry of Labour, and they do not have access to MoI’s system that receives these cases. Even if a worker has filed a complaint, the MoI will still receive the absconding charges. There needs to be better inter-agency coordination,” he says.
Prima arrived in Kuwait at the end of 2018 and found employment with the help of her aunt, who has been working in the country for over a decade. Within months, Prima had to ward off sexual harassment from her employer’s adult son. “When I complained, it soured our relationship and I started being treated even worse. I was given one meal at night which was usually old food and I had to steal even a cup of tea. My salary also became irregular.”
She tried appealing to her employer directly and through her aunt to let her go. Earlier this year her employer agreed to let her go home to India on vacation, on the condition she returned to work for them. “She told me they would cancel my visa and I won’t be able to return. I agreed to that condition too. After some respite, the son started harassing me again. In July I begged them to send me back, but they refused saying it would be difficult to return to Kuwait because of Corona.”
Unable to endure this any longer, Prima left home in July with the help of a contact in the Indian embassy and filed a complaint both at the labour department and the embassy. Within the week her employer filed a ‘runaway’ case against her.
“I don’t understand this… I filed the complaint first. But now I am blocked and can’t leave the country. What use was my complaint?”
Abdulrahman reiterates the tediousness of these processes. “They [the workers] are not criminals, they are not used to dealing with a police officer or a judge, and courtrooms are intimidating. They have no idea what's going on – they’ve been treated badly, there is a language barrier. You have to be extremely resilient and strong to stick with the process and challenge the absconding charge. Not everyone can do that.” Chito says the state allows employers to use this, as a ‘protection’ for employers. “Absconding is not a solution, or a protection, because it is misused. They should decriminalise it.”
The power to report someone as absconding or runaway provides employers with inordinate control over their employees. This results in workers enduring extreme abuse, wage theft, and dehumanising living conditions as they fear a runaway complaint would not only result in their deportation but that they would be banned from re-entry and exploring job opportunities in a labour market that they are comfortable in.
Moe from Bangladesh hasn’t been paid by his employer since last November. He continues to work in the hope that his dues will be recouped, and refuses to file a complaint. His is one of the many cases MR.org deals with where the legends of vindictive employers terrify workers into silence. “If I go to labour and complain he will file a runaway complaint and that’s it, I won't be able to return to the country.”
Human Rights Watch’s latest release on Qatar also highlighted how employers retaliate with an absconding charge when workers file labour complaints.
“After all these years that I’ve lived and worked in this country, I know now, if I try to stand up to my employers, I will lose,” said one Indian migrant worker who lived and worked in Qatar for 13 years without incident, but whose most recent employer had him deported as a runaway because he complained to the Labor Ministry about his wages being delayed for months at a time.
Kuwait had dropped all absconding cases reported during Covid-19. Amnesties were announced at the start of the pandemic in Kuwait (for one month) and Bahrain (until end of the year) to repatriate irregular workers without a fine. While the former included those with absconding charges (but not those with criminal charges), Bahrain’s did not. These policies affect people like Farah the most. She arrived in Bahrain on a cleaner’s visa but was forced to take up domestic work. After a few months, she fled a difficult work environment and found a job in a hospital as a cleaner. Her employer not only confiscated her passport but also filed a runaway charge and demanded BD800 in order to allow Farah to change employers. Unable to raise the hefty amount, and unable to return home, Farah remains in limbo, another migrant awaiting a miracle.
Though migrant rights advocates have demanded the decriminalisation of absconding for a long time now, none of the GCC states has shown any inclination to do so, and instead doubled down, introducing more stringent measures that criminalise workers who refuse to accept abuse. Some months ago, Qatar’s MoI released a photo of a ‘gang’ accused of facilitating the ‘escape’ of domestic workers. The arrest and the release disregard the reasons why a worker would want to ‘escape’ a household.
In 2013, Saudi had announced that it would abolish ‘Huroob’. It did not do so, and in fact, announced hefty fines on employers who do not report cases of workers who abscond. It did, however, also introduce fines of up to SAR20,000 for those who file false cases. The Saudi Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development’s (MHRSD) online portal allows workers to challenge false charges within a year of the absconding charge. The service is available only in Arabic and is inaccessible for the vast majority of migrants who will require the help of expensive middlemen, as mentioned earlier in the report.
Migrant-Rights.org calls on the GCC States to decriminalise absconding, and reform laws accordingly. Until then, interim measures must include:
- Implement amnesties that include workers who have pending absconding charges and waive all related fines. The amnesties should also extend pathways to regularising their status.
- Penalise employers who misuse absconding laws and file false charges.
- Investigate all cases of absconding to ascertain what violations and abuses may have led to a worker leaving their place of employment.
- If a complaint has been filed by the worker, it must take precedence over any complaints filed subsequently by the employer. Ensure better coordination between the Ministries of Labour and Interior to accomplish this.
- Particular attention must be paid to domestic workers accused of running away.
- Make it easier for migrants to change jobs, particularly those in domestic work.
*Names of all workers changed to protect their identity