A year into the pandemic, and with cases resurging across the region, the plight of migrant domestic workers continues to be a serious cause for concern. At the height of the crisis, the most marginalised of all migrants also bore the burden of caregiving while remaining largely ignored and completely isolated.
Globally, there is a growing acknowledgement that domestic workers, particularly women, are disproportionately affected by the health crisis. This was acutely felt in the GCC states, where domestic workers are excluded from labour law protections, even though their labour itself was considered most essential. Their workloads increased, their mobility was curtailed, and those without regular residency status were at greater risk of being both criminalised and excluded from healthcare services.
None of this comes as a surprise or is new information. It is critical to take stock of the situation as the second Ramadan of the pandemic approaches. Even if socialising is reduced, the busy month will still change family lifestyles and exponentially increase workloads for domestic workers.
Migrant-Rights.org’s previous research and testimonies from origin country embassies indicate the following trends during Ramadan and preceding weeks:
- There is an increase in demand for and recruitment of domestic workers;
- There is an increase in workload, and a resultant uptick in complaints filed;
- More domestic workers leave employers because they are unable to bear the burden of work, and take the risk of being criminalised for ‘absconding’;
- With no practical way of tracking work hours, domestic workers receive no overtime payment even in countries that have legislation for the same;
- Employers ‘return’ domestic workers to recruitment agencies immediately after Ramadan, as their need for extra hands, is often limited to the month and the ensuing festive period.
In addition to all of these issues, domestic workers are hit with a twofold blow as the pandemic has effectively trapped them in their employers’ homes, their workplace, 24/7. Online schooling and work from home regulations continue to a large degree, and live-in domestic workers have no reprieve. Moreover, with most households choosing to seek healthcare services only for emergencies, almost all of the regular caregiving and nursing become the responsibility of the worker. Live-out domestic workers also faced dire conditions because they could not work during the lockdowns, and were unable to cover their living costs. Instead of supporting workers, governments cracked down on live-out domestic work.
As overseas recruitment of domestic workers resumes, existing protection gaps are only becoming larger. Yet, Gulf governments continue to prioritise employers’ rights and neglect those of domestic workers. Efforts have focused on lowering recruitment costs and punishing ‘absconding’ workers. News headlines across the region emphasize the hardships facing employers who are unable to hire workers due to shortages and expense, asking "Our homes in Ramadan ... without new domestic workers" or “Where is the right of the employer?”
Meanwhile, new source countries are being tapped into, from West Africa and even as far as the Caribbean (see box). While all live-in domestic workers have been vulnerable, those from countries that do not have consular services in GCC states or a strong diaspora community have faced particular precariousness. In these circumstances, to tap into ever more desperate source countries to meet labour market needs seems deliberately exploitative.
Furthermore, most GCC countries have banned direct travel from the main origin countries (from Asia), permitting entry only via ‘safe zones’ like the stopover travel that UAE provides. This means the cost of recruitment (either paid by the employer or the worker) has increased manifold. The safe zone transit in Dubai is nothing more than a business impetus for their flailing hospitality sector, enabled by neighbouring countries, at the expense of individuals.
None of the GCC countries has been transparent about the safety protocol for new arrivals, particularly domestic workers. It is critical that any measures be made mandatory before domestic workers join duty, as once deployed to individual households it is next to impossible to reach out to these workers directly. Therefore, quarantine, testings, vaccinations, issuance of health cards and identity documents must all precede deployment of the individual worker. This is only possible with greater coordination between destination and origin countries, along with recruitment agents.
Even if all of these measures were to be executed effectively, it still makes little sense to bring in a new batch of workers without resolving problems faced by those already in the country. There are tens of thousands of domestic workers who are irregular and work freelance. GCC states must first prioritise regularising these workers and allowing them to find employment locally. Cleaning companies that provide domestic work services must also be reviewed and inspected to ensure their staff have jobs and have been paid as contracted.
Taking this opportunity to design better policies for the domestic work sector will in the long run benefit the labour market and optimise costs for employers while ensuring the rights of domestic workers are protected. Hasty overseas recruitment drives will only benefit the recruitment industry and result in an even larger number of migrant women in distress.
In addition to the recommendations discussed above, immediate steps that Gulf states should take to protect domestic workers’ rights include:
- Develop targeted campaigns to communicate to employers their obligations as per relevant laws (including wages, working hours, days off, healthcare) and Covid-19-specific regulations;
- Establish a multilingual, 24/7 hotline for domestic workers;
- Expand existing or establish temporary shelters for domestic workers in distress;`
- Incorporate domestic workers into Wage Protection Systems, where they exist;
- Ensure domestic workers can access the vaccine without their employers’ permission, and are free to make the decision to get vaccinated themselves;
- Develop multilingual campaigns to inform domestic workers of their rights and Covid-19 specific;
- Regularise the status of irregular domestic workers and allow domestic workers to change employment and shift to more beneficial live-out arrangements.