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Domestic workers face harsher working conditions as Ramadan begins

Gulf states continue to neglect the rights of migrant women domestic workers, prioritising employers' needs

On March 14, 2024

With the start of the holy month of Ramadan, many anticipate festive gatherings, delightful meals, and evenings spent watching Ramadan TV shows with their families. However, amidst this celebration, the rights of migrant domestic workers in the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) states — whose labour forms the backbone of Ramadan festivities in many households — remain neglected.

In the Gulf states, domestic workers play a vital role in the functioning of households by providing services from child and elderly care to cleaning and cooking. Their role becomes even more vital during Ramadan. They prepare meals for suhoor and futoor while juggling everyday tasks. Working hours become almost endless during Ramadan, as they are often on call around the clock with minimal time for rest. Many domestic workers who are fortunate enough to have a weekly day off during regular months lose this ‘privilege’ — which is a legal entitlement in most Gulf states — in Ramadan. 

Between 2015 and 2020 Migrant-Rights.Org conducted local outreach on the rights of migrant domestic workers, which included working with employers and recruitment agents. Many participants told us that domestic workers ‘run away’ just before or during Ramadan. Workers we interviewed reported that sometimes the workload is beyond their ability, and they choose to escape exploitative conditions — because there is no practical alternative for declining work or finding a better job. 

The Gulf States tend to focus their awareness efforts on issuing warnings about scams and illegal recruitment that defraud employers in the month leading up to Ramadan when demand for domestic workers surges. There are typically no comparable campaigns to raise awareness of domestic workers’ rights and working conditions.

In Kuwait, the high demand for domestic workers before the month of Ramadan has reached a point where some employers reportedly charge as much as KD2000 (US$ 6500) to transfer the sponsorship of workers whose services they no longer require. Though these practices reflect the importance of domestic workers’ labour, they do not receive the recognition, rights, or protection due to them. 

None of the GCC states include domestic workers in the labour law (Bahrain includes them in only a few provisions), and only four have a dedicated domestic workers law. These laws are significantly weaker in both code and implementation, lacking enforcement mechanisms such as labour inspections or inclusion in Wage Protection Systems to monitor contract violations. Working hours for domestic workers in the region already exceed those of regular workers in the private sector, which are typically set at 8 hours per day. In contrast, domestic workers’ maximum working hours are set to 12 hours per day in the UAE and Kuwait, and 10 hours in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Bahrain and Oman stipulate no maximum working hours. Additionally, GCC labour laws typically reduce working hours by up to two hours during Ramadan, but such stipulations do not apply to domestic workers.

Anne,* a Filipino domestic worker in Qatar, says her working hours shift during Ramadan, but that she ends up working more hours overall as she has to wake up early to prepare food and continue working late into the night. Her colleague who works with her has slightly longer hours, as she has to clean the main house while the household is sleeping and the bedrooms when they wake up. According to Anne, her friends working in other households work well into the morning, until after suhoor, and that long hours are very much the norm.

Jojo, a Kenyan community leader in Qatar, shares far more dire testimonies. The majority have just around 4 hours of break during the day, as they have to work well into the night and then again start cleaning the house and preparing for Iftar. She says that they end up with sore and swollen feet because of all the extra work and are only given Panadol to tide them over.

“As it is, many don’t get an off day. And during Ramadan, very few get a day off, and there is no salary increase or overtime. If they are lucky, they will get 100-500 riyals or new clothes at the end of Ramadan.”

She also points out that those whose contracts end in the month of Ramadan or the couple of months preceding it are not allowed to go home for their vacation, and that they are forced to continue working. Even non-fasting, non-Muslim domestic workers are compelled to fast. “Sometimes, simply because there is no food left to eat during the day, and they are not allowed to cook.”


Focused on Recruitment, Not Reform

Though for years Gulf states have acknowledged that domestic workers ‘run away’ in the highest numbers during Ramadan due to the workload, they have yet to implement adequate protections for domestic workers. Instead, Gulf governments consistently prioritise the rights of employers.

For example, earlier this year, Kuwait’s Minister of Commerce and Industry issued a directive establishing maximum recruitment fees of KD 750 (US$ 2441) for Asian countries and KD 575 (US$ 1871) for African countries. The directive also includes provisions for fully compensating employers, including flight tickets, in cases where domestic workers breach contracts. A week after this decision, the Kuwaiti government announced that employers would now be able to file absconding charges against domestic workers through the ‘Sahel’ application, a unified government platform for electronic services across various agencies.

At the same time, MPs in Bahrain unanimously approved a decision to withhold indemnity from domestic workers who abscond from their workplace, with the aim of reducing “absconding of domestic workers by deterring them through increased punishment and penalties. And to preserve the rights of the employer while encouraging the recruitment of domestic workers.” Officials and media persist in disseminating uninformed statements suggesting that domestic workers abscond because they are “lured by hotels and cafés into prostitution.” Such narratives overlook the prevalence of abusive working conditions that push workers to run away. 

Introduced in 2022, the UAE’s new domestic workers law is marred by significant protection gaps, granting disproportionate power to employers. In that same year, Dubai Police arrested 948 domestic workers for “absconding” during the month of Ramadan.

In recent months, Saudi Arabia has introduced several initiatives related to domestic worker recruitment, rather than addressing protection gaps within the domestic work sector.  These include lowering the upper limit for recruitment costs and signing bilateral agreements aimed at increasing labour supply. These agreements largely come in response to bans imposed by certain origin countries due to widespread abuse in the sector. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States have largely focused on cracking down on recruitment agencies that fail to compensate employers rather than on abusive employers who do not abide by the law. 

Similarly, local media throughout the region predominantly focuses on employers’ concerns while neglecting to address the rights of domestic workers. For years, and with few exceptions, media reporting in the lead up to Ramadan has been preoccupied with the costs borne by employers, the fees charged by recruitment agencies, and the low supply of workers from preferred countries of origin. Even Ramadan soap operas, a popular tradition in the region, tend to focus on employer’s tribulations and depict workers negatively.