Abuse of domestic workers

report on migrant domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates, issued by Human Rights Watch earlier this week, tells a story which is all too familiar throughout the Gulf:

"Domestic workers told Human Rights Watch about not being paid, not having rest periods or time off, being confined in the employer’s homes, and of excessive workloads, with working days of up to 21 hours. They described being deprived of food and reported psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Many said their employers treated them like animals, or as if they were dirty and physical contact with them would be contaminating. In some cases the abuses amounted to forced labour or trafficking."

The UAE’s sponsorship system "chains domestic workers to their employers and then leaves them isolated and at risk of abuse behind the closed doors of private homes," HRW researcher Rothna Begum said. "With no labour law protections for domestic workers, employers can, and many do, overwork, underpay, and abuse these women."

The Emirates foreign ministry responded with the usual complacency. It accused Human Rights Watch of "sensationalist reporting" while acknowledging that with large numbers of foreign workers in the UAE (including some 146,000 domestic workers) "there are bound to be cases of abuse".

This implies that the problem is caused by a few wayward employers and is nothing that can't be sorted out by "dialogue" (as the ministry put it) "to resolve issues that arise". The reality, though, is that the UAE's employment laws are mainly responsible. The iniquitous kafala ("sponsorship") system opens the door to abuse and other laws do little or nothing to protect domestic workers. HRW says in its report:

"In the UAE, as elsewhere in the region, the kafala system ties migrant workers to individual employers who act as their visa sponsors, and restricts migrant workers’ abilities to change employers. The system gives employers great power over employees because it entitles them to revoke sponsorship at will. This automatically removes the right of a worker to remain in the UAE and triggers repatriation procedures. 

"Domestic workers are explicitly excluded from the UAE’s labour law and from the basic protections that the law and other labour policies afford to most other workers, such as limits on working hours and provision for overtime pay. Domestic workers have virtually no legal safeguards governing their employment."

Since domestic workers are mostly female, excluding them from the less-than perfect labour law is a violation of the UAE's obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, HRW says. "It is clear that women are disproportionately and negatively impacted by this exclusion."

Meanwhile, the foreign ministry insists that the UAE "has taken many measures to protect domestic workers" and "will continue to improve protections". HRW, however, accuses the UAE of dragging its feet.

Last June, for instance, states belonging to the International Labour Organisation voted by a large majority to strengthen protections against forced labour (a crime that many domestic workers face). "Neither the HRW says. The UAE did vote in favour of the ILO convention on domestic workers, which came into force in 2013, but it has yet to ratify it, "and UAE laws and practices fall significantly short of the convention’s requirements". The report continues:

"The UAE government stated in 2012 that the cabinet had approved a bill on domestic workers, and that it would be promulgated once the interior ministry completed implementing regulations. A June 2013 news report quoted an immigration official stating that the draft law was 'in its final stages'. Human Rights Watch made several requests to the government to obtain the draft law but received no response.

"While Human Rights Watch cannot confirm the content of the draft law, news reports suggest that it contains both positive and negative provisions. The Dubai newspaper, Gulf News, which said it had seen a copy of the draft law, reported in May 2012 that it proposed to entitle domestic workers to one paid day of leave each week, a period of paid annual leave, and paid and unpaid sick days. This would be less than the entitlements that the current labour law affords to workers in other sectors. Human Rights Watch does not know what, if anything, the draft law proposes in relation to daily working hours for domestic workers and their entitlement to regular rest breaks while at work.

"According to media reports, however, the draft law proposes to make domestic workers criminally liable if they disclose 'secrets' of their employer and punish them with up to six months in prison and a fine of Dh100,000 ($27,227). News reports also say the draft law proposes severe penalties, including imprisonment, for anyone who 'encourages' a domestic worker to quit her job or offers her shelter."

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Saturday, 25 October 2014