Many Nations Have Failed to Stem Mental, Physical, Sexual Abuse
November 25, 2008
Governments need to punish abusive employers through the justice system, and to prevent violence by reforming labor and immigration policies that leave these workers at their employer’s mercy.
Nisha Varia, Senior Researcher, Women's Rights Division

(New York) - Many migrant and domestic workers still face abuse and exploitation in Middle Eastern and Asian countries because governments have failed to adopt measures needed to protect them, Human Rights Watch said today ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25.

Few domestic workers have access to the justice system in the countries where they work, and even those who are able to make complaints of physical or sexual violence rarely receive redress, Human Rights Watch said.

"There are countless cases of employers threatening, humiliating, beating, raping, and sometimes killing domestic workers," said Nisha Varia, deputy director of the women's rights division of Human Rights Watch. "Governments need to punish abusive employers through the justice system, and prevent violence by reforming labor and immigration policies that leave these workers at their employers' mercy."

Millions of women from countries including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Nepal are domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Singapore, Malaysia, and other countries throughout the Middle East and Asia. Most countries exclude domestic workers from protection under their labor laws, leaving domestic workers little remedy against exploitative work conditions.

Domestic workers are also at heightened risk of abuse because of restrictive immigration-sponsorship policies that link their visas to their employers. Employers control a worker's immigration status and ability to change jobs, and sometimes whether the worker can return home. Many employers exploit this power to confine domestic workers to the house, withhold pay, and commit other abuses.

Authorities receive thousands of complaints of labor exploitation or abuse each year. While most involve unpaid wages, food deprivation, and long working hours with no rest, a significant number allege verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. But many cases are never officially reported, due to domestic workers' confinement in private homes, lack of information about their rights, and employers' ability to deport them before they can seek help.

Some law enforcement authorities have begun to prosecute and punish abusive employers, although to varying degrees. In 2008 in Singapore, several employers have been convicted of beating domestic workers, receiving sentences ranging from three weeks to 16 years in prison. In mid-November, a man was sentenced in Malaysia to 32 years in prison for raping a domestic worker, and his wife received six years for abetting the crime.

But criminal justice systems often continue to expose abused domestic workers to further victimization and give them no - or only severely delayed - redress:

  • In May 2008, a Riyadh court dropped charges against a Saudi employer who abused Nour Miyati, an Indonesian domestic worker, ignoring both the employer's confession and compelling physical evidence. Nour Miyati suffered daily beatings and was abused so badly that her toes and fingers were amputated after developing gangrene. During the three years of legal proceedings, she remained stuck in an overcrowded embassy shelter unable to work or return to her family in Indonesia. At one point, she also was sentenced 79 lashes for changing her testimony, though the sentence was later reversed.
  • On November 27, 2008, a Malaysian judge is to announce the verdict in the four-year case against Yim Pek Ha, the employer of an Indonesian domestic worker, Nirmala Bonat. In 2004, images of Bonat's badly burned and injured body shocked Malaysians. Bonat also had to stay in an overcrowded embassy shelter for years without being allowed to work and had to defend herself from charges of inflicting the abuse herself.

"2008 marked a year of missed opportunities,'' Varia said. "While most governments have started to think about some level of reform, many of these discussions have stalled. Providing comprehensive support services to victims of violence, prosecuting abusers, and providing civil remedies are reforms that just can't wait."

Human Rights Watch recommends that, in order to curtail all forms of violence against migrant domestic workers, governments should:

  • Abolish or reform immigration-sponsorship policies so that domestic workers' visas are no longer tied to their employers;
  • Develop protocols and train law enforcement officials on how to respond to domestic workers' complaints appropriately, and how to investigate and collect evidence in such cases;
  • Prosecute perpetrators of psychological, physical, and sexual violence;
  • Expedite criminal cases involving migrant domestic workers, who must often wait for a resolution for several months or years while confined in a shelter, and ensure they have legal permission to work during the interim period;
  • Create and widely disseminate contacts for confidential, fully staffed and toll-free hotlines to receive reports of abuses against domestic workers;
  • Create comprehensive referral and support services, including health care, counseling, shelter, consular services, and legal aid.