Legal Advances in Two Dozen Countries Globally as New Treaty Enters Into Force
October 28, 2013
“Even though the Middle East and North Africa are home to some of the worst abuses against domestic workers, the pace of legal reforms in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Lebanon has dragged on for years with little to show. And even the proposed reforms fall short of international standards and the comprehensive protections other countries are implementing.”
Nisha Varia, senior women’s rights researcher

(Montevideo) – The Middle East depends heavily on domestic workers but trails other regions in adopting critical reforms to protect their rights, the International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and Human Rights Watch said today. The groups released a report assessing progress since the 2011 adoption of the Domestic Workers Convention, a groundbreaking treaty to entitle domestic workers to the same basic rights as other workers.

As Human Rights Watch, the IDWN, and the ITUC have documented, domestic workers in the Middle East – many of them migrants from Asia and Africa – experience a wide range of abuses, including unpaid wages, restrictions on leaving the households where they work, and excessive work hours with no rest days. Some may face psychological, physical, or sexual abuse and can get trapped in situations of forced labor, including by being trafficked.

“Even though the Middle East and North Africa are home to some of the worst abuses against domestic workers, the pace of legal reforms in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Lebanon has dragged on for years with little to show,” said Nisha Varia, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “And even the proposed reforms fall short of international standards and the comprehensive protections other countries are implementing.”

The 33-page report, “Claiming Rights: Domestic Workers’ Movements and Global Advances for Labor Reform,” charts ratification of the Domestic Workers Convention, which entered into force on September 5; national labor law reforms; and the growing influence of emerging domestic workers’ rights movements. The groups released the report at a meeting on October 26-28, 2013, of labor leaders from more than 40 countries in Montevideo to establish a new International Domestic Workers Federation. The new federation will help domestic workers share strategies across regions and advocate for their rights. 

More than 25 countries have improved legal protections for domestic workers in the past two years (see report map on p.8), with many of the strongest reforms in Latin America. Most countries in the Middle East, however, still entirely exclude domestic workers from their labor laws. Not one has ratified the treaty.

“The momentum of ratifications and improved laws in Latin American nations and a number of other countries show that governments are capable of protecting domestic workers,” said Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the ITUC. “Governments that have lagged – particularly in Asia and the Middle East – need to act without delay.”

There are an estimated 53 million domestic workers worldwide – the majority of them women and girls, and many of them migrants. According to the International Labour Organization, almost 30 percent of the world’s domestic workers are employed in countries where they are completely excluded from national labor laws, including requirements for weekly rest days, limits to hours of work, minimum wage coverage, and overtime pay. Even when partially covered, domestic workers are often excluded from key protections such as minimum age requirements, maternity leave, social security, and occupational health measures.

Under the new convention, domestic workers are entitled to the same basic rights as those available to other workers. Ten countries have ratified the Domestic Workers Convention: Uruguay, Philippines, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Italy, Bolivia, Paraguay, South Africa, Guyana, and Germany. Several more are completing the process.

Almost every country in the Middle East and North Africa region excludes domestic workers from the protection of labor laws, though, and subjects them to restrictive immigration rules, granting inordinate power and control to their employers under the “sponsorship” or kafala system. Several countries have worked toward reform of their laws and practices. But serious deficiencies remain, mostly because they have failed to recognize domestic workers as regular workers with a right to days off, limits to hours of work, or the right to form unions.

Jordan was one of the first countries in the region to include domestic workers in its labor law, in 2008. It passed new regulations in 2012 that limit the number of daily working hours for domestic workers to eight, and stipulate that workers are not required to seek permission from employers to leave their homes during non-work hours. Enforcement of these legal protections for migrant workers remains lax, however, and workers are denied the right to change employers freely, even after their contract period ends.

Bahrain’s 2012 overhaul of its labor law expanded some protections to domestic workers, such as annual vacations, and codified others, including access to labor dispute mediations. However, it failed to address exclusions from basic protections such as limits to hours of work, weekly rest days, and a minimum wage.In 2012, the United Arab Emirates proposed a draft law for domestic workers but has not made it public. Media reports say that it includes positive reforms, such as guaranteeing a weekly day off, but also problematic provisions, including harsh criminal sentences for those who “encourage” a domestic worker to quit her job or offer her shelter.

In Morocco, despite years of promised reforms to strengthen protections for domestic workers, the parliament has yet to discuss a draft law submitted in 2012 to require contracts for domestic workers, a minimum wage, and a weekly day off, and to expand penalties for the use of child domestic labor.

Saudi Arabia’s Council of Ministers approved regulations on domestic work for the first time in July. The new law guarantees domestic workers nine hours of rest daily, one day off a week, and a one-month paid vacation after two years. But it also allows for domestic workers to be fired or penalized if they do not respect Islam or the kingdom’s rules and regulations, and denies workers the ability to turn down any work without a “legitimate” reason.

In June, the Association of Owners of Recruitment Agencies in Lebanonadopted a self-regulating code of conduct to protect the rights of migrant domestic workers, who are still not protected under the Lebanese labor law. But its impact has been limited in the absence of enforcement mechanisms. The government has not taken steps to reduce the risk of exploitation and abuse of workers, including by abolishing the kafala system.

The report notes that members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have been developing a region-wide contract for domestic workers that would improve existing protections in some of the countries. However, a contract is not an adequate substitute for including domestic workers in national labor laws with clear enforcement mechanisms.

Countries in other parts of the world have introduced far more robust and comprehensive protections for domestic workers. In March Argentina passed a law setting a maximum of 48 hours a week for domestic workers and putting in place requirements for a weekly rest period, overtime pay, annual vacation days, sick leave, and maternity protections. It extended additional protections for live-in domestic workers and for children.

A landmark court ruling in Kenya in December 2012 placed domestic workers under the protection of the labor law, extending to them the national minimum wage and social security benefits. The Philippines passed a law in January prohibiting employment agencies and employers from charging recruitment fees and making them liable for payment of wages and provision of benefits. Spain set requirements in November 2011 for a minimum wage, weekly and annual leave, maternity leave, and compensation for stand-by time when employees are not working but required to be on call.

The report also assesses domestic workers’ rights movements at the grassroots, national, and regional levels. For example, the ITUC spearheaded the “12 by 12” campaign in partnership with other unions and nongovernmental groups to promote national ratifications of the Domestic Workers Convention. Advocacy for the campaign has led to demonstrations, meetings with government officials, social media campaigns, membership drives, and new alliances among domestic workers and trade unions in more than 90 countries.

Organizing domestic workers in the Middle East has many challenges, both practical – in terms of limited time and mobility – and legal. In some countries, domestic workers are legally barred from forming their own unions or joining other unions, especially when they are also migrants. For example,Gulf Cooperation Council countries deny domestic workers the right to form unions to fight for their rights.

“Even though domestic workers provide critical services that families depend on – cooking, cleaning, and child care – we have faced discrimination and marginalization for generations,” said Myrtle Witbooi, chair of the International Domestic Workers Network. “That should end.”