Gulf Countries Should Improve Laws, Ratify Treaty
November 17, 2013

(Beirut) – Countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) should bring their national laws on domestic workers up to the standards set by the International Labour Organization (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention. All six countries should ratify the international treaty promptly.

The six GCCcountries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – are considering adopting a standard contract for domestic employment that would be made mandatory for all employers. It would include provisions for a weekly day of rest and paid annual and sick leave, and give workers the right to keep their own passports instead of having the employer hold it. But the contract falls short of the protections provided to other workers under the labor laws of these countries, which, for example, limit the hours of work and contain enforcement mechanisms.

“A mandatory standard contract will protect domestic workers more than the current legal void does, but falls far short of the comprehensive legal reforms needed to end abuse of domestic workers,” said Tamara Alrifai, Middle East and North Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “As long as GCC governments shortchange domestic workers compared to other workers, they are giving license to employers to treat them worse as well.”

An estimated two million people are employed as domestic workers in GCC countries. Most are women from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, the Philippines, and Ethiopia. As Human Rights Watch has documented through numerous reports, many of these workers, who clean, cook, and take care of children, report a wide range of abuses.

They cite wages that go unpaid for months or years or are lower than initially promised, a lack of weekly rest days, verbal and physical abuse by employers, and restrictions on leaving the household. The kafala sponsorship system, which ties the immigration status of migrant workers in the host country to their employers, makes it difficult for workers to leave their employers, even in cases of confirmed abuse.

Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, and Oman exclude domestic workers from their labor laws completely. Kuwait has a mandatory standard contract for domestic workers that provides some protections, though significantly fewer and weaker ones than those in the country’s labor law. However, in abusive situations– such as nonpayment of wages, confinement in the home, or legal sanctions for quitting employment – workers have little access to the justice system to seek enforcement of the protections the contract provides. Bahrain’s 2012 overhaul of its labor law expanded some protections to domestic workers, such as providing them annual vacations, and codified others, including access to mediation in labor disputes. However, it failed to provide other basic protections, such as weekly rest days, a minimum wage, and limits to hours of work.

Saudi Arabia adopted a regulation in July 2013 that guarantees domestic workers nine hours of rest daily, one day off a week, and one month of paid vacation after two years. The nine hours of rest means domestic workers can be asked to work up to 15 hours a day, whereas the law limits other workers to eight hours of work daily.

Media sources report that Qatar’s cabinet accepted a draft domestic workers law for consideration in September. The UAE’s draft law on domestic workers,proposed in 2012, includes some positive reforms, media reports say, such as guaranteeing a weekly day off, but also would impose harsh criminal sentences on those who “encourage” a domestic worker to quit her job or offer her shelter after she has left her employer. Neither Qatar nor the UAE have made these draft laws public.

The groundbreaking International Labour Organization’s Domestic Workers Convention, adopted in 2011, establishes the first set of global labor standards for domestic workers, guaranteeing them the same basic rights as other workers. Additional protections address situations particular to domestic work, such as time they are not working but required to be available and on-call. The convention entered into force for countries that had ratified it on September 5, 2013.

Governments that ratify the treaty must put in place measures for labor inspection and enforcement and establish effective, accessible complaint mechanisms. They must also adopt all necessary and appropriate measures to protect domestic workers against abuses and fraudulent practices by private employment agencies, including by considering bilateral or multilateral agreements with countries that send the workers.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases in which agencies provided little or distorted information about the work domestic workers would do, and then failed to assist workers who wished to leave abusive employers. Human Rights Watch urges GCC countries to ratify ILO Convention 189 and to amend their labor laws and the proposed standard contract to conform to the treaty. This includes provisions to protect domestic workers from harassment and violence and the confiscation of their passports.

The GCC contract should meet the minimum standards set out in article 7 of the treaty: it should clearly specify the type of work to be performed, daily and weekly rest periods, the provision of food and accommodation, the terms for employers to send workers back to their home countries at the end of their contract, and the terms and conditions of termination of employment, including notice periods.

GCC countries should make the most recent version of the draft contract public to allow experts and others to comment on it before they adopt it.

 A report in October by Human Rights Watch, the International Domestic Workers Federation, and the International Trade Union Confederation showed little progress in the Middle East and North Africa in improving the conditions and protections of migrant domestic workers. No country in the Middle East and North Africa has ratified the ILO convention. Meanwhile, 25 countries have improvedlegal protections for domestic workers, with many of the strongest reforms in Latin America.

“Even though the majority of households in the GCC rely on domestic workers, they have trailed other regions in providing the most basic protections,” Alrifai said. “There are a growing number of models around the world on how to effectively protect the rights of workers in the home.”