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Dispatches: Equality for Domestic Workers in the Gulf
November 26, 2013

“I am in the middle of interviewing nannies,” a friend who has recently moved to Dubai told me as we talked on the phone yesterday. “The one that I like does not really have experience with children but is a mother herself. Her two young ones are in Indonesia with her family.”

I listened to my friend and tried to imagine leaving my own children behind with my family so I could travel to another country to work on contract. As we talked, the news scroll on the television screen showed that officials from a group of Gulf countries were discussing ways to regulate the work of migrant workers.

Some two million people are employed as domestic workers in Gulf countries. Many employers, like my friend, no doubt treat their employees decently. Numerous domestic workers, however, report abuse from their employers: unpaid wages, confiscated passports, lack of weekly rest, and even verbal and physical abuse. The kafala sponsorship system ties them to their employers and makes it difficult for them to leave them even if they are abusive.

Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE and Oman say they want to make  a standard contract mandatory for all migrant domestic workers, to regulate their labor and work conditions. But a contract that doesn’t even clearly list the tasks that domestic workers will perform, nor specify daily and weekly rest periods (among other weaknesses), is not enough.

The best way to stop the horror stories I have heard in my work is for Gulf countries to ratify Domestic Workers Convention 189 of the International Labour Organization, the first legal document to give domestic workers the status of employees, with clearly elucidated rights and obligations. Countries would then bring their own national legislation to the standards of the convention, and draw contracts in accordance with it.

These measures would guarantee basic labor rights for cleaners and nannies: people who travel so far and give up so much, but not their fundamental rights.