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Middle East/North Africa: Treat Domestic Workers Fairly This Ramadan

Employers Should Reflect on Responsibilities to Respect Rights of Domestic Workers

(New York) – At the beginning of Ramadan, a month of reflection and fasting, employers of domestic workers in the Middle East and North Africa should take special care to consider the rights of domestic workers, who work extra hours to aid with the month-long gatherings of their employers, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the abuse and exploitation of migrant domestic workers and child domestic workers in the Middle East and North Africa, sometimes in conditions that amount to slavery. Abuses include wage exploitation, months or years of non-payment of wages, forced confinement, extensive work hours without periods of rest, overtime pay, or even a day off, and physical and sexual violence.

“Many domestic workers in the Middle East are treated shamefully, and many employers seem to have no idea that domestic workers have basic labor rights,” said SarahLeah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “In this special time of spiritual reflection, employers should end the abusive treatment of the women who work tirelessly to clean their homes, care for their children, and feed their families.”

Human Rights Watch urged employers to respect five minimum obligations in their employment of domestic workers:

• Employers should pay domestic workers their wages promptly and in full. They should pay domestic workers for overtime performed in excess of reasonable, normal hours of daily service, and grant proper rest periods between work days.

• Employers should provide at least one day a week off and daily break times, and allow workers to spend this free time as they see fit, including outside the household and with persons of their choice.

• Employers should not verbally, physically, or sexually abuse their domestic workers; nor should they tolerate such abuse by others, and should immediately report abuse to police authorities.

• Employers should respect the right of domestic workers to enjoy freedom of movement and association and under no circumstances should subject them to forced confinement. Employers should allow domestic workers to keep their passports in their possession and place no arbitrary or discriminatory restriction on their personal communications, including recognizing their right to call their families, friends and contact their embassies, travel outside the house, or to keep mobile phones.

• Employers should provide workers with suitable accommodation such as a furnished private bedroom, so that their privacy is respected.

“Governments have the primary legal obligation to enforce international labor standards, but respect for the workers’ rights and dignity starts with employers,” said Whitson. “The abuses that have so marred the reputation of the region won’t disappear until employers respect the rights of domestic workers.”

In Lebanon, which employs an estimated 200,000 domestic workers, primarily from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Ethiopia, the most common complaints made by domestic workers include non-payment or delayed payment of their wages, forced confinement to the workplace, no time off, and verbal, as well as physical, abuse. According to a 2006 survey of 600 migrant domestic workers conducted by Dr. Ray Jureidini of the American University of Cairo, 56 percent said they work more than 12 hours a day and 34 percent have no regular time off. These difficult work conditions have had deadly consequences as recently released research by Human Rights Watch shows that migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are dying at a rate of one per week, most often from suicide and during failed attempts to escape from their employers

Saudi households employ an estimated 1.5 million domestic workers, primarily from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Nepal. While no reliable statistics exist on the exact number of abuse cases, the Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs and the embassies of labor-sending countries shelter thousands of domestic workers with complaints against their employers or recruiters each year. Excessive workload and unpaid wages, for periods ranging from a few months to 10 years, are among the most common complaints. The kingdom’s Labor Law excludes domestic workers, denying them rights guaranteed to other workers, such as a weekly rest day and overtime pay. Many domestic workers must work 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Some domestic workers face imprisonment or lashings for spurious charges of theft, adultery, or “witchcraft”.

In the United Arab Emirates, in-house Sri Lankan domestic workers who live with their employers almost always are paid fixed monthly salaries without payment for overtime. Many migrant domestic workers face workplace abuses such as non-payment or underpayment of wages; wage exploitation; forced confinement in the workplace; excessively long working hours; and no rest days.

In Morocco, child domestic workers as young as five or six routinely toil in private homes one hundred or more hours per week without rest breaks or days off. Their employers frequently abuse them physically and verbally, deny them an education, and sometimes even deny them adequate food and medical care. Some girls also suffer sexual harassment by employers or employers’ family members. Abused and isolated from family and peers, too many child domestics suffer lasting physical and psychological harm.

Human Rights Watch called upon labor ministries and spiritual leaders within the region to take the opportunity of the month of Ramadan to urge household employers and their families to respect the rights of domestic workers with the enthusiasm and willing strength that the month invokes for the many people observing it within the region.

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