A foreign domestic worker with a child under a billboard in the United Arab Emirates.

(Manila) – Migrant domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are beaten, exploited, and trapped in forced labor situations, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The UAE government, about to take up an influential new role in the International Labour Organization (ILO), has failed to adequately protect female domestic workers – many of them from the Philippines – from abuse by employers and recruiters.

The 79-page report, “‘I Already Bought You’: Abuse and Exploitation of Female Migrant Domestic Workers in the United Arab Emirates”, documents how the UAE’s visa sponsorship system, known as kafala, and the lack of labor law protections leave migrant domestic workers exposed to abuse. Domestic workers, most from Asia and Africa, cannot move to a new job before their contracts end without the employer’s consent, trapping many in abusive conditions. Labor-sending countries don’t fully protect the workers against deceptive recruitment practices or provide adequate assistance to abused nationals abroad.

“The UAE’s sponsorship system chains domestic workers to their employers and then leaves them isolated and at risk of abuse behind the closed doors of private homes,” said Rothna Begum, Middle East women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “With no labor law protections for domestic workers, employers can, and many do, overwork, underpay, and abuse these women.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 99 female domestic workers in the UAE, as well as recruitment agencies, lawyers, and others. Human Rights Watch sent letters to 15 UAE ministries and bodies in January, April, and August to seek information, request meetings, and present its findings but received no response. The UAE government did have a short meeting with Human Rights Watch representatives in September but did not address any domestic worker issues.

Domestic workers told Human Rights Watch about not being paid, not having rest periods or time off, being confined in the employer’s homes, and of excessive workloads, with working days of up to 21 hours. They described being deprived of food and reported psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Many said their employers treated them like animals, or as if they were dirty and physical contact with them would be contaminating. In some cases the abuses amounted to forced labor or trafficking.

“My boss started hitting me after two weeks of being there,” one worker said. “She hit me with her fist to my chest. She scraped her fingernails to my neck, and slapped my face. I was bruised on my neck. She sometimes pulled out tufts of my hair.” The worker said she remained there, hoping to be paid, but never was.

At least 146,000 female migrant domestic workers – possibly many more – from countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Ethiopia work in the UAE. However, some embassies or consulates in the UAE do not have shelters or adequate staffing to deal with abused domestic workers.

In June 2014, the UAE authorities revised the standard domestic worker labor contract to require a weekly day off and 8 hours of rest in any 24-hour period. However, the contract does not address other issues such as limits on working hours and is weaker than labor law protections for other workers that are enforceable by judicial authorities. An unpublished draft law on domestic workers has been pending since 2012, but according to media reports, its contents would still fall short of protections for other workers. The UAE authorities have reformed some aspects of the kafala system in recent years, but not for domestic workers.

While UAE authorities have prosecuted some employers for murder or extreme physical abuse, workers who seek redress must overcome a host of legal and practical obstacles, particularly in pursuing court remedies for contract breaches or less extreme abuse. Many workers face “absconding” charges, an administrative offense, for leaving an employer without consent before the contract ends. While some workers said police officers treated them well, others said police encouraged them to return to abusive employers. In some cases, employers filed trumped-up theft charges against workers who fled.  Some said court delays made them give up any hope of getting unpaid wages.

Many workers said they faced further abuse if they turned to their recruitment agencies for help. Some said agents forced them to return to abusive employers, made them work for new families against their will, confined them to their agency residence and deprived them of food, or beat them when they sought help.

“Many domestic workers who leave abusive employers face a stone wall,” Begum said.  “They can be prosecuted for running away, while their abusers have little to fear.”

In recent years, severe abuses have led some labor-sending countries to place temporary bans on migration to the UAE for domestic work. Several, such as the Philippines, do not allow their nationals to travel to the UAE as domestic workers unless their UAE employers and recruitment agencies agree to minimum salaries and conditions. In June, after the UAE authorities issued the revised contract, they called on embassies to stop verifying contract guarantees before issuing visas for domestic workers.  The Philippines, which is required under its domestic policy to verify contract terms, found that the new contract did not provide sufficient protection. It suspended its verification of visa applications for domestic work, though it didn’t characterize its action as a ban.

“Where some countries stop their domestic workers from migrating to the UAE, other countries fill the gap, in a race to the bottom that jeopardizes workers,” Begum said. “Countries need to band together to demand reforms in the UAE, and bolster their own protection measures.”

In June, ILO members elected the UAE to its governing board. The UAE will participate in a session starting October 30 that will focus on a range of labor issues, including forced labor.

The UAE should reform its kafala system so domestic workers can change employers without their consent and without losing valid immigration status. It should pass the draft law on domestic workers, in line with the ILO Domestic Workers convention, raise public awareness about standards under the new domestic worker contract, and expand shelter and other aid and remedies for abused domestic workers.

Labor-sending countries should increase trained staff at embassies and consulates to help abused workers. They should also increase cooperation with the UAE government to monitor recruitment and contracts, resolve labor disputes, and combat forced labor.

“As it takes its seat on the ILO’s governing body, the UAE needs to make labor rights a reality at home, including for migrant domestic workers,” Begum said.

Selected Accounts From the Report
The following excerpts provide examples of abuses domestic workers in the UAE described to Human Rights Watch. The names of the domestic workers have been changed to protect their privacy and security. 

Shelly A., a Filipina worker, said her employer forced her to work under threat of physical abuse. Her employer paid her only for the first three months, then withheld her salary but made her sign receipts to say she had received her full salary. Her employer also took her passport, confined her to the house, and beat her, telling her, “If you had done work then we won’t hit you.” 

Sabina S., a Filipina worker, said her employer made her work 20 hours a day with no breaks, 7 days a week, for a family of 12. She verbally and physically abused Sabina, took her passport and phone, and confined her in the house. Sabina told Human Rights Watch:

Madam said, “When you finish your contract we will pay.” After two years I asked for my money. But madam lost my passport. She said, “You have to wait until passport is claimed [processed]. I will give you money when you are leaving.”

Sabina was not paid for the two years and seven months she worked and was still waiting to receive her salary when she spoke to Human Rights Watch. 

Tahira S., an Indonesian worker, said her employer locked her inside the woman’s home, shouted at, beat her, and broke a bone in her arm. The employer confiscated Tahira’s passport, made her work  15 hours each day without rest periods or  days off, made her sleep on the floor with no blanket or mattress, gave her food only once a day and withheld it if her work was not deemed satisfactory. The employer promised to pay her only at the end of her contract, but then paid her nothing. Tahira told Human Rights Watch:

My boss started hitting me after two weeks of being there. Even though she hit me every day I wanted to wait for my salary. I thought if I waited three months I could get the money. She hit me with her fist to my chest. She scraped her fingernails to my neck, and slapped my face. I was bruised on my neck. She sometimes pulled out tufts of my hair.