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

© 2006 Abbas/Magnum Photos

Maria A, a Ugandan domestic worker in the United Arab Emirates, said her employer took her passport and phone, made her work from 5am to the middle of the night with no day off, beat her, kept her hungry, and paid only a fraction of the wages she was owed.

Manaranjani from Sri Lanka said she worked from 5am to 11pm, also without any rest days or adequate food.

Human Rights Watch interviewed Maria in late 2013 and Manaranjani in 2006. Unfortunately, the stories of abuse from domestic workers migrating to the Gulf in hopes of improving their lives have not changed much.

Almost 150,000 female domestic workers are employed in the UAE. Most are Asian, but increasing numbers are from East Africa.

While some find employers who treat them well and pay them on time, major gaps in the UAE’s labour laws and restrictive immigration policies — coupled with unethical recruitment in home countries — foster an environment that is ripe for exploitation and abuse.

The woes of domestic workers include unpaid wages, long working hours with little or no rest, confinement to the household, passport confiscation, inadequate food or living conditions, and physical abuse.

Under the visa sponsorship, or kafala system, domestic workers cannot transfer employers before the end of their contracts without employers’ consent. The UAE excludes domestic workers from its labour laws.

A draft law for domestic workers has been pending for years, although the UAE authorities recently revised the standard employment contract for domestic workers in June, requiring a day off per week and at least eight hours of rest in any 24-hour period.

Both Maria and Manaranjani said their employers made them sign statements acknowledging receipt of their salaries, even though they were not being paid.

PAY THEM ELECTRONICALLY

The UAE has begun to address this problem with migrant workers in other fields, such as construction, by requiring their employers to pay them electronically through their bank accounts with verifiable receipts.

The UAE has started to establish some precedents for accountability. Earlier this year, a UAE court upheld a 15-year prison sentence for an Emirati employer convicted of torturing two domestic workers, including an Ethiopian woman who died after being denied medical care.

Asian countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka that have sent large numbers of domestic workers to the Gulf for years are slowly improving protections.

They have much more work to do, but are regulating recruitment agencies, staffing their embassies with labour attaches and social workers to assist domestic workers, and participating in regional conferences to improve protections.

As growing numbers of domestic workers from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda migrate to the Gulf and face similar patterns of abuse, their governments have yet to take account of the lessons learned by their Asian counterparts.

For example, when a single labour-sending country imposes a ban on migration, it does not pressure host governments to improve working conditions.

Ethiopia banned migration to the United Arab Emirates in 2012 while it negotiated a higher wage, but employment agents in Dubai told us they simply recruited more heavily from Kenya and Uganda.

Kenya recently banned workers from migrating to the Middle East for domestic work, but some women still go, often under even riskier conditions.

There is no mystery about what is needed to end abusive recruitment, promote safe and voluntary migration, and ensure decent working conditions.

This includes rigorous monitoring of recruitment agencies, ensuring that prospective migrants have full information about their rights, and reforming the kafala system to allow migrant workers to change employers. It also means bringing labour laws in line with the International Labour Organisation’s Domestic Workers Convention.

Governments from both labour-sending and labour-receiving countries need to adopt — and enforce — these long-overdue reforms so that future Marias and Manaranjanis do not find themselves in another country, suffering abuse and with nowhere to turn for help.