“She kicked me and I fell on my chest. [Then] she picked up my head by grabbing my hair,” Mamata told me. “They [the family] beat me mercilessly. I became numb from all the beating.”

A migrant domestic worker watches over a child playing in the Magic Planet, City Centre Muscat, a shopping mall in Oman. 

© 2015 Rothna Begum/Human Rights Watch

Mamata, a domestic worker from Bangladesh, spoke with me in 2015 in a run-down building in Muscat, Oman’s capital, about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her employers. She, like many other domestic workers, told me a story of coercion, exploitation, and abuse in Oman, a country where she never even intended to be.

The ordeal of Mamata, whose name we changed for her security, began with her paying some GBP £700 to a recruitment agent in Bangladesh to secure her a £150-per-month domestic worker job in the United Arab Emirates. Yet just a week after she arrived in Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, a medical test revealed that she has a blood disorder, so her employer returned her to the recruitment agency in the UAE.

The agents took her to their office in Al Ain, a town that straddles the UAE-Oman border. She was there for 25 days, along with other women, until the agents told her to go with an employer to Oman. Mamata pleaded that she did not want to go, but the agent replied, “Die here then.” She begged her new employer too, but he told her, “I bought you.” He took her to Oman, where he forced her to work 21 hours a day with no rest and no day off for a family of 10, including 6 young children. He and his family only allowed her one phone call in two months, did not provide enough food, paid her nothing, and beat her.

More than 140,000 female migrant domestic workers are in Oman. Many receive decent salaries and have good working conditions, but others, like Mamata, face a far bleaker reality.

My colleague and I interviewed 59 migrant domestic workers in Oman for a Human Rights Watch report released this past July. Most said that their employers had confiscated their passports even though Oman prohibits that, making it harder to leave them if they’re abusive. Many said their employers did not pay them their full salaries, forced them to work excessively long hours without breaks or days off, or denied them adequate food and living conditions. Some said their employers physically abused them; a few described sexual abuse. Sadly, Mamata’s fate may not have been any different if she had remained in the UAE. In an earlier report, we documented similar abuses against domestic workers in the UAE.

Some workers we interviewed in Oman described abuses that amounted to trafficking into forced labour. They said they applied for jobs in the UAE, but after arriving there, recruitment agents or employers forced or coerced them into crossing the porous border into Oman with employers who exploited and abused them.

Embassy officials of Asian countries where some of the UAE domestic workers come from told me that Omani and other Gulf country employers often travel to Al Ain on Fridays to find a domestic worker. One said that women, many of whom had travelled to the UAE for domestic work, were confined by the recruiting agencies and sometimes “put on display” for potential employers. Another said that it is “just like window shopping.” Employers who get domestic workers this way often evade legal requirements for hiring foreign labour, and this deprives workers of even minimal protections.

An Indonesian embassy official in Oman told me that 60 out of 100 women whom the embassy had sheltered in April 2015 after they fled abusive employers had come to Oman by crossing the UAE border. They did not know the workers were in the country, and so they had no way to ensure that employers offered health insurance or complied with other protection measures such as verifying that employers can pay their salaries.

Domestic workers have fewer protections than other workers in Gulf states, where countries such as Oman and the UAE explicitly exclude them from their labour laws. Moreover, abuses against domestic workers are facilitated by Oman’s abusive kafala (visa sponsorship) system. This system, in force in many Gulf states, ties migrant domestic workers’ visas to their employers. Workers cannot change jobs without their current employer’s permission, and they risk imprisonment and deportation for “absconding” if they leave, even if they are fleeing abuse.

Some domestic workers who fled abuse in Oman told us that police not only failed to help them, but sometimes made matters worse. Mamata said that when she first escaped. she went to the police in Oman for help. They returned her to her employer, who beat her and locked her in a room for eight days with only dates and water. Mamata was awaiting her return home, but had received no redress for the abuse, when I met her.

Oman, the UAE, and other Gulf countries should reform their immigration and labour laws to protect domestic workers’ rights, and cooperate on investigating cases of trafficking. Otherwise more women like Mamata will end up trafficked and trapped.