(Beirut) – The United Arab Emirates (UAE) announcement that it will transfer oversight for the recruitment of domestic workers from the interior ministry to the labor ministry is a positive step, Human Rights Watch said today. The UAE should now include domestic workers under its labor law and introduce specific enforcement measures.
On December 17, 2016, the Council of Ministers assigned the Human Resources and Emiratization Ministry – formerly the Labor Ministry – to oversee the recruitment and employment of domestic workers beginning in 2017, the Emirates News Agency (WAM) reported. Previously, the Interior Ministry’s General Directorate of Residency and Foreign Affairs, the immigration department, performed this role.
“The employment of domestic workers will now be overseen by the same ministry that oversees all other workers in the United Arab Emirates,” said Rothna Begum, the Middle East women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But this positive move will be largely symbolic unless the government also ensures that domestic workers have the same labor law protections as other workers.”
The Human Resources Ministry will initially process recruitment of domestic workers in Dubai in the first quarter of 2017, and then extend its processing to cover domestic workers in the rest of the country in the second quarter of 2017.
Hundreds of thousands of domestic workers from countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Ethiopia work in the UAE, far more than in 2008, when a government survey found that there were at least 146,000 female migrant domestic workers in the country.
UAE laws and policies leave migrant domestic workers exposed to abuse and exploitation. The labor law explicitly excludes domestic workers from its protections, and their employment is instead governed by a standard contract that provides far weaker rights than the labor law. Other workers are entitled to work no more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week, and are entitled to sick leave and overtime compensation. Domestic workers are not.
The UAE administers a kafala – or visa-sponsorship – system that ties domestic workers’ visas to their employers. They cannot work for a new employer before the end of their contract without the current employer’s permission, even if that employer is abusive. If they leave their employer, they can be prosecuted for “absconding” and punished with fines, imprisonment, and deportation.
Human Rights Watch issued a report in 2014 on the abuse of domestic workers in the UAE. Most of the 99 domestic workers interviewed said that their employers had confiscated their passports to ensure they would not escape. Many said that their employers forced them to work long hours, up to 21 hours a day, with no rest breaks and no day off; did not pay them their full salaries, if they paid at all; gave them little or spoiled food; shouted at them daily; and in some cases, even physically or sexually abused them. Some of these abuses amounted to forced labor or trafficking.
In recent years, the Human Resources Ministry has introduced several reforms to improve protections for migrant workers, but they did not apply to domestic workers. They include ministerial decrees that took effect in January 2016 to combat contract substitution, by requiring that employers use standard employment contracts which reflect the same terms of the employment offer, and allow workers to change employers before the end of their contracts in certain circumstances, such as when employers fail to meet legal or contractual obligations to the worker.
Authorities have not announced whether transferring oversight to the Human Resources Ministry will also bring domestic workers under the protection of the labor law and of ministerial decrees that help protect workers in other fields. The news agency quoted the human resources minister, Saqr Ghobash, as saying that the ministry intends “to apply the same principles and labor governance standards across private sector employment while, at the same time, taking into consideration the particularities of domestic employment.”
While the Human Resources Ministry has signed bilateral agreements or memoranda of understanding with other countries, these have applied only to the workers whose employment it oversees. With domestic workers under the ministry’s responsibility, it could begin to negotiate agreements on domestic workers with their countries of origin. This could improve protections, such as by guarding against recruitment abuses.
Currently, labor inspectors have no mandate to inspect domestic workers’ working conditions, even in response to complaints. Women face difficulty in reporting abuse – whether labor or criminal – as some are confined to their employers’ homes, or they live far from the main cities. Some women who work for large families, or in very large houses, are required to work extremely long hours. Some also reported inadequate sleeping conditions including in storage rooms, pantries, open living rooms, or with children.
Those who manage to leave their employers’ homes can report abuse to the police or the immigration department. However, inspections of work sites before they begin work can help determine employment conditions, and inspections of work sites once they are there, especially if a worker makes a complaint, would allow some oversight.
The UAE and other Gulf states should also ratify the International Labour Organization’s Domestic Workers Convention, Human Rights Watch said. The UAE and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries voted for the treaty but have yet to ratify it. The treaty establishes global standards for domestic workers’ rights, and states that protections for domestic workers should be the same as for other workers.
“The Human Resources Ministry should clarify that it will receive and respond to domestic workers’ complaints,” Begum said. “Domestic workers should not remain hidden behind closed doors.”