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

© 2006 Abbas/Magnum Photos
 
(Beirut) – The United Arab Emirates’ moves to adopt a new law that will guarantee domestic workers a weekly rest day and paid leave is long overdue, Human Rights Watch said today. After the bill becomes law, the Human Resources and Emiratization Ministry should develop implementing regulations that will bring the country into line with the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention by ensuring that migrant domestic workers enjoy the same labor protections as other workers in the UAE.
 
On May 31, 2017, the Federal National Council adopted a revised version of a 2012 draft law on domestic workers, approved by the cabinet in March. This bill covers 19 categories of workers, including domestic workers, regulates recruitment, and addresses terms and conditions of employment. It will be sent to the President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan for ratification before it can become law.
 
“Once this bill is ratified, the rights of hundreds of thousands of domestic workers will finally be protected by law in the UAE,” said Rothna Begum, Middle East women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This is an important advance, but without strong enforcement mechanisms to accompany the law, it will be largely ineffective.”
 
At least 146,000 female migrant domestic workers are in the Emirates – primarily from the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal – cleaning, cooking, and caring for families. Domestic workers are excluded from the protections offered under the country’s national labor law. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report documented a range of abuses against domestic workers including unpaid wages, confinement to the house, workdays of up to 21 hours with no rest and no days off, and in some cases, physical or sexual assault by employers. Domestic workers face legal and practical obstacles to redress, and many return home without justice.
 
The Federal National Council referred to provisions of the bill, but as the full text of the bill is not publicly available, Human Rights Watch cannot fully verify whether the extent of protections in the new law is in line with international human rights law and standards.
 
The bill requires that employers treat the worker “in a good manner that preserves their dignity and the integrity of their body.” It also requires employers to provide domestic workers with accommodation and food, but is vague on minimum standards. It provides 30 days of annual paid leave and daily rest of at least 12 hours – including at least eight consecutive hours of rest. It will also guarantee 15 days of paid sick leave, 15 days of unpaid sick leave, and compensation for work-related injuries or illnesses. The bill sets out a weekly rest day but permits the employer to make the domestic worker forgo the rest day if paid. The bill does not lay out stipulations that workers should be free to leave the workplace during their non-working hours.
 
These provisions are weaker than the UAE labor law, which stipulates an 8-hour workday or 48-hour workweek, and 15 days of paid sick leave, 15 days at half pay, and unpaid sick leave thereafter. The ILO Domestic Workers Convention – the global treaty on domestic workers’ rights – maintains that domestic workers should have protections equivalent to those of other workers. The UAE and other Gulf countries should ratify that convention and align their national laws to the treaty, Human Rights Watch said.
 
“Guarantees for daily and weekly rest periods as well as paid leave are critical for ensuring decent working conditions and preventing workplace abuse,” Begum said. “After ratifying this bill, the UAE government should pass regulations to close existing loopholes that employers can easily exploit to avoid providing weekly rest days.”
 
The bill imposes new obligations on recruitment agencies to respect domestic workers’ rights and to refrain from discrimination. These include prohibitions on sexual harassment, forced labor, and discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, political opinion, national origin, or social origin. However, recruitment agencies often advertise workers’ salaries that vary widely based on national origin, in part because the UAE sets no minimum wage for domestic workers, and it is not clear if the non-discrimination provision alone will change this practice.
 
The bill also provides for recruitment agencies to employ workers under “temporary employment,” allowing for employers to hire domestic workers on a temporary basis.
 
Regulations to govern this relationship are still pending. This is a significant development as employers usually pay upfront recruitment costs to hire live-in domestic workers. Some cleaning companies have, in recent years, provided such a service but with no regulations governing this form of service.
 
The UAE also announced in March that it will replace recruitment agencies by the end of 2017 with what they are calling “tadbeer centers” (procurement centers) that are publicly regulated but privately operated. Effective oversight over these centers will be crucial. Past Human Rights Watch research has found instances in which cleaning companies – which act as employers for live-in domestic workers whom individuals can hire on a temporary basis –paid workers less than the agreed salaries in their contracts or repeatedly sent workers to employers with histories of abuse.
 
The Federal National Council’s adoption of the domestic workers’ bill does not mention whether the bill includes requirements for inspections of agency offices and workplaces, or penalties against employers and agents for breaches of the law. For example, the bill protects workers’ rights to retain their own identity documents, but does not appear to set any penalties for employers who confiscate workers’ passports, a widespread abuse in the UAE and other Gulf countries.
 
The bill also reinforces the kafala (visa-sponsorship) system, which ties domestic workers to their employers, and prevents them from leaving or changing employers without their employer’s consent. Those who leave can be punished for “absconding” and fined, imprisoned, and deported. The bill requires employers to report workers who are absent from their jobs without a legitimate reason within five days to the Human Resources and Emiratization Ministry.
 
The bill does not establish the right to form a union.
 
Several other Gulf countries are also slowly improving labor protections for migrant domestic workers. Kuwait passed a law on domestic workers’ rights in 2015 that grants domestic workers the right to a weekly day off, 30 days of annual paid leave, a 12-hour working day with rest, and an end-of-service benefit of one month’s wages for each year worked.
 
Saudi Arabia adopted a regulation in 2013 that grants domestic workers nine hours of rest in every 24-hour period, with one day off a week, and one month of paid vacation after two years. But domestic workers can be required to work up to 15 hours a day, whereas Saudi labor law limits other workers to eight hours of work daily.
 
Bahrain’s 2012 labor law entitles domestic workers to annual vacations as well as access to mediation in labor disputes – but it fails to provide other basic protections, such as weekly rest days, a minimum wage, and limits on working hours.
 
Qatar and Oman, however, still exclude domestic workers from their labor laws, although Qatar’s cabinet adopted a draft domestic workers law in February 2017 that has not yet been made public.
 
“Strong regulation, inspections, and enforcement of penalties are critical to ensure that recruitment agencies and employers are held accountable and made to follow the law,” Begum said. “The UAE has taken an important step in creating this bill, and now it should adopt accompanying reforms to the kafala system.”