“Rashida,” from Kigamboni in Tanzania’s commercial capital of Dar es Salaam, said a recruiter promised her a job as a domestic worker for a family in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
Instead, she wound up in a recruitment agency office in Dubai, where employers came to inspect workers to take home.
“When I arrived in Dubai, it was a big office and there were a lot of women, as if on sale, as they [potential employers] come and choose which one they want,” 23-year-old “Rashida” told me. “They say ‘stand up,’ they look at you up and down, then say, ‘No, I don’t want. Let me see another person.’”
“Rashida” ended up working for four families, lasting only from several days to a week with each one before returning to the office either because the employer did not want her or because she could not endure dismal working conditions, including being forced to sleep in a storeroom and being given little food. One family provided just “two slices of bread” for her each morning and evening. During this time, she did not receive a single cent. After finding work with a fifth employer, she worked for two years, 18 hours a day, with no rest breaks, and no day off.
“Rashida” is one of countless women who migrate on the promise of decent working conditions but get trapped in abusive situations. There are an estimated 2.4 million migrant domestic workers in the Gulf states. While some have decent salaries and working conditions, many of the hundreds of workers I have interviewed told me that their employers forced them to work up to 21 or 22 hours a day with no rest breaks or days off, confiscated their passport, provided little or spoiled food, restricted their communication, and physically or sexually abused them. Over the past 10 years, Human Rights Watch has extensively documented these violations across the Gulf, including in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates.
Domestic workers’ visas are tied to their employers under the kafala (visa-sponsorship) system, and workers cannot leave or transfer employers without their employer’s permission. If they do, they can be charged with “absconding” and face fines, imprisonment, and deportation. They are also excluded from labour laws or accorded little legal protection, and many leave without justice or redress.
Some countries are considering reforms that will guarantee domestic workers labour rights. In May, the United Arab Emirates’ Federal National Council adopted a bill on domestic workers that for the first time guarantees a weekly rest day, 30 days of paid annual leave, paid and unpaid sick leave, and 12-hours of rest a day, among other rights. In February, Qatar’s cabinet also adopted a bill on domestic workers which guarantees a weekly rest day, 30-days of paid leave, 10-hour working days, and an end-of-service payment. While a significant advance, these draft laws still fall short of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention, as they provide fewer protections than those accorded other workers under national labour laws.
The UAE’s bill on domestic workers also experiments with a new form of sponsorship. It designates recruitment agencies as the “sponsor” that provide employers with domestic workers for “temporary employment.” The potential advantage is that employers will no longer wield additional power over workers as their immigration sponsor, and they may be less tempted to recoup upfront recruitment costs by underpaying their workers.
However, there are also risks. The UAE already has cleaning companies that act as employers for live-in domestic workers who are hired for each job on a temporary basis, but until recently, there were no regulations governing this service. Human Rights Watch research found instances in which cleaning companies paid workers less than the salaries agreed upon in their contracts or repeatedly sent workers to employers with histories of abuse.
Oman is also considering allowing cleaning companies to provide employers with domestic workers hired by the hour. Effective oversight over such agencies and cleaning companies will be crucial.
Gulf states like Oman, UAE, and Qatar are introducing reforms for domestic workers that are improvements on paper. On International Domestic Workers Day, they should commit to enforcing and monitoring these changes so that they become true guarantees in practice.