“Basma” (name changed for her safety) carefully unwrapped the headscarf she had neatly tied on her head to reveal the rest of her thick, black hair. She ran her fingers through, searching her scalp, then parted her hair to reveal a long scar on her scalp. The scar serves as a painful reminder for the time she spent in Oman, working as a domestic worker.
As a first-born child, Basma, a Tanzanian, had always taken responsibility of her three siblings, more so after her father died, she told Human Rights Watch researcher Rothna Begum. She could not afford to pay her school fees, and when she did not qualify for further studies after her final secondary school exam, she knew she had to step up and fend for her siblings and ailing mother. But what little money she earned was never quite enough to meet their needs.
When a neighbor told her about an agent who helped women get work in Oman, she jumped at the opportunity. The agent was a nice lady, she assured Basma that everything would be fine. She said Basma would not have to pay for anything and that she would get a phone in Oman, so she could keep in touch with her family.
She said her agent told her the domestic worker job would pay 70 Omani rials a month (almost $200) – much more than what she would earn as a domestic worker in Tanzania. She thought she could handle working for a family of four, cleaning their one-story house, along with another domestic worker, and with conditions such as a weekly day off. She went to the Tanzanian Employment Services Agency (TaESA) to get a permit to work abroad. They went through her employment contract devised by the Tanzanian embassy in Oman and advised her to get in touch with the embassy if she found the working conditions in Oman to be different from the initial agreement. She was told to keep her original contract safe—hide it in her clothes even—since she would need it if she had to go to the embassy. So far, it seemed like a good opportunity to Basma.
She never suspected her new employer would force her to work back-breaking hours with no day off, that they would confiscate her salary, or beat her.
Many migrant domestic workers from Tanzania, like Basma, find themselves trapped in abusive situations in Oman and the United Arab Emirates, a new Human Rights Watch report, “Working Like a Robot”: Abuse of Tanzanian Domestic Workers in Oman and the United Arab Emirates, found. Domestic workers are bound to their employers through the oppressive kafala (visa-sponsorship) system, which prohibits domestic workers from leaving their employer or working for a new employer without their initial employer’s consent. Many employers demand workers return recruitment costs if they ask to leave them. Domestic workers have no legal rights to decent working conditions like a weekly rest day, as in Oman they are excluded from the labor law, and the UAE only passed a law in September providing domestic workers with some rights and has yet has to come into force.
When Basma reached Oman, her employer confiscated her passport and, the reality of her situation dawned on her.
“I was the only domestic worker. I had to work for three different houses… I had no time to rest. They slept at 5 am and you cannot sleep until they slept,” she told Human Rights Watch. Her employer also paid her less salary.
Basma’s hopes that she could create a better life for her siblings soured. She handled all the duties in the homes, the cleaning, the laundry, the cooking. Basma fidgeted and wrung her hands as she quietly and calmly described how they confined her to the house, forced her to sleep on the floor of the store room with some nights only for an hour, and given leftovers to eat after everyone had eaten. Each morning, she woke up and repeated all the chores.
It was unbearable, she said. Her employer was meant to take her to the embassy one month after she began working, but this did not happen. Basma was miserable.
Two months after arriving in Oman, she called the embassy and explained her situation. But the embassy official made things worse by calling her employer and telling her to bring Basma to the embassy because of her complaint.
“She (employer) hang up on her (embassy official) and was furious. She said: “you came from Tanzania, you didn’t come here to sleep, rest or go to the embassy.”
Her employers then went into her room and confiscated her salary which she had been keeping in a plastic bag. She tried to stop them, but they beat her.
It was not only the back-breaking work that Basma endured in Oman. Twice, her employer’s brother-in-law tried to rape her while she was alone in the house. The first time, she said: “I was in the kitchen arranging the dishes when he tried to rape me. When he wanted to touch me, the phone rang – his sister called and that’s how I survived.” The second time she said she was ironing clothes in a room when he tried to rape her but stopped after his brother rang the doorbell.
Basma worked for almost four months, toiling daily with no end in sight. One day, as she was cleaning the top shelves of a cupboard, her employer’s son switched on the ceiling fan. One of the blades of the fan hit her head and she fell down. He walked away, leaving Basma bleeding on the ground.
She felt dizzy, but managed to get her phone and call the embassy who advised her to get into a taxi and leave. Basma fainted in the taxi and woke up in the hospital with six stiches to her head from her injury.
Basma said she attended two mediation sessions at Oman’s Ministry of Manpower. Her employer refused to let her leave unless she paid back her recruitment costs which her employer said amounted to 2,400 OMR ($6,234). Basma had no money. She produced her contract to confirm that her employer breached it, but the official said it wasn’t valid in Oman, neither did he believe her account and instead recommended to Basma’s employer to report her to the police if she refused to pay for the costs, or work for a new employer who could pay for it. Eventually, Basma decided to ask for her passport and not fight for her dues. She had to raise the money from her relatives and take a loan from an embassy staff member so she could pay off her employer, and pay for her flight ticket home.
At the time of the interview Basma, aged 21, was still paying off the loan a year later. “I don’t want to go back!”
Tragically, Basma who went to Oman to earn money for her family set her back financially. Although she has a job now with a mobile phone company, it pays little and she struggles to take care of her ailing mother and her three siblings while paying off her loan.
Basma said she wants recruitment agencies to be better regulated. That way, women who go to work far away from home can get help when their employers become abusive, and do not end up in desperate, life-threatening situations like she did and receive no help. She believes that such regulation can improve the lives of many women who have brave challenges to seek employment so that they can support their families back home in Tanzania. Until then, many women continue to leave Tanzania for the Gulf with the promise of decent working conditions and good salaries, but with little effective protections from their government.