Domestic Workers: ‘Bought and Paid for in the Gulf States’

Domestic Workers: ‘Bought and Paid for in the Gulf States’

On a trip to Kuwait two years ago, Nisha Varia from Human Rights Watch visited a hospital where two rooms were filled with injured domestic workers who had tried to escape from their employers’ homes. Trapped in abusive situations, the women jumped from windows or were beaten by employers as they sought to leave.

The experience for domestic workers in Middle Eastern Gulf states, and in many countries around the world, has not significantly improved since then, said Varia and others at a recent panel in Washington, D.C., “Migrant Workers in the Gulf States: Transnational Policy Responses to Protect Labor Rights.”

In the Gulf, “employers feel they have bought domestic workers because they paid the recruitment fee,” Varia said. The situation is exacerbated in Gulf countries by the kefala system, which ties employment of foreign workers to their employers, and makes it illegal for workers to get another job in the country. Employers also typically take the passports of domestic workers, who toil unseen from the public and are especially vulnerable to abuse.

June 16, International Domestic Workers Day, marks the fourth anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Convention 189 on Domestic Workers, a landmark standard championed by unions, civil society groups and human rights organizations worldwide. Its passage signaled the global community’s recognition that the 53 million workers who labor in households, often in isolation and at risk of exploitation and abuse, deserve full protection of labor laws.

The historic action indicated the recognition that domestic workers, 83 percent of whom are women, perform work—and that entails rights equal to all other wage earners. Eighteen countries have ratified the Convention since its passage. (ILO resources for and information on domestic workers here.)

The panel, which encompassed broader issues of labor migration, highlighted the overlap between domestic workers and migrant workers. The Solidarity Center works with domestic workers in countries such as Dominican Republic, where most domestic workers are from Haiti and in Jordan, where domestic workers have migrated for work from the Philippines, Malaysia and other countries.

In Jordan, the Solidarity Center is assisting domestic workers build support for their rights on the job. In a first-of-its-kind network, some 250 domestic workers meet regularly, with translation conducted simultaneously in three, or sometimes four, languages. The Domestic Workers Network in Jordan is cooperating with the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), which formed to help push the ILO Domestic Workers convention and which now represents workers around the world.

Panel participants pointed to the common experiences of those who migrate for jobs, especially domestic workers. After they arrive in the destination country, their cell phones often are confiscated and contact with their families is limited. They are completely excluded from the country’s labor laws, typically do not get any days off and generally do not receive the wage they were promised.

Varia likened the experience of migrant domestic workers to abusive domestic violence situations in which employers exert power by withholding food from domestic workers and force them to sleep on the floor or in closet-like spaces.

In their studies, panelists found that when migrant workers understand their rights before they migrate, they are more likely to leave abusive situations quickly, indicating the value of programs that educate domestic workers and other potential migrants in their home countries.

A better solution, they agreed, is the availability of employment at home.

“If people could find good jobs, they wouldn’t migrate,” Varia said.

Other panelists included: Mahendra Pandey, a former migrant worker; Sarah Paoletti, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Transnational Legal Clinic; and Eleanor Taylor-Nicholson, an independent consultant on migrant worker rights. Shannon Lederer AFL-CIO director of immigration policy, moderated the panel, sponsored by the AFL-CIO and Solidarity Center.

Forced Labor: Panel Spotlights Migrant Worker Plight in Mideast

HRW's Sarah Leah Whitson, Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau, James Suzano of ADHRB and James Lynch at Amnesty International spoke at a Capitol Hill Briefing on migrant workers. Credit: Kate Conradt/Solidarity Center

HRW’s Sarah Leah Whitson, Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau, James Suzano of ADHRB and James Lynch at Amnesty International spoke at a Capitol Hill Briefing on migrant workers. Credit: Kate Conradt/Solidarity Center

Migrant workers to the Arabian Gulf states are rarely covered by labor law and generally denied the ability to exercise fundamental human rights, including freedom of association, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, said panelists at a standing-room-only Capitol Hill briefing Tuesday.

Migrant workers to countries such as Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar endure a “triangle of oppression,” in which they pay steep fees to get a job, generally have their passports taken by employers once they arrive in country and then find they have no legal protection or recourse when they are abused, said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director for the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.

Whitson, who described the migrant worker experience as “akin to indentured servitude,” was one of four panelists at a Capitol Hill briefing this week, “Modern Day Slavery: Combating Migrant Labor Abuses and Ending Human Trafficking in the Gulf.”

Sponsored by the Solidarity Center and the Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), the panel was moderated by Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau, who noted the importance of shining “a light on migrant exploitation in the Gulf as part of the broader global fight against human trafficking and forced labor.” Other panelists were James Suzano, ADHRB legal officer, and James Lynch, researcher at Amnesty International London.

The panel was the second of two Capitol Hill events on July 8 highlighting the plight of the 90 million migrants who cross borders every year to work. In the Middle East, some 18.6 million migrant workers toil at jobs such as construction and domestic work.

Panelists repeatedly pointed to the brutality of the employer sponsorship system in Gulf countries “which emboldens employers to mistreat workers,” said Suzano. Known as kafala, the system requires foreign workers to have an employer sponsor, prevents workers from changing jobs without employer approval or judicial authorization, and deports workers who seek new employment or flee abusive conditions. Although most Gulf countries recently have enacted laws to address the abuses inherent in kafala, panelists noted that these laws are not enforced.

Further, said Lynch, it is impossible to “understand the vested interests” that perpetuate employer sponsorship programs in Gulf countries and around the world. Employers benefit from a captive workforce who cannot negotiate for better pay and working conditions—or report abuse to authorities. And often, corruption in governments may mean officials are working with labor recruiters.

Middle Eastern governments refuse to grant citizenship to migrants who have made the country their home for many years, denying them fundamental rights such as the freedom to join unions, bargain collectively and strike, several panelists said. In most Gulf countries, migrant workers comprise the vast majority of the working population, toiling particularly in difficult jobs such as construction and domestic service, yet are not even guaranteed a minimum wage.

As elsewhere around the world, migrants in the region are trafficked for what often turns out to be forced labor. “Human trafficking is much more prevalent than sex trafficking and it needs to be more comprehensively addressed,” said Suzano.

“Ultimately, said Bader-Blau, “the problem of human trafficking in the Gulf is a problem of migrant worker exploitation, and that is a problem of global governance of migration and a problem fundamentally of worker rights and human rights.

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