Circumstances facing Migrant women (Domestic Workers) in the Gulf
Paper presented by BCHR Vice President Nabeel Rajab to the Annual Conference of the World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations, Bangkok, 25 - 28 September 2003
Labour Law in the GCC countries fails to cover domestic workers, who constitute a large proportion of migrant Women workers. These workers face numerous violations and unfortunately there is no deterrent procedure against the breacher or a law to protect this powerless segment in society.
1 - Aspects and dimensions of the problem:
Unfortunately, the procedures of employing domestic workers, leaves the specification of tasks and its nature to the discretion of the sponsor and the circumstances surrounding the workers. The sponsoring family brings in the housemaid, who is not aware how many members of the family, she will be serving. At this point, the family will decide the role of the maid, be it a baby-sitter, cook, cleaner or car washer or all together.
The family imposes restrictions on the maid's move, place of living and break-time. Whereas the number of working hours is not defined, making her work endlessly. A housemaid will find herself receiving orders from different family members. Occasionally, they would also end up working in other locations outside the family home and normally they are not allowed to practice their religious rituals. They are deprived of the right of possessing their personnel documents, such as the passport, In accordance with the domestic and global laws.
Housemaids are mostly prone to violation and abuse by their employers, supervisors, sponsors, police and security forces, with the least ability to defend their rights, which is attributed to their humble social and economic backgrounds, and cultural discrimination. It is also due to the non-existence of a law protecting this category. Besides, they are unaware of their rights and means of seeking legal assistance, whom to contact, even meet with its fellow citizens or with representatives of their embassy (if there is an embassy in the host country).
Most of these women, sell all their houses and their belongings just to travel to earn their living but they end up paying the recruiting agents, travel expenses, residence permit or accumulative fines for documents not being renewed.
Once the migrant woman arrives in the host country, the series of violations begins. Sponsors introduce changes in the work contract, if there is any. The contract which was previously signed at the embassy is eliminated, leaving the door open for unlimited violation. This Women labour force is treated as a commercial commodity by some sponsors or recruiting agencies. The domestic worker might be sold, transferred, hired or forced to commit adultery, or forced into a mistress of the sponsor who may not consider her circumstances, and her opinion is not taken into consideration.
There is hardly a serious investigation into claims of Women domestic worker to the state bodies. When she resorts to the police, normally she is returned to the employer and his continued violations and harassment. This led to loss of confidence of this migrant Women worker segment in state bodies, which includes police and others.
Unfortunately, the institutions of civil society, in general and women associations in particular, have assumed a negative role in defending female worker, merely because they are non-Citizens.
2 - Proposals and solutions:
Firstly, society must develop a culture, to see the domestic worker of no less value than other family members. There is a need for a change in concepts, which look upon domestic workers as slaves.A working contract is necessity, and before arriving in the region. It should clearly define rights and duties of all parties, especially migrant women and they should be aware of the living and working conditions, the number of the family members that they will work for, working hours, days off and break-time and to be jointly signed by the sponsor, the worker, the embassy, the recruiting agency and the Ministry of Labour. Any modifications in the contract should be agreed by all parties or considered a crime, punishable by law. In Bahrain, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) put forward a proposal for the Government to adopt the contract adopted in Jordan in collaboration with the UNIFEM.
Migrant Women Workers should be visited by inspectors representing the various state institutions, not only to check upon the interests of the sponsor alone, but also to detect violations committed by him or member of his family and there should be a regulatory body and supervisory mechanism that ensures these women receives all payments and entitlements before departure and impose effective sanctions on persons, groups or entities which use violence, threats or intimidation against migrant women.
It should be seen that these workers are not forced to pay travel expenses, residence permit or accumulative fines for documents not being renewed, because it is the sole responsibility of the sponsor.
There should be a law that includes the domestic workers and specifies their minimum wage. Compulsory insurance should be applied, to ensure that the worker is compensated in case of accident, along with the provision of regular medical care.
It is also important to have labour attachés offices to be concerned with labour cases at embassies of exporting countries to foster cooperation and coordination with government and non-government organizations establishments in labour recipient states, to solve the problems of their fellow citizens.
Complaints of harassment by these women should be seriously taken by the government, without negligence. The recruiting offices must be monitored to make sure they comply humanitarian criteria and standards, license must be withdrawn if violation against these powerless workers is proven. There must be a shelter for these harassed women, when needed, which should provides services of translation, medical check-up, as well as legal support.
It is urgently required to join the international convention on the protection of the rights of all migrant workers and members of their families, which has been enforced as from first of July 2003. This treaty provides clear-cut global standards for the safeguarding of these workers, in countries of origin, transit, and destination. It is essential to incorporate the role of specialized Human Rights and women organizations to protect the rights of migrant workers, through out all stages, as advisors and observers. (Such as the Migrant Workers Group established by the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights).