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MIDEAST: Labour Rights Slow to Catch on for Domestic Workers

Elizabeth Whitman

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 6 2010 (IPS) - Recent revelations of domestic worker abuse may be grotesque and horrifying, but they are only the most visible aspect of the many difficulties faced by these predominantly female workers, activists say.

Reports from the Middle East include young girls being burned with hot irons and cut with scissors, or even having two dozen nails driven into their bodies. However, the entrenched social and legal context that allows such atrocious practices to take place is less obvious.

Priyanka Motaparthy, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, acknowledges that these kinds of stories seem to be most prevalent in Middle Eastern countries. “There is a significantly higher percentage of migrant domestic workers in that part of the world than there are in other parts,” she explained to IPS.

Domestic workers, most of whom hail from South Asian countries such as Sri Lanka and Indonesia, are often powerless to prevent abuses or take legal action once they’ve occurred. In addition to physical and sexual abuse, workers are often denied even basic human and labour rights.

Working over 100 hours per week without overtime, receiving few to no days of rest, and being denied full wages – or any at all – are just a few examples of how workers can be exploited, according to “Gender and Migration in Arab States”, a 2004 report published by the International Labour Organisation.

At a recent briefing at the United Nations, Nisha Varia of Human Rights Watch said that while not every domestic worker is exploited, “It should not be a matter of luck whether a domestic worker has a fair employer.”

When workers are “unlucky”, they can become trapped for a variety of reasons. “It’s the responsibility of the host government to protect workers’ rights,” Motaparthy told IPS. But “governments in the Middle East don’t have labour laws, for the most part, to protect domestic workers.” Jordan is the sole exception.

“It’s very easy to just include domestic workers under labour laws,” said Motaparthy. But governments are reluctant because they claim that “these workers require different rules, because they’re in a private home,” she added.

The fact that domestic workers often live in the homes of their employers complicates matters.

Patrick Taran, a senior migration specialist with the ILO, described the situation of domestic workers living and working in a private home as being “shielded” from recognition as legitimate employment deserving of the same conditions as other occupations.

With neither employers nor governments of host countries looking out for their well-being, domestic workers are hard- pressed to ensure that they are given basic human and labour rights. Their own governments are relatively powerless to help, since they cannot interfere with the labour practices of a foreign country.

In addition, domestic workers may not be aware of the rights to which they are entitled. The agencies that connect workers with employers do not always educate workers about the ways employers should treat them. With no knowledge and no access to a legal system that can help them, domestic workers in abusive situations have very limited options to seek help.

The 2004 ILO report offers some statistics about the grueling lives of domestic workers in four Middle Eastern countries – Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). They worked from 101 to 108 hours per week, for pay ranging from $100-$300 per month in Lebanon and $150-$200 in the UAE. None received pay for overtime work, and all had limited freedom of movement.

Despite this grim picture, there are some “promising signs”, said Varia. Along with the amendment of Jordanian labour law to include domestic workers, Saudi Arabia has also developed an SMS hotline which domestic workers can use if they can get access to a phone.

“This is an issue they are well aware of,” Motaparthy told IPS, speaking about governments of Middle Eastern countries. “We’ve been having discussions with governments across the region about this issue, and we’ve had some very positive responses,” she added.

In June 2011, the International Labour Organisation plans to adopt an international convention on domestic workers. The hope is that countries around the world will ratify it and finally undertake the process of providing domestic workers with the long-needed legal protection they are entitled to.

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