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LABOUR-UAE: New System Offers Legal Cover for Domestic Workers

Meena Janardhan

DUBAI, Jun 15 2004 (IPS) - Foreign domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates do not often get to speak up for themselves, but a new system that authorities are putting in place might just give them that room – as well as a legal weapon against abusive bosses.

These days, UAE authorities are preparing to implement a new prerequisite for immigration and employment – by requiring legal contracts between employers and agencies on one hand and domestic workers on the other.

Most of the foreign domestic workers in the UAE are women from countries like the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Pakistan and Ethiopia.

There are about 450,000 families in the UAE – of these, around 150,000 local families employ around 250,000 to 350,000 domestic workers. About half of the estimated 300,000 expatriate families have domestic help.

It is not unusual to find domestic workers that do not have contracts, so this change, implementation of which is being awaited after its announcement in April, is welcome, said an official at the Indian embassy.

”The domestic worker segment – especially housemaids – are the most abused as they are uneducated and are willing to work under any circumstances because of obligations and commitments. They are also afraid to raise their voices as they worry about the consequences,” the official told IPS.

Take the case of Arlyn, an Indonesian who worked for an Arab family in Fujairah, one of the seven emirates in the UAE. She is in Dubai, seeking help from her association, to get back her passport from her sponsor and go home. ”I just ran away,” she said, ”I could not take it any more.”

Hardly 19, a frail-looking Arlyn said she was forced to work nearly 16 to 18 hours a day – washing, ironing, cooking and taking the six children to school with her back bent under their bags as they walked ahead, hands swinging.

”I was willing to put up with anything as I had to send money home to my ailing parents, but one day the lady beat me up for daring to reprimand one of the children for unruly behaviour. The next day, she hit me again for another insignificant reason. I then decided I had enough,” Arlyn added.

”I was happy to read in the paper that soon rules will be in place to help abused housemaids like me. It is very essential,” she said in an interview.

Nearly 20 percent of migrant domestic workers in the UAE suffer from abuse at their employers’ hands, according to academics at an April seminar on ‘Migrant Domestic Workers and Media Discourse: Presence in Absenteeism’, here.

Brig Hadher Khalaf Al Muhairi, head of the general directorate of naturalisation and residency, has said that the legal contract system would now regulate the relationship between domestic workers, their recruitment agencies and employers.

He said there would be two contracts, one between the recruitment agency and the employer and another between the employer and the domestic worker. ”These will streamline the relationship between housemaids and their employers as well as the relationship between employers and the recruitment agencies,” his statement said.

“Previously, employers or recruitment agencies have abused some housemaids and vice versa. Now there is a clear contract that will outline the responsibilities of each party,” it added.

But how far contracts can go in plugging other loopholes that officials see in the migration system remain unclear.

For instance, officials are looking to clamp down on situations like that of Leela, a domestic worker from Sri Lanka who resorted to finding a sponsor to bring her back to the UAE – but who she then pays to keep renewing her visa.

Leela, who first came to the UAE a decade ago, used this way of returning to the country so that she could earn better money and work for different households. ”Today I pay my sponsor 5,000 dirhams (about 1,400 U.S. dollars) every two years to keep renewing my visa. He then sends me to different houses to work and earn that money. This is a private arrangement.”

For her, this is better than her previous work with a Saudi national in Sharjah.

”He had 14 children and I was the only domestic worker in the house. My day would start at 5 a.m. and end at 1 p.m,” she said in an interview. ”All day I would be cleaning the massive villa, watering the garden, washing clothes and cooking utensils and looking after the needs of all the children.”

“I would hardly get any time for rest or even food,” she recalled.

Now, officials are looking to impose fines to stop this system. Nationals and expatriates caught lending or ‘borrowing’ domestic workers will be fined 50,000 dirhams (about 14,000 dollars). In addition, violators will not be allowed to sponsor any domestic worker to come here again.

This measure seeks to discourage expatriates who in the past ‘borrowed’ domestic workers from UAE nationals in order to avoid paying hefty fees to the government for bringing in foreign domestic workers.

Expatriates have to pay a non-refundable deposit of about 5,000 dirhams (1,400 dollars) per year to the Naturalisation and Residency Department to bring in foreign domestic help.

But experts say the best protection is a system that allows foreign domestic workers to assert their rights – and that brings into question issues that go beyond local contracts to the legal status of these workers in the first place.

It does not help, according to the experts that met in the April seminar, that the legal status of domestic workers in the UAE is considered different from that of usual labourers.

“Legally, domestic work in the Gulf region falls under the private servant concept, in which a worker is considered under the full private realm of the family,” said Dr Rima Sabban, a UAE- based sociologist.

”Under such a regulation, the sponsor becomes the person responsible for the servant for every single detail of life and the servant is considered as an essential member of the family,” Sabban added. But often, such is not the case. ”When my seven-year-old daughter thanked a Sri Lankan worker for the services he had rendered her, the worker was taken aback. When I asked him the reason, he said in that in his 16 years’ service in the Middle East, no one had ever thanked him before,” an Arab journalist from Saudi Arabia told IPS.

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