Abuse Unchecked: Migrant Domestic Workers in the Middle East

It’s been awhile so here’s a random piece that doesn’t correlate with anything else that’s been posted on this page. Thank you for coming to my TED talk-ish

For impoverished and unskilled individuals looking for employment, overseas work as a domestic worker is often a means of not only bettering their own situation, but also the living conditions of their family in their home country. Despite the risks that come with finding work overseas, migrants continue to flock to places such as the Middle East where wages are higher than they are in migrants’ home countries. Unfortunately, these jobs sometimes end tragically. As recently as February 2018, the battered body of a Filipina maid was discovered in a freezer in Kuwait, more than a year after she had been murdered (Wang and Murphy, par. 5). As labor laws continue to be passed and extended to previously unprotected domestic workers, employees in this sector may feel more secure in their positions. However, without legal enforcement, labor inspections, or laws that express the specific rights of the domestic worker, these reforms are far too weak and require international pressure from individuals around the world in order to make these legal backings a reality.

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World Map Courtesy Wikipedia

 International pressure and a potential loss of social and monetary benefits acts as prompts for governments to rethink labor reforms. In 2017, Qatar came under intense international scrutiny following reports of human rights violations and deaths among migrant construction laborers who were working on the 2022 Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) stadiums. With people around the globe monitoring whether FIFA would take a stand for human rights, Qatar moved quickly to pass labor reforms. These reforms resulted in extended rights to domestic workers as well. For domestic workers, these new rights meant a limit on the number of hours worked in a day, as well as provisions for allotted time off. For instance, instead of the 100-hour work weeks that were too common among some domestic workers (“Qatar Passes Law,” par. 10), the new law required that they work at the very most, a ten-hour workday. In Qatar alone, the need for labor reforms had been demonstrated as “Hundreds of Filipino domestic workers…sought sanctuary at their embassy” due to the severity of work (“Qatar Passes Law,” par. 11). Governments have been working towards reforms that not only benefit the domestic worker, but also attempt to recover marred national reputations following “increasing outcry in the media and from civil society” (Varia 267). As more stories hit international headlines, nations run the risk of losing face and, consequently, losing support from other nations or organizations that are taking an ethical stand against the violations.

            Although labor reforms are a step in the right direction and sign of progress, without enforcement they serve little purpose. As Jennifer Hainsfurther observes “States are…less likely to monitor private employers” (853). A better approach would be to implement legal enforcement of the law and periodic monitoring of the domestic worker’s situation through labor inspections. Despite the passing of the labor laws, reports of “beatings, confiscation of passports, confinement to the home, overlong working hours with no days off, and… months or years of unpaid wages” (“Domestic Workers,” par. 6) persist among domestic workers. Without proper monitoring, migrant domestic workers slip through the cracks and are left defenseless against abusive employers. For instance, over two million Filipinos are employed abroad as domestic workers and “more than 90 per cent of all the problems involving Filipino migrant workers in [the] Middle East concern household service workers” (Torres, par. 12). Human Rights Watch recommended familiarizing domestic workers and employers with the laws through orientations and “improving the capacity and training of labor inspectors to monitor both employers and recruitment agencies” to help ensure laws are followed (Murray 480). This would help ensure domestic workers are aware of their rights in foreign countries while also allowing them access to a well-trained inspector to turn to in times of trouble.

            The passing of labor reforms in the Middle East has earned the praise of advocates, however, rather than protect, these reforms can be distorted and open employees up to abuse. In 2008, Jordan extended labor laws to domestic worker, but still allowed employers to maintain control over their employees. For instance, while requiring domestic workers to have a day off in the week, the employee is still obligated to “obtain the consent of their employer to leave the workplace on their day off” (Varia 274). In another example of poor regulation despite reforms, even if a domestic worker has a valid residency permit, if their employer decides to register them as “escaped,” law enforcement can detain the employee (“Jordan,” par. 8). Kuwait also passed a law in 2015 that extended rights to domestic workers but failed in important areas. The law covers things such as a limit of how many hours that are to be worked in a day, how much time off the employee is entitled to in a week, as well as annual paid leave. However, while it seeks to correct the common practice of confiscating the employee’s passport, it does not “specify penalties” (“Kuwait,” par. 6). The law, although a sign of progress, still falls short of Kuwait’s general labor law for other job sectors which provides many more specifics and requires significantly less hours worked in a week. Ultimately, domestic workers are still being discriminated against and are being left open to exploitation.

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POEA Courtesy Wikipedia

In other ways, the local systems set domestic workers up for abuse. Kafala, the system utilized in Kuwait and in numerous Middle Eastern nations, opens domestic workers up to exploitation due to its very nature. Under this system, the employer sponsors the domestic worker and is responsible for them while the domestic is working in the host country. The employee is not allowed to seek other employment and is bound to their employer through a contract. In some nations, the employer is fined if the migrant domestic worker runs away. For instance, in the United Arab Emirates, “the sponsor loses the money paid for hiring and bringing the maid here – the total costs could go beyond Dh15,000” (“Just in Case,” par. 6). In this way, domestic workers become easy targets for abuse as employers confiscate passports and isolate them in the home to ensure they do not leave.

From those who are not in favor of labor inspection, comes the argument of privacy. This point of view claims workplace inspections invade the privacy of the sponsor. However, since the home becomes a workplace through the employment of a domestic worker, “the employer has consented to give up some privacy rights” (Kawar 22). Labor inspections should therefore be implemented as they can better serve individuals, whether they are the employee or the employer. For example, in South Africa, labor inspectors work to educate both parties about labor laws and about their rights. The labor inspector can also enter the workplace (i.e. home) “without notice and warrant, to inspect and question a person about matters related to labour law and performed work and to require a person to disclose information related to labour law” (Sjöberg 30) while also correcting any noncompliant behavior that may have occurred. In the event of non-compliance, the inspector may issue a compliance order and follow up at a later time to ensure that the employer is conforming to labor laws. In the event, that the employer still fails to correct a situation, the issue is graduated up the legal chain. This system results in better enforcement of labor laws in households, especially when there are potential legal repercussions for the employer to consider.

With regard to the nature of the work, employers often expect the employee to be available to accommodate their every need. It is argued how the nature of the work requires constant attention from the domestic worker and cannot be regulated in the same way other jobs may be as far as workloads and work hours are concerned. This simply is not true. Even in emergency situations, Nisha Varia writes, individuals “are not required to be on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, but they instead work in shifts” (277). If employers were to also view it from another standpoint, they would realize that overworking a domestic worker can lead to reduced productivity. Furthermore, poor work performance could result in possible injury and illness due to worker’s fatigue (“Long Work Hours,” par. 5). This can increase expenses for the employers since they invest so much money in sponsoring migrants in their employ.

International pressure and outcry has prodded the Middle East into a better direction when it comes to the rights of migrant domestic workers. It is arguably one of the more effective tools that can be utilized by anyone. As we have seen, labor reforms still have a long way to go, namely in working to enforce what has already been passed as law. Further pressure from different organizations and nations can make a bigger impact in this area, especially when there is something for labor-receiving nations to lose. Basic human rights should not be a privilege, but a given.

References: “Qatar Passes Law to Protect Employment Rights of Domestic Workers.” The Guardian. 23 Aug. 2017; “Just in Case Your Maid Runs Away.” Gulf News General. 5 May 2007; Hainsfurther, Jennifer S. “A Rights-Based Approach: Using CEDAW to Protect the Human Rights of Migrant Workers.” American University International Law Review, vol. 24, no.5, Aug. 2009, pp. 843-895. EBSCOhost; “Domestic Workers Convention: Labor Rights Treaty to Take Effect.” Human Rights Watch. 12 Aug. 2012; “Jordan: Domestic Worker Protections Ineffective.” Human Rights Watch. 27 Sept. 2017;“Kuwait: New Law a Breakthrough for Domestic Workers.” Human Rights Watch. 30 June 2015; Kawar, Leila. “Making the Machine Work: Technocratic Engineering of Rights for Domestic Workers at the International Labour Organization.” Indiana Journal of Global Legal   Studies, vol. 21, no. 2, Summer 2014, pp. 483-511. EBSCOhost, doi:10.2979/indjglolegstu.21.2.483; Murray, Heather E. “Hope for Reform Springs Eternal: How the Sponsorship System, Domestic Laws and Traditional Customs Fail to Protect Migrant Domestic Workers in GCC Countries,” Cornell International Law Journal: Vol. 45: Iss. 2, Article 5. Spring 2012; United States, Department of Labor. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.“Long Work Hours, Extended or Irregular Shifts, and Worker Fatigue.”; Sjöberg, Ellen. “Enforcement of Laws Regulating Domestic Work: A Case Study of South Africa.” Faculty of Law Lund University. Spring 2011; Torres, Estrella. “What Will it Take to Protect Filipino Domestic Workers from Abuse and Exploitation in the Middle East?” Equal Times. 15 June 2017; Varia, Nisha. “’Sweeping Changes?’ A Review of Recent Reforms on Protections for Migrant     Domestic Workers in Asia and the Middle East.” Canadian Journal of Women & the Law, vol. 23, no. 1, June 2011, pp. 265-287. EBSCOhost; Wang, Amy B., and Brian Murphy. “A maid found dead in a freezer sets off a diplomatic clash between Philippines, Kuwait.” The Washington Post, 3 Apr. 2018. Opposing Viewpoints in Context,