Updated: Oct 9, 2022
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has failed to protect female migrant domestic workers from beatings, hunger, overwork, underpayment and forced labour, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday, urging authorities in the Gulf State to end the traditional kafala visa sponsorship system, which perpetuates much of the exploitation.
In a new report, HRW said the kafala system, which decrees that a domestic worker cannot move to a new job before their contract ends without the employer’s consent, trapped many women in abusive conditions. There are at least 146,000 migrant domestic workers in the UAE, most of them from Asia and Africa.
“The UAE’s sponsorship system chains domestic workers to their employers and then leaves them isolated and at risk of abuse behind the closed doors of private homes,” said Rothna Begum, Middle East women’s rights researcher at HRW. “With no labor law protection for domestic workers, employers can, and many do, overwork, underpay and abuse these women.”
The report’s authors interviewed 99 women working in the oil-rich nation, which is among the wealthiest states in the world. Some of the women were forced to work up to 21 hours a day, some were not allowed to leave the house, and some were denied sufficient food. Others were beaten. Almost all had their passports taken away.
“The work wasn’t what I expected it to be. It was totally different. I would wake up to start cooking, then cleaning, washing clothes, and then cooking again. No rest, there was just no rest … Because she kept yelling, I cried and asked to go back to agency, but Madam said: ‘I already bought you,’” a 23-year-old Indonesian said.
“My boss started hitting me after two weeks of being there,” another worker from Indonesia said. “She hit me with her fist to my chest. She scraped her fingernails on my neck, and slapped my face. I was bruised on my neck. She sometimes pulled out tufts of my hair.” The worker said she remained there, hoping to be paid, but never was. HRW said some of the abuse amounted to forced labor or trafficking.
Begum said other nations needed to do more to put pressure on the UAE, which has just taken a seat on the governing board of the International Labor Organisation (ILO), to act on the abuse of migrant workers. The UAE will participate in an ILO session, starting on 30 October, that will focus on a range of labor issues, including forced labor.
“States should call on the UAE to reform the kafala system and institute labor law protection in line with international standards as a matter of urgency,” Begum said.
HRW said it had sent letters to 15 UAE ministries and bodies in January, April and August to seek information and present its findings, but it had received no response.
In June, the UAE revised the standard domestic worker’s contract to require a weekly day off and eight hours of rest in any 24-hour period. But HRW said the contract did not address other issues, such as limits on working hours, and was weaker than labor law protection for other workers.
There are approximately 7.3 million migrant workers across all industries in the UAE.
An unpublished draft law on domestic workers has been pending since 2012 but, according to media reports, its contents would still fall short of the protection afforded to other workers.
“A lack of political will may leave the law suspended for even longer,” Begum said. “Pressure from the international community, including labor-sending countries, and the UAE’s allies, such as the UK, the US and regional bodies such as the EU, would help to push the authorities to enact the law in line with international standards,” Begum said.
The authorities lacked the political will to give domestic workers the same rights as other migrant workers because their work was devalued, she added. For example, reforms to the kafala system allowed other migrant workers to transfer to a different employer in the event of a breach of contractual obligations.
While some employers have been prosecuted for murder or extreme physical abuse, migrant workers face many legal and practical obstacles if they decide to take action. Sometimes, they could face charges of “absconding”, an administrative offence, for leaving their employers without consent before the end of their contracts. Employers have also be known to file trumped-up charges of theft against workers who have fled.
There have been some efforts to educate employers in the UAE, but Begum said they were misguided.
“The Abu Dhabi judicial department, through statements and television adverts, has warned employers that if they don’t treat their workers well they may harm them or their children, and commit crimes such as theft or sorcery. This simply feeds into negative stereotypes of workers and can catalyze mistreatment of workers by their employers.”
HRW said the workers’ countries of origin also did not protect them against deceitful recruitment practices, or provide enough assistance to those women who tried to escape from their abusive employers. Some countries have imposed temporary bans on migration to the UAE for domestic work, while others, such as the Philippines, insist on minimum salaries and conditions from employers and recruitment agencies. However, such measures are sometimes temporary.
“Where some countries stop their domestic workers from migrating to the UAE, other countries fill the gap, in a race to the bottom that jeopardizes workers,” Begum said.