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Abuse of Domestic Workers Scourge of Affluent Gulf Residents

State media covers legal proceedings, seeking exposure of problem

Criminal cases are increasingly being brought against Gulf employers who abuse their domestic workers, notably with state directed media covering the proceedings.

Recent headlines include the conviction of an Emirati who was found guilty of beating her Bangladeshi housemaid to death and a Palestinian couple in Abu Dhabi who were handed capital sentences last week after a court ruled they killed their cleaning woman and then tried to cover up the crime by burning her body with acid.

“Neighbors had gotten used to hearing the defendant yelling at the maid; and screaming in pain from the house [exposing] regular torture,” said Dubai prosecutor Khaled Al-Junaib, who brought the first case to trial.

In response to complaints from the countries that supply the labor to the Gulf States, governments in the region have embarked on varying degrees of regulatory reform.

In June, Kuwait’s parliament passed a new law granting the country’s estimated 600,000 foreign maids, household cooks, nannies, gardeners and drivers a weekly day off, 30 days of annual paid leave, and defining a 12-hour working day with rest.

“All the Gulf States have similar abuses and exploitation of domestic workers but Kuwait’s parliament has taken a major step forward by providing domestic workers with enforceable labor rights for the first time,” said Rothna Begum, Middle East women’s issues researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“Our research indicates that some abuses are widespread and common such as passport confiscation. Women who said they had good employers, and good working conditions and even allowed a day off would say their employers confiscated their passport,” Begum told The Media Line.

Migrant domestic workers are often stuck in abusive households because of the region’s “kafala” visa sponsorship system which prohibits them from changing jobs without their employers’ consent.

In November, the United Arab Emirates passed a new law to protect migrant labor, but excluded domestics from provisions which increased penalties for withholding wages and regulated working hours.

HRW is calling on the Emirates to amend its laws to align with the International Labor Organization convention on domestic workers.

In January, the Ugandan government banned its citizens from taking jobs as domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, claiming they are often abused by their employers. This, just six months after Saudi Arabia and Uganda signed a memorandum of understanding that enabled Ugandan domestic workers to seek employment in the kingdom at all.

Uganda had hoped it could benefit from some of the estimated $9 billion in remittances the 1.5 million expatriate domestics in Saudi Arabia send back yearly to their home countries.

The degree of worker dissatisfaction in Saudi households surfaced during a recent session of the kingdom’s Shurra [Consultative] Council when Representative Awadh Al-Asmary alleged that, “a total of 530,000 domestic workers ran away from their workplace last year.”

Abdullah Ahmed Al-Maghlouth told the council that run away maids were creating economic hardships for their Saudi employers.

“The cost for recruitment of a housemaid ranges from $5,327 to $6,659 and it goes up during the holy month of Ramadan,” Al-Maghlouth lamented.

Qatar, which has made some labor reforms as it comes under increased international scrutiny with its preparation to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, has yet to extend new wage and contract protections to domestic workers.

The International Labor Organization says that at over sixty hours weekly, domestics in Qatar clock more time on the job than those in any other country and the findings are replicated in a recent Amnesty International study entitled, “My sleep is my break.”

Ray Jureidini, Professor of Ethics and Migration at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha, told The Media Line that most violence against domestics in Middle Eastern households is perpetrated by women.

“Yes, the sexual violence is largely committed by men, but well over 75 percent of the abuse in the domestic employment sphere is done by the madame in charge of the home. While it’s tempting to blame patriarchal cultures and to say that violence is transferred from husbands to wives and then from the wife to the servant, my research doesn’t support that theory.”

“I think the root cause is the tense live-in psychological dynamics of the family, with the worker being subjected to the various types of problems in the home and ultimately being privy to its secrets,” said Jureidini.