The Middle East depends heavily on domestic workers but trails other regions in adopting critical reforms to protect their rights, according to a new report.
The International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and Human Rights Watch have released a report assessing progress since the 2011 adoption of the Domestic Workers Convention, a groundbreaking treaty to entitle domestic workers to the same basic rights as other workers.
It said domestic workers in the Middle East – many of them migrants from Asia and Africa – experience a wide range of abuses, including unpaid wages, restrictions on leaving the households where they work, and excessive work hours with no rest days.
It added that some may face psychological, physical, or sexual abuse and can get trapped in situations of forced labor, including by being trafficked.
“Even though the Middle East and North Africa are home to some of the worst abuses against domestic workers, the pace of legal reforms in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, and Lebanon has dragged on for years with little to show,” said Nisha Varia, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“And even the proposed reforms fall short of international standards and the comprehensive protections other countries are implementing.”
The 33-page report said more than 25 countries have improved legal protections for domestic workers in the past two years, with many of the strongest reforms in Latin America.
Most countries in the Middle East, however, still entirely exclude domestic workers from their labour laws. Not one has ratified the treaty, a statement said.
“The momentum of ratifications and improved laws in Latin American nations and a number of other countries show that governments are capable of protecting domestic workers,” said Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the ITUC.
“Governments that have lagged – particularly in Asia and the Middle East – need to act without delay.”
There are an estimated 53 million domestic workers worldwide – the majority of them women and girls, and many of them migrants.
According to the International Labour Organisation, almost 30 percent of the world’s domestic workers are employed in countries where they are completely excluded from national labour laws, including requirements for weekly rest days, limits to hours of work, minimum wage coverage, and overtime pay.
Under the new convention, domestic workers are entitled to the same basic rights as those available to other workers.
Ten countries have ratified the Domestic Workers Convention: Uruguay, Philippines, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Italy, Bolivia, Paraguay, South Africa, Guyana, and Germany. Several more are completing the process.
The report said almost every country in the Middle East and North Africa region excludes domestic workers from the protection of labour laws, though, and subjects them to restrictive immigration rules, granting inordinate power and control to their employers under the “sponsorship” or kafala system.
"Several countries have worked toward reform of their laws and practices. But serious deficiencies remain, mostly because they have failed to recognize domestic workers as regular workers with a right to days off, limits to hours of work, or the right to form unions," the report added.
Jordan was one of the first countries in the region to include domestic workers in its labour law, in 2008. It passed new regulations in 2012 that limit the number of daily working hours for domestic workers to eight, and stipulate that workers are not required to seek permission from employers to leave their homes during non-work hours.
Enforcement of these legal protections for migrant workers remains lax, however, and workers are denied the right to change employers freely, even after their contract period ends.
The report said Bahrain’s 2012 overhaul of its labour law expanded some protections to domestic workers, such as annual vacations, and codified others, including access to labor dispute mediations. However, it added that it failed to address exclusions from basic protections such as limits to hours of work, weekly rest days, and a minimum wage.
In 2012, the UAE proposed a draft law for domestic workers but has not made it public. Media reports said that it includes positive reforms, such as guaranteeing a weekly day off, but also problematic provisions, including harsh criminal sentences for those who “encourage” a domestic worker to quit her job or offer her shelter.
Saudi Arabia’s Council of Ministers approved regulations on domestic work for the first time in July. The new law guarantees domestic workers nine hours of rest daily, one day off a week, and a one-month paid vacation after two years.
But it also allows for domestic workers to be fired or penalised if they do not respect Islam or the kingdom’s rules and regulations, and denies workers the ability to turn down any work without a “legitimate” reason, the report said.
The report notes that members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have been developing a region-wide contract for domestic workers that would improve existing protections in some of the countries. However, a contract is not an adequate substitute for including domestic workers in national labour laws with clear enforcement mechanisms.
“Even though domestic workers provide critical services that families depend on – cooking, cleaning, and child care – we have faced discrimination and marginalization for generations,” said Myrtle Witbooi, chair of the International Domestic Workers Network. “That should end.”
Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia's rights record came under fire at the United Nations, with critics accusing the kingdom of jailing activists without due process and abusing the basic rights of Saudi women and foreign workers.
At the UN Human Rights Council, Britain called for abolition of the Saudi system of male guardianship for women and was joined by the United States in raising cases of forced labour imposed on migrant workers.
The US delegation also voiced concern at Saudi restrictions on freedoms of religion and of association, while Germany called for a moratorium on its use of the death penalty.