An international human rights group has hailed a move by the UAE to transfer oversight for the recruitment of domestic workers from the interior ministry to the labour ministry as a "positive step".
Human Rights Watch said in a statement that the UAE should now include domestic workers under its labour law and introduce specific enforcement measures.
On 17 December, the Council of Ministers assigned the Human Resources and Emiratization Ministry – formerly the Labour Ministry – to oversee the recruitment and employment of domestic workers beginning in 2017.
Previously, the Interior Ministry’s General Directorate of Residency and Foreign Affairs, the immigration department, performed this role. “The employment of domestic workers will now be overseen by the same ministry that oversees all other workers in the United Arab Emirates,” said Rothna Begum, the Middle East women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“But this positive move will be largely symbolic unless the government also ensures that domestic workers have the same labour law protections as other workers.”
The Human Resources Ministry will initially process recruitment of domestic workers in Dubai in the first quarter of 2017, and then extend its processing to cover domestic workers in the rest of the country in the second quarter of 2017.
Hundreds of thousands of domestic workers from countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Ethiopia work in the UAE, the statement said.
In recent years, the Human Resources Ministry has introduced several reforms to improve protections for migrant workers, but they did not apply to domestic workers.
They include ministerial decrees that took effect in January 2016 to combat contract substitution, by requiring that employers use standard employment contracts which reflect the same terms of the employment offer, and allow workers to change employers before the end of their contracts in certain circumstances, such as when employers fail to meet legal or contractual obligations to the worker.
Human Rights Watch said currently, labour inspectors have no mandate to inspect domestic workers’ working conditions, even in response to complaints.
The UAE and other Gulf states should also ratify the International Labour Organisation’s Domestic Workers Convention, Human Rights Watch said. The treaty establishes global standards for domestic workers’ rights, and states that protections for domestic workers should be the same as for other workers.
“The Human Resources Ministry should clarify that it will receive and respond to domestic workers’ complaints,” Begum said. “Domestic workers should not remain hidden behind closed doors.”