ITUC | Facilitating Exploitation: A review of Labour Laws for Migrant Domestic Workers in Gulf Cooperation Council Countries

Despite some recent reforms, an estimated 2.1 million migrant domestic workers continue to risk severe labour exploitation in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (hereinafter “GCC”). However this estimated number is most probably far higher. Mostly women from Asia and Africa, migrant domestic workers face harsh conditions while employed in the Gulf. Often confined to the home, they are isolated and at risk of exploitation. Commonly, they are not paid, not
paid in full or not on time. The hours of work are often extreme, and some GCC countries do not set maximum hours of work in law. In those countries that regulate daily rest, workers can still be required to work up to 16 hours a day legally. Some workers are exposed to physical abuse such as beatings and sexual violence, including rape. This abuse can last for months or even years. The vast majority of migrant domestic workers are obliged to live in their employer’s home, which makes them extremely vulnerable. As a result, some African countries temporary refused refuse to allow their citizens to work in some or all GCC countries. In Asia, Indonesia imposed a GCC-wide ban in 2016.

Human Rights Watch’s 2016 report on migrant domestic workers in Oman told the story of a young Bangladeshi woman who was returned by the police to her employer after they cleared her of a false theft allegation. Her employer abused her for two days upon return. She explained, “He cut my hair and burned my feet with hot water.” In Qatar, ITUC staff interviewed an Indonesian woman in 2014 a detention centre who had fled her employer’s abuse. Her back was permanently scarred from sustained and severe beatings. The Indonesian Embassy in Doha posted a note on the door explaining that 5-10 domestic workers sought refuge there every day.

Migrant domestic workers who attempt to flee abuse by their employers very often face further victimization. Some employers file “absconding” reports or submit false claims of theft or other crimes. As a result, workers can face administrative and criminal fines, imprisonment, deportation and bans on re-entering the country. Workers also have limited access to justice mechanisms due to language barriers, lack of material resources, lack of legal assistance and the prospect of very lengthy court proceedings. Migrant domestic workers are usually not allowed to work while seeking redress and many simply give up and leave the country without obtaining justice of any kind.

As this legal and policy brief explains, this exploitation is facilitated by the legal frameworks in most GCC countries which: 1) exclude migrant domestic workers from the scope of the general labour law; and, 2) use a sponsorship system (kafala) which grants employers and the government extraordinary control over migrant workers. Despite recent reforms, these laws continue to violate international law. Most governments tout standard employment contracts as a solution to overcome weak legislation. While these contracts do contain some beneficial provisions, their use pushes regulation from the public to the private sphere and are difficult to enforce in court. In 2015, representatives from GCC labour ministries attempted to negotiate a GCC-wide standard contract but eventually abandoned the project.

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