The Plight of Foreign Domestic Workers in the Middle East

   Photo  BY Jared Rodriguez.  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 Photo BY Jared Rodriguez. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

At last, a breakthrough for foreign domestic workers in the Middle East with the passage of Kuwait’s Household Employment Act providing unprecedented legal rights and protections.This initiative taken by Kuwait’s National assembly marks a significant shift from the common disregard of domestic work in the Middle East as a private matter of the home to a recognizable form of labor in need of protection under the law. 

The drafted legislation approved by the National Assembly in a parliamentary hearing on June 24, 2015 affords workers with the right to a weekly day-off, 12-hour workdays and 30-days of annual paid leave. The law also established a legal age-range for employment of domestic workers, making it illegal to hire employees that do not fall within the 20 to 50-age range. In addition, the legislation sets up a direct monitoring system in the form of transfer receipts that prevents employers from withholding wages from their workers. According to migrant-rights.org, over 14,000 migrant workers in Kuwait issued complaints about unpaid wages and withholding of benefits.

The National Assembly passed corresponding legislation to create a shareholding company to regulate recruitment of foreign workers and replace the private recruitment offices that have long been criticized for alleged abuses. To many, these working conditions set forward by Kuwait only seem standard and expected, but to domestic workers in the region that have been completely excluded from national labor laws, it is a huge step forward. 

The law, however, falls short in providing strict enforcement mechanisms. First, it lacks the establishment of easily accessible avenues for workers to report abuses. The main contact for workers to make complaints remains the recruitment agencies that in many cases are the first exposure to abuse and exploitation that migrant workers encounter. Second although the law makes it illegal for employers to confiscate passports without the consent of the worker, it does not present a penalty for this violation. This creates further obstacles for workers that want to leave their employers and seek help when abuses occur. Lastly, the law preserves the current Kafala sponsorship system that has largely been criticized by human rights organizations.

The Concern Behind the Kafala Sponsorship System

Women from low-income communities in South East Asia and Africa migrate to seek employment in domestic work abroad, in hopes of improving life for their families back home. According to the International Labor Organization, there are over 53 million domestic workers worldwide, but the existence of these jobs is specifically prevalent in the Arab states of the Middle East. Unfortunately for these women, domestic work in the Middle East is undervalued and invisible. There is a widespread culture of domestic worker exploitation, which has resulted in lack of acknowledgment of these workers by any sort of legal measures or local authorities. Emotional, physical and sexual abuse of domestic workers remains a common occurrence in the region and in many cases, complaints of these abuses by workers have been met with even harsher punishments. These incidents are rarely ever reported in local news channels simply because society at large does not see them as significant.

Migrant workers are recruited to Arab states through a sponsorship system known as the Kafala system that requires workers to be sponsored by their employers for their work permits and visas to be valid. By placing the employees under the control of their employers, it subjects migrant workers to threats of exploitation and abuse. It prevents domestic workers from changing employers when working conditions deteriorate and prosecutes them under criminal law when they try to escape. It also prevents them from leaving the country without the permission of their employer. Under this system, migrant workers essentially become trapped under the mercy of their employers.

Therefore even with the passage of these laws and attempts for reforms, without strict enforcement mechanisms, these women have yet to receive the basic recognition and respect they need in order to seek employment and earn a decent living. They continue to be seen by the majority of Arab governments as low-cost labor willing to take up jobs that the local population has no interest in pursuing.

The Rising Role of NGOs

On a positive note, there has been an increase in civil society organizations that have taken initiative to extend an open arm to domestic workers in the region and set up resources and facilities for outreach.  These organizations have also made continued attempts to pressure their governments to pass legislation to strengthen labor and human rights laws in the region. 

One great example of such organization is Project 189headquartered in Kuwait, which has a mission to protect, promote and improve the rights of domestic workers in the Middle East”. The organization aims to advance the ratification, implementation and enforcement of the guidelines set forth by the International Labor Organization Convention 189: Decent work for Domestic Workers by countries of the Middle East.