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Middle East/Asia: Partial Reforms Fail Migrant Domestic Workers

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By Nisha Varia, Women's Rights Researcher at Human Rights Watch

(New York, April 28, 2010) - The reforms undertaken by Middle Eastern and Asian governments fall far short of the minimum protections needed to tackle abuses against migrant domestic workers, Human Rights Watch said today in a report released in advance of May 1, International Labor Day. Despite recent improvements, millions of Asian and African women workers remain at high risk of exploitation and violence, with little hope of redress, Human Rights Watch said.

The 26-page report, "Slow Reform: Protection of Migrant Domestic Workers in Asia and the Middle East," reviews conditions in eight countries with large numbers of migrant domestic workers: Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Singapore, and Malaysia. The report surveys progress in extending protection to domestic workers under labor laws, reforming immigration "sponsorship" systems that contribute to abuse, ensuring effective response by police and courts to physical and sexual violence, and allowing civil society and trade unions to organize.

"Several governments have made concrete improvements for migrant domestic workers in the past five years, but in general, reforms have been slow, incremental, and hard-fought," said Nisha Varia, women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Jordan deserves credit for including domestic work in their labor law, but enforcement remains a big concern. Singapore has prosecuted physical abuse against domestic workers vigorously, but fails to guarantee them even one day off a week."

Several countries across the Middle East and Asia host significant numbers of migrant domestic workers, ranging from 196,000 in Singapore and 200,000 in Lebanon to approximately 660,000 in Kuwait and 1.5 million in Saudi Arabia. Migrant domestic work is an important source of employment for women from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Nepal, India, and Ethiopia. Migrant domestic workers' earnings constitute a significant proportion of the billions of dollars of remittances sent to these countries each year.

Human Rights Watch research over the past five years has shown that migrant domestic workers risk a range of abuses. Common complaints include unpaid wages, excessive working hours with no time for rest, and heavy debt burdens from exorbitant recruitment fees. Isolation in private homes and forced confinement in the workplace contribute to psychological, physical, and sexual violence, forced labor, and trafficking.

"Reforms often encounter stiff resistance both from employers used to having a domestic worker on call around the clock and labor brokers profiting handsomely off a poorly regulated system," Varia said. "Governments should make protecting these vulnerable workers a priority."

Most governments exclude domestic workers from their main labor laws, denying them protections guaranteed to other workers, such as limits to hours of work or a weekly day of rest. Only Jordan has amended its labor law to include domestic workers, guaranteeing protections such as monthly payment of salaries into a bank account, a weekly day off, paid annual and sick leave, and a maximum 10-hour workday. However, domestic workers cannot leave the workplace without permission from their employer.

The governments of Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia have all publicly announced they will amend existing labor laws or draft new legislation on domestic work. But despite years of proposals, none have adopted such reforms. Saudi Arabia's Shura Council approved an annex on domestic work to the labor law, but the cabinet has not yet approved it. Singapore's Ministry of Manpower has repeatedly rejected calls to extend labor law protections to domestic workers.

"Instead of ensuring protection under labor laws, governments have relied on creating standard employment contracts or bilateral agreements with labor-sending countries," Varia said. "Employment contracts and bilateral agreements may be better than nothing, but with weaker protections than labor laws, they effectively reinforce discrimination against domestic workers."

Immigration reforms have proceeded even more slowly than labor reforms, Human Rights Watch said. In the countries surveyed, domestic workers migrate on fixed-term visas, under which their employers double as their immigration sponsors. This system heightens the risk of abuse by giving inordinate control to employers, who can have domestic workers sent home at will or prohibit them from being hired by a new employer.

"Governments have dragged their feet on reforms to the immigration sponsorship system, which contributes to forced labor and trafficking," Varia said. "They need to move quickly to find alternatives, such as shifting sponsorship from employers to labor authorities or closely monitored employment agencies."

Human Rights Watch also examined the governments' responses to criminal abuses against domestic workers. Some governments have begun to investigate and successfully prosecute abuse against domestic workers, but numerous obstacles continue to stand in the way of such victories, Human Rights Watch found. For example, systems for filing complaints are often out of reach of domestic workers trapped in private homes and unable to speak the local language.

For cases that do reach the attention of the authorities, legal proceedings often stretch over years, while victims typically wait in overcrowded shelters, unable to work. The lengthy waits and uncertain outcomes cause many domestic workers to withdraw their complaints or negotiate financial settlements so they can return home quickly. In other cases, domestic workers who bring charges are forced to defend themselves against counter-allegations of theft, witchcraft, and adultery.

"Successful prosecutions of abusive employers and labor brokers is not only justice served but also a strong deterrent against abuse," Varia said. Governments should establish accessible ways to file complaints, expedite legal proceedings, and ensure a minimum standard of social services, such as shelter and health care, during the process."

Reforms on regulating domestic work are taking place not only at the national level, but globally. In recognition of the importance of protecting a major source of employment that has been historically neglected, members of the International Labor Organization will begin formal discussions in June to establish global labor standards for domestic work. Lebanon, Bahrain, and Jordan support legally binding standards, while Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates support a nonbinding recommendation. Singapore and Kuwait did not submit official responses.

Human Rights Watch urged governments to take the following steps to prevent and respond to abuses against migrant domestic workers:

• Extend equal labor protections in national law to domestic workers, and address unique circumstances relating to their intermittent working hours, lodging, and board;
• Improve regulation and oversight of employment agencies and fees charged to these workers by private recruitment agencies;
• Reform immigration policies so that workers' visas are not tied to individual sponsors, and so that they can change employers without the first employer's consent;
• Improve workers' access to the criminal justice system, including through confidential complaint mechanisms, prosecutions, and expansion of victim services;
• Cooperate with labor-sending countries to monitor transnational recruitment, respond to complaints of abuse, and facilitate repatriation;
• Support a binding convention on domestic work with an accompanying recommendation during the International Labour Conference in June.