Ramadan Reflections Hit Close to Home

06/16/2015 11:14 am ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

Today is the International Day for Domestic Workers. If you live in the Gulf, you probably are focusing on the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in a few days. Yet it is especially important during this time of fasting and reflection to recognize that the human rights of domestic workers should be respected and to make sure that is happening in your own household.

June 16 was the fourth anniversary of the adoption of an international treaty to protect the rights of domestic workers -- the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention for Decent Work for Domestic Workers. For millions of domestic workers around the world, the treaty's adoption was no small thing. But many people who benefit from the labor of domestic workers every day in their own homes have preferred not to recognize that what they do is real work. And that is reflected in weak (or non-existent) laws to safeguard domestic workers against exploitation and abuse.

No country in the Middle East has ratified the domestic workers treaty. Yet, numerous families in the region, including in the Gulf, employ domestic workers and depend on their labor. An estimated 2.4 million migrant domestic workers are employed in the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), mostly women from Asia and Africa. Kuwait has the highest proportion, with an average of two domestic workers per household.

Most Middle Eastern countries maintain a restrictive kafala (visa-sponsorship) system that ties migrant domestic workers to their employers for the duration of their contract, even when employers are abusive. Most exclude migrant domestic workers from labor law protections.

Human Rights Watch has documented how highly restrictive immigration and labor laws foster abuse and exploitation of migrant domestic workers. In countries around the world, we've documented how domestic workers with inadequate legal protections suffer abuse, such as long working hours with no rest periods and no day off, lack of adequate food and water, underpayment of wages, restricted communication with their families, confiscation of their passports, physical and/or sexual violence, and in some cases trafficking and forced labor. Yet, we have also seen progress on domestic workers rights, especially in countries that have ratified the ILO treaty.

The holy month of Ramadan is one in which Muslims are expected not only to fast but also to practice self-discipline, learn about sacrifice, and show empathy for those who are less fortunate.

Some people who employ domestic workers do indeed pay bonuses to their domestic workers at the end of Ramadan. But Ramadan is also the month when foreign embassies in the Gulf for the home countries of many domestic workers report high numbers of workers fleeing their employers to escape abuse.

Many of the dozens of female domestic workers in Gulf countries I have interviewed said that their employers made them work even longer hours during Ramadan -- indeed, longer than the 15 hours each day that many domestic workers say they are required to work. One 42-year-old Filipina domestic worker in the United Arab Emirates told me, "During Ramadan I would go to sleep at 3:00 a.m. and would wake up [to work] at 5:30 a.m."

Many domestic workers in the Middle East are expected to help host large iftar meals to break fasts. They work during the night when families can eat, and during the day to clean and take care of children. Domestic work is demanding all year long, but often more so during Ramadan.

As Muslim employers begin preparing for Ramadan, governments should raise awareness about the rights of domestic workers. This includes ensuring that domestic workers are not given excessive workloads during Ramadan or at any other time. Governments should also commit to changing the laws to better protect domestic workers' rights, ratify the ILO Domestic Workers Convention, extend labor law protections to include domestic workers, and abolish their kafala laws.

Throughout the year, domestic workers provide care for entire families, usually when their own families are thousands of miles away. Ramadan provides a good opportunity for employers and governments alike to show their appreciation for domestic workers and to make sure their rights are respected.