Working for Labor Laws to Protect Domestic Workers in the Gulf

Relatives of the overseas workers who are alleged victims of abuses by Kuwaiti employers attend a Senate probe in the death of an overseas worker in Kuwait on February 21, 2018, in Pasay city south of Manila, Philippines. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

Last month, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) of the Philippines issued a total ban on deployment of overseas Filipino workers to Kuwait. The move follows the discovery by Kuwaiti officials of a Filipina domestic worker’s slain body in her employer’s freezer. Less than a month earlier, DOLE barred Filipino citizens from seeking employment in Kuwait in response to the deaths, allegedly from abuse, of seven other Filipina domestic workers. While intended to protect workers susceptible to exploitation, moratoriums such as the one implemented by the Philippines put migrants in an even more vulnerable position than they were before, as people resort to illegal methods to get jobs in more prosperous countries. Moreover, they disproportionately affect women, who constitute the majority of the domestic workforce worldwide and an increasing proportion of the total labor force sent to the Persian Gulf from countries in South and Southeast Asia and East Africa.

In Gulf states, domestic work is the largest sector of employment for female migrants, driven by a higher standard of living since the 1970s oil boom and increasing female workforce participation among nationals. Even so, female domestic workers are perhaps the least protected workers, facing legal, institutional, and societal barriers to basic securities. While many female domestic workers come to the Gulf and develop professional or familial attachments with their employers—enabling them to send home millions of dollars in remittances—many others experience physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at the hands of their employers. The kafala system, in which foreign workers must be sponsored by an employer, renders domestic workers unable to escape abusive situations until their contract expires, at risk of being reported to authorities and subsequently fined, jailed or deported.

GCC countries have made notable progress in granting migrant workers more rights and protections: however, domestic workers are generally not included under standard labor laws in the Gulf, the justification being that they work in private homes and should be treated differently than laborers in the public sphere. Even when legislation is drafted specifically for domestic workers it does not offer the same protections granted to laborers in other industries. In Saudi Arabia domestic workers may be required to work for fifteen hours daily, compared to the eight stipulated for laborers in other sectors. Omani labor law explicitly excludes domestic workers from being protected by any of its terms and conditions.

Because remittances often account for so much of the national GDP, many South and Southeast Asian countries are hesitant to impose measures that could discourage the employment of their citizens in favor of other nationalities. Although several countries of origin have attempted to introduce bilateral agreements to protect their citizens employed abroad, such agreements are futile unless enforced by the host country.

Other sending countries attempt to protect their citizens via moratoriums like the one recently imposed by the Philippines. However, reports show that moratoriums do little to stop migration. For example, almost 3,000 Indonesian domestic workers left Indonesia for the Gulf in the year following the nation’s moratorium on issuing domestic worker visas to the Middle East. Furthermore, outright bans on deployment inadvertently lead to higher rates of extortion of migrant workers by unlicensed recruiters. They reinforce workers’ vulnerability by discouraging them from seeking institutional support and heightening informational asymmetry, as workers do not receive important information about their rights and available resources. Meanwhile, bans worsen the economic situation in the sending country, as remittances dwindle and economic pressures and “push factors” remain the same. Bans are only effective if enforced by the host country, which rarely happens, and they can instead result in host countries pivoting to recruit domestic workers from nations offering fewer protections to their citizens working abroad. The latter situation helps to explain the heightened recruitment of East African domestic workers in recent years, many of whose governments lack substantial diplomatic infrastructure in the Gulf.

On the reverse side, Gulf countries have avoided improving domestic workers’ conditions, as doing so would raise the price of labor for their citizens. Additionally, there is no shortage of labor to enable the competition that would ordinarily drive up wages, given the economic state of many nations in Africa and South Asia. Although most Gulf states have acknowledged domestic worker abuse on some level, the credibility of their efforts to curtail it has suffered from a lack of genuine will to enforce the few protective laws on the books. While the new domestic labor laws in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar provide avenues for hope, many experts remain skeptical. Enforcement of these laws is notoriously difficult, as most domestic work happens behind closed doors, and a crackdown would undoubtedly be unpopular with the many GCC citizens who employ domestic workers.

Curbing the risk of exploitation of domestic workers in the Gulf would take the combined effort of sending and receiving countries. Any new policy would have to be comprehensive and well-publicized, to ensure that workers and potential workers in both urban and remote areas were made aware of the changes. A serious overhaul would necessitate the abolishment of the kafala system, but given Gulf countries’ notorious reluctance to take this step, other measures could be introduced to protect domestic workers in the meantime with an emphasis on balancing the present information asymmetry. Currently, many workers are forced to sign contracts in languages they are unable to understand; requiring contracts to be provided in the worker’s native tongue would alleviate this issue. Another potential solution would be providing language training—in English and/or Arabic—to workers prior to departure, which has the benefit of enabling communication between employers and employees, therein alleviating misunderstandings that could lead to frustration or abuse.

Along a similar vein, an International Labor Organization (ILO) study in Nepal suggests that pre-departure skills training would prove beneficial, as workers with more skills are valued more and paid higher wages. A mandatory orientation for both parties upon or before the workers’ arrival would ensure that both employees and employers were aware of their rights and obligations per the labor contract. Given the sheer volume of domestic workers in the Gulf, it is imperative that there is an accessible, affordable means of filing a complaint in the case of abuse or breach of contract, and that offending employers receive serious repercussions. The lack of enforcement of the latter is a primary reason that technically illegal practices such as passport confiscation continue with such regularity.

Reforming migrant labor laws, including those of domestic workers, would increase Gulf states’ credibility among the international community as countries committed to human rights and sustainable development. Although paying higher wages and ensuring decent living standards for domestic workers might be an expense in the short run, it would ultimately be economically beneficial to Gulf employers and governments, as workers who receive higher wages would spend more in the host country, thereby recycling more of their wages back into the local economy. Furthermore, facilitating legal migration through a public-private agency could redirect the “transaction cost” paid to unlicensed agents to government coffers, and increase visa revenues by bringing the majority of work-related migration above the table.

The current system of domestic employment in the Gulf exploits sending countries’ inability to act decisively and exploits women, who are faced with oppressive patriarchal environments and asymmetrical power dynamics that are compounded by a near complete lack of legal rights or representation. Although Gulf nations have been historically hesitant to breach the status quo on matters concerning their citizens’ private lives, the incentives to structurally reform the domestic labor system are there and require looking beyond the initial pushback from employers. As nations in the Gulf enact long-awaited reforms to grant women more freedoms, it is imperative that the fundamental rights of the millions of foreign women employed as domestic workers in the region are not overlooked. Structural changes in the domestic employment system would not only lead to more stable and robust societies in the region, but would demonstrate Gulf countries’ commitment to sustainable development.

Audrey Everist is an Intern in the International Peace Institute’s Bahrain office and a student at Sciences Po Paris Campus de Menton.