The Ongoing Plight of Migrant Domestic Workers in the Middle East

Migrating to the Middle East in search for economic opportunities can sometimes pose a serious risk for the hundreds and thousands of women from Asia seeking employment in private households across the region, but especially in the Gulf States, as domestic workers. Although female migrant workers in general can be vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, this article will focus specifically on female workers coming from Bangladesh. This is because the money earned by these migrant workers, which they send back home to support their families and which are known as foreign remittances, constitutes one of the largest sectors of the Bangladeshi economy, second only to the ready-made garments industry. For fiscal year 2018-2019, the Bangladesh Bank recorded $16.4 billion Dollars of inflows of such foreign remittances into its economy. While some migrant workers succeed in achieving their dream of economic and social advancement, many others experience various forms of mistreatment, even abuse, at the hands of their employers, including wages being withheld or physical and sexual abuse. The questions of why this is the case and what measures can be put in place to ensure adequate protection for migrant domestic workers will be discussed in this article. 

Recently there have been numerous stories in the media about the unspeakable suffering and exploitation of Bangladeshi female domestic workers in the Gulf States and in other Middle Eastern countries. It has been reported, for example, that more than 900 female migrant workers returned to Bangladesh after falling victim to exploitation and abuse in the first eight months of 2019 alone. According to the Bangladeshi Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training, between 1976 and 2018, among the 168 destinations listed, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) hosted the largest number of Bangladeshi migrant workers, with 3,650,588 Bangladeshis moving to the Kingdom in the hope of improving their livelihoods. The KSA, like other countries, offers migrant workers the prospect of earning good money; money that these workers can then send back home to their families. While this is commonly the main reason for most migrant workers to consider a move to the KSA, the prospect of being able to visit Mecca and Medina, two of the most sacred religious sites in Islam, which many of them could never dream of visiting otherwise, also plays a role.

Historically, the Kafala (visa-sponsorship) system is said to be based on the principle that hospitality should guide the treatment and protection of foreign guests. Introduced in the region in the 1950s after the discovery of oil there, it has long been formalised into legal frameworks across the Gulf States and other Middle Eastern countries. For the most part, employers are known as Kafeels (sponsors), and they can be individuals or companies. Migrant workers secure work permits through such Kafeels. The Kafala system grants the employer wide-ranging powers over their employees, including over the renewal of visas and thus over the migrant workers’ immigration status (entry, residence, and exit) for the duration of the contract period. This high degree of control makes migrant workers vulnerable to abuse and exploitation at the hand of their employers. Female domestic workers in particular face the greatest risks under this system, since they usually work in private households, mainly in isolation, and are therefore wholly dependent on their employers. Up until only three years ago, minimum statutory entitlements did not exist in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar or the KSA, where under the Kafala system, only certain categories of migrant workers benefited from overtime, gratuity, 6-day working weeks and annual leave, none of which were applicable to domestic migrant workers.

As already argued, the majority of female Bangladeshi migrant workers end up in the KSA, the most conservative country in the region. Allegations, however, pertaining to the mistreatment of domestic workers have not been limited to the KSA. It is a widespread phenomenon throughout the Middle East. Between 2015 and 2019, at least 66 Bangladeshi female migrant workers are said to have died in the KSA, with 52 of them having committed suicide. Laws across the region are often inadequate to ensure the protection of these workers. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented abuse and exploitation by Saudi employers against Asian domestic workers, which include wages being withheld, physical and psychological abuse, beatings, insults, and others forms of humiliation and mistreatment. Deceitful employers often take advantage of the Kafala system to make their employees highly dependent on them, and therefore, increase chances of impeding “fair migration”, according to a whitepaper published by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). In the HRW report entitled “’I Was Sold’: Abuse and Exploitation of Migrant Domestic Workers in Oman”, Bangladeshi domestic worker, Asma K, claims she was “sold” by her recruitment agent to a man in the UAE who then trafficked her to Oman. There, she was forced to work for a family of 15 for up to 21 hours a day, without rest or a day off. Deprived of food, verbally abused, sexually harassed, and not given a wage, all because the man had bought her for $4,052. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident and happens not only to Bangladeshi women, but also to women of other nationalities.

Not only are migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, but in most instances, they are disadvantaged by the legal systems of the host countries. For example, if a migrant worker is accused of any crime such as murder, theft or black magic, then it is near impossible for the accused to defend themselves in court, as nearly in all cases they do not have access to legal representation, and more importantly, to an interpreter. This means the accused has no way of fully understanding the charges brought against them, or how best to respond to these charges. In 2010, the KSA executed at least 27 migrant workers, eight of which were Bangladeshi. In June 2011, Ruyati Binti Sapubi, a 54-year old Indonesian domestic worker was beheaded for killing her employer’s wife, following years of abuse as reported in the media. In 2005, Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan domestic worker, who was 17 at the time, was convicted of smothering a four-month-old baby in her care. She maintained that the infant had died from a choking accident. During her trial, without legal representation or an interpreter present, she was found guilty and later beheaded in January 2013. And in September 2011, a Sudanese migrant worker was beheaded for sorcery.

Female Bangladeshi workers going abroad to find better-paid work is a growing trend. But why do so many Bangladeshi women choose to pursue this path and migrate to countries that are known to have, at best, sketchy human rights records, despite the clear risk of falling prey to violence and other forms of mistreatment? The simple answer is poverty. Nearly all of the Bangladeshi women that seek employment as domestic workers abroad come from impoverished backgrounds. They are encouraged by their families, sometimes even by their own government, and in most cases by deceptive recruitment agencies to pursue this path in order to be able to lift their families out of abject poverty. Domestic workers are made false promises of salaries of about $235 Dollars per month and rarely receive written employment contracts even though it is a legal requirement. Once they arrive in the Gulf States or other Middle Eastern countries, they then often have their passports taken away from them by their employers. This greatly restricts their freedom of movement, especially in cases when they experience any problems that might have otherwise led them to return to their home countries immediately. But without the permission of their Kafeels, they can’t do so easily. This practice of restricting an individual’s freedom of movement stands in clear violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that every person has the right to leave any country, including their own. HRW describes this situation as being ‘near-to-slavery’.

The 79-page HRW report entitled ‘’I Already Bought You’: Abuse and Exploitation of Female Migrant Domestic Workers in the United Arab Emirates’ documents, for example, how the UAE’s Kafala system leaves female domestic workers open to exploitation and abuse. According to Rothna Begum, a women’s rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa at HRW, “[t]he UAE’s sponsorship system chains domestic workers to their employers and then leaves them isolated and at risk of abuse behind the closed doors of private homes”. She further states: “With no labour law protections for domestic workers, employers can, and many do, overwork, underpay, and abuse these women”. Amnesty International, in a 92-page report entitled ‘My Sleep is my Break: Exploitation of migrant Domestic Workers in Qatar’ catalogues the plight of 52 female domestic workers and paints a disturbing picture of what goes on inside private homes in Qatar. In Kuwait, too, domestic workers have experienced the threat of physical and sexual abuse, and in a small number of instances have even been murdered at the hands of their employers. Examples include the case of Filipino domestic workers Joanna Demafelis and Jeanelyn Villavende. The former was discovered in the freezer of the house where she worked, and the latter was beaten to death. Both deaths highlight the absence of robust protective regulation and legislation both in the labour-importing and labour-supplying countries to ensure the welfare and safety of domestic workers.

If female domestic workers fear exposure to verbal, physical or sexual abuse, then instead of trying to flee the host country, they can also choose to change employers up to three times, according to the law in most Gulf States. Their respective embassy can help them in this regard. For example, the Philippine government banned the deployment of Filipino workers to Kuwait following the death of Joanna Demafelis and demanded that a thorough investigation would be carried out. Other labour-sending countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka have set up overseas welfare funds to provide insurance benefits for their migrant workers and their families in the event of death, disablement, or repatriation. Sri Lanka even administers a system whereby they provide start-up loans for returning entrepreneurial migrant workers. Indian embassies in the Gulf require employers to provide a refundable security deposit of around $3,ooo Dollars, which can be used to pay unpaid salaries or return flight tickets if it is established that an employer has been abusive towards a foreign worker. Moreover, labour-sending countries like Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Nepal have increased protections and demand minimum salary requirements for their migrant workers.

In the case of Bangladesh, the various government departments responsible for the welfare of expatriates often claim that they are unaware of the apparent exploitation. In a telephone interview with a Bangladeshi daily newspaper, Muhammad Imran, Bangladesh’s ambassador to the UAE, for example, commented publicly only a few years ago that: “We usually don’t receive such complaints”. In 2018, the government of Bangladesh and its embassy staff in the KSA reluctantly acknowledged the ongoing abuse of their female compatriots, and were forced into setting up safe houses for many hundreds of women that have faced verbal, physical, and sexual abuse inside the KSA. Despite this acknowledgement, in early 2019, the Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment sent a delegation to the KSA, which reported that it had found no evidence of Bangladeshi women facing abuse while working in the Gulf kingdom. Even though remittances top the list of the government’s economic justification for exporting labour, another possible reason for hesitating to act more decisively in the defence of its citizens is the lack of expertise and resources needed to deal more effectively and appropriately with alleged victims. Moreover, countries like Bangladesh also lack the necessary political or economic cloud to confront the host countries and intervene on behalf of their affected citizens. As a labour-sending country, Bangladesh should raise its minimum salary for domestic workers, more in line with Indonesia, which has nearly the double the Bangladeshi minimum wage, as well as create procedures for registering allegations of abuse at Bangladeshi missions.

The main causes cited for why Bangladeshi women return home after having worked as migrant domestic workers have been stated as follows: Homesickness, language barriers, excessive work pressure as well as verbal and physical torture. Furthermore, loneliness, lack of privacy, non-payment or irregular payment of wages round up the picture. Saudi authorities, on the other hand, claim that Bangladeshi and other migrant workers simply struggle to adapt to Saudi culture, citing this as the main reason why many of them return home. Despite such Saudi claims, Bangladeshi female migrant workers in Hong Kong or Japan, for example, who are not subjected to a Kafala system, enjoy a much better treatment and benefits than they do across the Middle East. Therefore, the question that needs to be asked is if Bangladeshi women are inherently unable to adapt to a foreign culture, then why do none of them return from Hong Kong or Japan? One way of dealing with cultural differences between migrant workers and the host country is to ensure that potential domestic workers receive training so that they have a better understanding about the culture and tradition of the host country. This would equip them with the skills to better cope with cultural and language barriers as well as make them aware of their rights and how and where to seek help if necessary.

Political and economic reforms in Bangladesh, however, are needed as well. At present, the recruitment system in Bangladesh largely depends on unscrupulous intermediaries. Many recruitment agencies go to rural villages where they target vulnerable women by giving them the false hope of a lucrative job and lifestyle if they go abroad as a domestic worker. In reality, when a migrant worker is offered a job, no formal contract is signed between them and their Kafeel. In theory, Bangladesh has several legislation such as the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act of 2012, the Overseas Employment and Migrants Act of 2013, the Expatriates Welfare and Overseas Migration Policy of 2016 or the Prevention and Suppression Human Trafficking Rules of 2017. Despite all of these available legal safeguards, it appears that there is a culture of denial, which suggests that the Bangladeshi government does not want Bangladeshi society to know just how dire the situation for many of its female migrant domestic workers abroad actually is. The government should ensure that it provides the highest protection for its workers abroad by aiding them in times of distress, and at the very least increase its oversight over recruitment agents and take allegations broad against such agents more seriously.

Meanwhile, reforming the Kafala system in Gulf States and wider Middle East has been on the agenda for a while now, but progress has been slow. Qatar and Bahrain have made some reforms in recent years. The spotlight has of course been on Qatar, as it will host the Football World Cup in 2022. Due to pressure from human rights groups and the ILO, Qatar has agreed to allow the majority of its migrant workers to leave the country without their employer’s permission, excluding 5% who will continue to need permission to exit. Bahrain has done away completely with the exit permit system, but at the same time has introduced high annual fees for migrant workers which were previously paid by the employer. The KSA is planning to abolish its controversial Kafala system as well in the context of ongoing economic reforms and ongoing allegations of its exploitation of migrant workers. For the Kafala system to be finally abolished, however, there would need to be a royal decree. The UAE, too, has introduced labour laws for migrant workers in line with ILO recommendations, but existing regulations still only provide limited protections.

Until substantive changes take place, all migrant workers, but especially female domestic workers, will continue to be exposed to the Kafala system. The government of Bangladesh should identify corrupt recruitment agencies, which target the vulnerable and impoverished, and punish them accordingly. Bangladeshi authorities should also provide a dedicated phone number for their expatriate workers where they can report abuse and exploitation, get help and advice, which would be a small step to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of its people working abroad. Female migrant workers can take practical steps such as making two sets of photocopies of their passport and other relevant documents. They should keep one set secure where they live and carry another set with them as proof of their identity at all times, especially if they want to register a complaint with the local police. They should also have electronic copies as proof of status, as a safeguard against exploitative employers. In restrictive cultures such as the Gulf States, in particular the KSA, female domestic workers are more vulnerable and in many instances are treated as bonded workers, which is unethical.

About the GPI

The Global Policy Institute is a research institute on international affairs. It is based in the City of London, and draws on both a rich pool of international thinkers, academics as well as policy and business professionals. The Institute gives non-partisan guidance to policymakers and decision takers in business, government, and NGOs.

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