Last month, an Abu Dhabi court dealt with a horrific case of domestic-worker abuse, in which a woman had tortured and starved two maids. One died, while the other was left severely traumatised. The woman, who was sentenced to 15 years in jail, locked the maids up for long periods, beat them with sticks, banged their heads against walls and made them drink cleaning liquid, according to the testimony of the survivor.
This is an extreme case, but it puts focus on the draft law regarding domestic staff that was proposed by the Ministry of Interior that was discussed and passed by the FNC last year.
The UAE has made notable progress to protect the rights of migrant workers, but there is more to be done. The country is a signatory to the International Labour Organisation’s 2011 Convention on Domestic Workers requiring partner states to ensure protection of such workers by following requirements such as unified minimum wage for all nationalities, at least one day off each week, daily time for rest and paid annual leave. It also requires member states to take measures to ensure their protection against abuse.
The longer it takes to ratify the law the more we are likely to see cases of abuse in our courts.
Little data is available, but in 2007 there were about 750,000 domestic workers in the UAE, making up nearly 20 per cent of the expatriate workforce, according to the figures from the Ministry of Interior. With the increasing participation of Emirati women in the workforce, it’s likely that the numbers of domestic staff have grown since then. No data is available on the number of cases of abuse either.
Having a comprehensive national law in place would help to change the existing practice, under which domestic staff are often viewed as low-grade employees and their working conditions aren’t considered as something that needs regulation.
I have discussed this issue with many people from our society. They often say the same thing: “Why are they complaining? They have a house, they are given food, they are part of the family. What more do they need?”
Those people clearly don’t take the perspectives of the domestic workers into consideration, especially those who have been victims of abuse and mistreatment.
Casimira Rodriguez, the Bolivian minister of justice in 2006 and 2007 and a former head of that country’s Domestic Workers’ Union, is far better at explaining this issue than most.
She worked as a domestic help from the age of 13. Despite the respect she was given by some families she worked for, she also encountered discrimination and abuse. “We are women just like any other women, but we have lived a historical discrimination where we have not even been considered women, but rather objects at work,” she was quoted by UN Women as saying.
And to those who argue that domestic workers “have it easy”, she said, “This is a great lie. They say you are part of the family while you serve their needs. By the time you are aged 45 or more, then you are not of as much help.”
This could reflect the situation of domestic staff in many parts of the world. I’ve heard many identical stories myself.
Some cultural and legal requirements can further complicate matters. Even many of those who treat their domestic staff well don’t think they deserve a pay rise or even a day off. They ask questions such as: What happens if she runs away with someone? What if she gets pregnant? What if she commits a crime? What are we going to do then?
The sponsorship system in the Gulf has been criticised for opening the door to exploitation of workers. Experts say that if it is not amended to ensure equal rights to employers and employees, violation of their rights will continue.
All these issues should be sorted out in the comprehensive law protecting the rights of both parties.
Recruitment agencies should also be regulated and monitored. Let’s not forget the role of domestic staff in our economic and social development. Without them, many women won’t be able to work, given the lack of a culture of shared domestic responsibility between men and women and the desire by many people in this society to maintain a certain lifestyle and social status.
The work of domestic staff should be valued and their rights protected – and this cannot be achieved without enacting and enforcing the law.
On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui