What started off as a trickle of good news for domestic workers will hopefully develop into a full deluge in the coming months and years. As The National reported yesterday, Nepal has lifted a 10-year ban on working in the Gulf countries for housemaids and nannies, and pledged to protect their labour rights. Nepalese maids worked illegally in the Gulf for years but were often subjected to continuous mistreatment that they were unable to report. Now the Nepalese government can work with their counterparts in the region to monitor their treatment.
Indonesia's government is also proposing changes, drafting a law that will reduce the number of maids heading to the Emirates in favour of more skilled professional workers. And for its part, the Filipino embassy in Abu Dhabi has ramped up its efforts to work with local authorities in order to expedite the repatriation of runaway maids, many of whom were fleeing emotional, and in rarer cases, physical abuse.
This kind of abuse is happening. The Indian Workers Resource Centre in Dubai, which has been inundated with calls from employees who face difficulties, many of them unpaid labourers and mistreated domestic staff, has helped to reveal the extent of the problem. Their outreach also shows that it can be addressed.
Not all of these developments appear to be positive on first reflection. Yet, each demonstrates how the Government is trying to improve its own practices and communication with other governments. All of these parties have an interest in ensuring that workers do not encounter mistreatment when they pursue opportunity in the UAE.
And better labour laws ultimately mean a better economy. The Government appears to understand this. By abolishing the need for a no objection certificate last week for expatriate professionals, allowing them more freedom to change jobs, the Government is helping to make the labour market more competitive and the workforce more productive.
Changes in labour laws are overdue but there are still social and cultural attitudes that must be tackled for them to have their full effect. In particular, the posture of many who rely on domestic help remains overtly aggressive. Whatever legislation is introduced, there is no escaping that sponsors have the most influence over an employee's well-being. Despite some horrific accounts of abuse in the past, few offenders have ever been held accountable for their actions. Abuse needs to end and abusers brought to justice.