x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Absconding maids are not criminals

When domestic workers run away, the law always and automatically places them in the wrong; this raises some troubling questions.

A maid, thousands of kilometres from home, isolated from others of her nationality and language, possibly working seven days a week, perhaps not even allowed to leave her employer's home or to have a mobile phone, finally snaps. Maybe there is real or perceived abuse, insult, or increase in her workload that prompts her to run away.

Who is to blame?

There are almost as many answers to that question as there are cases in which maids abscond; all shades of right and wrong can be found in such incidents. But in the UAE the law, as it stands now, accepts only one answer: absconding is an offence.

As The National reported yesterday, 36 Ethiopian women, all of them maids who had run away from their visa sponsors, had been found living together in a house in Sharjah. It is not an unusual case, and as usual, they will be prosecuted.

This conceals an awkward fact about the UAE's labour market: domestic workers must have a sponsor and cannot quit at will. And workers who abscond can find themselves exploited or abused by unscrupulous employers or even criminals.

There is sound reason for linking residence to employment. A cohort of jobless foreigners would hurt the country. But there is no benefit in allowing a few sponsors to abuse the vulnerable. The government of the Philippines, for example, has seriously considered preventing citizens from coming to the UAE as domestics for that reason.

The UAE can be proud of its labour law; the problem is it does not cover domestic workers. The UAE recently signed the International Labour Organisation's Convention 189 and Recommendation 201, on domestic workers, requiring among other things one day off every week and freedom of association.

But absconding remains a criminal offence.

Government is naturally reluctant to force its way into private homes with intrusive regulation or mechanisms for investigation. But more even-handed treatment to prevent absconding when problems arise is ultimately in all our interests.