x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

As we rely more on domestic staff, they also rely on us

As society changes, legal and regulatory frameworks need to change accordingly, particularly when it comes to protecting domestic workers employed here.

My grandmother has often told me stories about Emirati society when she was growing up. Life was simpler back then. Men worked hard to ensure a good life for their families, while women stayed home, took care of the children and did the housework. My grandmother raised nine kids.

But now, with the rapid social and economic changes since the discovery of oil and the union of the country, lifestyles have changed. Many women are joining the workforce, and families rely on domestic workers to help juggle all their responsibilities. And as society changes, legal and regulatory frameworks need to change accordingly, particularly to protect people who have been invited here to work.

The term domestic worker means "any person engaged in domestic work within an employment relationship", according to the International Labour Organisation.

In the UAE, it means women, predominantly from Asian and African nations, living with families to help with housework, childcare, shopping and many other tasks. The trouble is that in the UAE, like many of its neighbours, workers are often not covered by labour laws, making it difficult to legally defend their rights while ensuring employers are protected as well.

The UAE hosts tens of thousands of domestic workers, most of whom are maids or nannies. They are mostly unskilled workers with low levels of education who come from low-income countries. Working in the UAE is often their first experience abroad. They leave their families behind and experience a new life in a new country that is very different from their homes.

On the other hand, most recruitment agencies look at it from a financial perspective. They are responsible for recruiting domestic workers and managing the process of hiring them. Ideally, agencies continue to monitor working conditions after the contract is signed, but many of them don't.

Employers, meanwhile, are the sponsors and the providers of housing, food and salaries. They expect domestic staff to do the work required of them and follow the family's rules. And therein lies the challenge. Because of the unique live-in arrangement and sponsorship system in the UAE, where trust is essential, employers are uniquely responsible for the actions of people they have just met.

This leads some employers to impose restrictions on the personal and social lives of their staff. For example, female maids sometimes are not expected to have friends outside the house - or enter into romantic relationships. I often heard employers saying that they keep them in the house to "protect them" and, at the same time, to avoid facing the legal or social consequences should one of their staff become pregnant, run away or break the law. Many employers don't give their staff a day off to rest or go outside the house.

And many of them work long hours for low pay. There also have been stories of domestic staff facing physical violence or sexual abuse from their employers.

So what can be done to improve the working and living conditions of domestic staff, while ensuring that employers are protected as well?

Last week, the Philippines ambassador to the UAE, Grace Princesa, called for a minimum salary of $400 (Dh1,470) a month for Filipinos who work as domestic workers. The Philippine Overseas Labour Office in Abu Dhabi issued a memo to local recruitment agencies about the policy. But employers were reported as saying the idea is "unrealistic".

The UAE has made great steps in protecting workers in many professions. The country is now part of the UN Human Rights Council that "places greater responsibility on us and requires greater monitoring" of human rights, wrote Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, in The National last week.

But this "responsibility" should also extend to protecting the rights of domestic workers, setting a minimum wage, ensuring reasonable working hours, and giving staff daily and weekly rest periods as well as annual leave in accordance with the national and international standards of labour laws.

At the same time, efforts must be made to enact and enforce laws that clarify the rights of domestic workers, set mechanisms by which those rights can be protected and establish punishments for those who violate them.



On Twitter: @AyeshaAlMazroui