x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Guarantee the basic rights of domestic staff

The UAE has agreed to a convention guaranteeing the rights of domestic staff. For maids and other household workers who are not often in the public eye, this should be a campaign to ensure basic rights.

In 2008, Marilyn Vinuan accepted a job as a housemaid in Ajman. Instead of gainful employment, the 25-year-old Filipina found herself a captive in her employer's house and subjected to physical abuse. Her ordeal did not end until a year and a half later, when she managed to escape and sought refuge with her embassy.

Ms Vinuan's case is extreme, but it exemplifies the circumstances of domestic workers in the UAE that can become so difficult. Maids and other household staff work behind closed doors. Some become lifelong friends with their employers and members of the family; an unknown number of others suffer abuse and exploitation.

In the last few years, the country has made solid gains in labour rights, improving health and safety standards, accommodation conditions and wage protection. It is imperative that these benefits are not only felt by workers on construction sites and in the service sector, but domestic employees as well.

As The National reported yesterday, the UAE has voted in favour of an international convention from the International Labour Organisation covering agency fees, salary guarantees and mandatory days off. Some of those points are so intuitive that a law seems hardly required. But too many cases like Ms Vinuan's show that a legal guarantee is necessary.

The convention still needs to be ratified and reconciled with member countries' laws. "It is easy to discuss legal texts and conventions," said Humaid Rashid bin Dimas, the undersecretary at the Ministry of Labour. "We may even amend national legislation and ratify conventions, but the real challenge is how to make these principles a reality."

The acknowledgement of the work to be done is as welcome as the statement of principle. The letter of the law is only meaningful if it is enforced - which is all the more difficult when it comes to people's homes.

From anecdotal evidence, it would seem that the practice of confining household staff to the home is far too frequent. Many maids also report that they work seven-day weeks. Some employers might defend these practices, but they clearly violate labour law - as well as common sense. Wage protection guarantees, such as the requirement that labourers' salaries are paid into bank accounts, should also be in place. Perhaps most importantly, household workers have to be guaranteed contact with the outside world, and at the least provided with a mobile phone.

Embassies have to be involved to help their citizens - nobody wants a new Nanny Bureau of the police that inspects every home. We need a society where everyone guarantees these basic rights.