x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Ensuring house maids are spared abuse

Some 500 domestic workers in Jordan have sought refuge at their respective embassies in the past year, with many claiming abuse.

A public service campaign aimed at better treatment for domestic workers began airing throughout the Arab world on MBC last week.
A public service campaign aimed at better treatment for domestic workers began airing throughout the Arab world on MBC last week.

AMMAN // Nona, a 42-year-old Indonesian domestic worker, lies on a hospital bed attached to an intravenous drip. A blow to the head with a sharp instrument five months ago left her brain damaged and in a vegetative state. Both her employer and the recruitment agency that brought her to Jordan blame each other for the state she is in and neither is willing to pay the full cost of sending her home. It is indicative, rights groups here say, of the way overseas domestic helpers are mistreated in Jordan and elsewhere in the region. Ali Sarrayra, the employer, said he sent Nona, not her real name, back to the recruitment agency after five months because she was lazy and wet the bed. Mr Sarrayra said he paid the agent, Abu Saif, US$7 (Dh25) to take her to the Indonesian Embassy. "So, I was surprised when the police called me the next day to identify [Nona] who was found unconscious in a street close to the Indonesian Embassy. "It seems that the agency did not send her to the embassy," Mr Sarrayra said. However, Mr Abu Saif, who declined to give his first name, denied this, saying the woman had suffered a stroke while at work. The police are investigating, but as yet it is not clear what happened to Nona. Regardless of who is to blame, both parties have a responsibility to ensure she returns home, said the National Centre for Human Rights (NCHR). Neither, however, is willing to accept that responsibility. "We refused to accept her. She had a stroke. For five months, she was working at his [Mr Sarrayra's] house and it is his responsibility," Mr Abu Saif said. "Why didn't he come to us in the first month? Why did he return her when she was in a bad condition? According to the contract, the employer is in charge of her treatment and her ticket." The cost of sending Nona home is about $9,000 as she needs special medical treatment and a constant supply of oxygen. Mr Abu Saif said he was willing to pay up to $1,400, but Mr Sarrayra says he will not pay anything. The Indonesian Embassy did not respond to requests for comment. There are 70,000 domestic helpers in Jordan; around 30,000 Indonesians, 15,000 Filipinas and 25,000 Sri Lankans who come via government-licensed agencies to help middle-class families. Wages range between $100 to $200 a month, most of which is remitted back to their home countries. Reports of abuse are common. Human Rights Watch last year detailed abuse of domestic workers in Lebanon, Jordan and other countries in the region, from long working hours to physical confinement, to physical and sexual abuse. Last year, a Saudi advertisement agency produced a TV campaign urging employers not to mistreat their domestic help. The TV spot was shown across the Arab world. In Jordan, the NCHR received 617 complaints about rights abuses last year, 140 from domestic helpers. Thirty of the women complained about violence and inhumane treatment. But the numbers are believed to be much higher, with many keeping silent because they are afraid to lose their jobs. Ali al Dabbas, who heads the complaints and legal service unit at the NCHR, said most domestic helpers complained about not receiving their wages, or receiving less than what had been agreed, confiscation of passports, physical abuse and in some cases sexual abuse. Over the past year, some 500 domestic workers sought refuge at their embassies, either because of problems with their residency, or employment. One 19-year-old girl at the Philippine's embassy who did not want her name used said she was raped by her employer late last year. "He asked me to make him coffee, and after I served it to him and started to leave he grabbed my hands ? locked the door and then raped me. I screamed, but there was only his nine-year-old son [to hear me]. "I told madam who took me to the police and filed a complaint, but then she sent me back to the agency. I later dropped the complaint because they said they would buy me a ticket back to the Philippines. They never did. "The agency made me work part-time, and I wasn't paid. My family is worried about me." Some abused helpers become so desperate that they commit suicide. There were 18 such deaths in the first quarter of this year, according to official figures published in the media. More than 100 others attempted to take their lives. The Jordanian government has been trying to address the problem. In January, it adopted legislation to combat human trafficking and amended the labour law to give domestic workers equal access to medical care, payment of wages and access to social security. It has also finalised a draft regulation granting domestic workers an annual two-week paid holiday, 14 days' sick leave, one day off a week and a maximum eight-hour working day. Those who violate the law will be fined $750. According to the Alghad newspaper, nearly 3,000 Jordanian employers opposed the amendments. "One cannot guarantee what will happen to them when they go out. They might be robbed or raped. They might return home with 20 to 30 new contacts on their mobiles. The possibility of them returning pregnant is there 100 per cent," said Ahmad Hababneh, the head of the Domestic Helper's Agencies Association. Rights groups, however, say these concerns should not stand in the way of granting them their rights. "If a domestic worker does not have the same legal protection as Jordanian labourers, we will be talking about slavery," said Atef al Majali, a lawyer at the NCHR. smaayeh@thenational.ae