'Some domestic workers work up to 100 hours a week'
Saudi Arabia's execution of a Sri Lankan domestic worker for murder earlier this week sparked an international outcry about migrant rights in the Gulf: advocacy groups argued she was under 18 at the time of the alleged crime, had little access to legal counsel, and confessed under physical duress.
But for many domestics in the region, the challenges are more common and more banal, starting with the number of hours they work. Domestic workers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar work 63.7 and 60 hours per week on average respectively, according to a study on domestic workers worldwide released by the International Labour Organization (ILO) this week.
Domestic workers in these countries put in longer hours than employees in any other profession - a finding that experts say extends throughout the Gulf.
"Working hours are indeed well above 60 hours, more like a 100," said Antoinette Vlieger, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam who has conducted extensive fieldwork on domestic workers in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
"During Ramadan this becomes even worse and many domestic workers run away during Ramadan, simply because they are exhausted. ... The shelters of the embassies are totally overcrowded."
Rima Sabban, a professor of sociology at Zayed University in Dubai, whose studies on domestic workers in the UAE were cited in the ILO report, said for domestics in the region "the most critical issue is the hours they work".
Long hours for domestic workers are not only a problem in the Gulf. In Malaysia, they work an average of 65 hours per week, the ILO report found, and employees in countries as diverse as Tanzania and Bolivia also all post long work weeks.
There are, however, legal and logistical realities in the Gulf that make working conditions more difficult to regulate.
Most pointedly, domestic workers are migrant labourers based on the so-called kafala system, a legal regime that ties their visa to their employment with a given household.
The kafala system, based a regional traditional of hospitality "is supposed to be a good system that makes it incumbent upon nationals to look after non-nationals", explained Azfar Khan, senior regional migration specialist at the ILO's Regional Office for the Arab States. But the arrangement also gives disproportionate control to employers to set the working conditions, he said. "An employer can control the worker's working time, wages, and all aspects of their life. That can lead to situations of forced labour."
The arrangement also means that domestic workers often have little redress for exploitative conditions, said Ellene Sana, head of the Centre for Migration Advocacy in The Philippines.
"Many domestic workers who have been abused and exploited by their own employers would hesitate to file charges against their employers because their exit visas from the [Gulf countries] will also be issued by the same employer," she said.
Mr Khan said that Gulf countries are working to find ways to improve conditions. Earlier this year, for example, Bahrain became the first Gulf country to offer partial protection under the labour code.
In 2012, the UAE introduced a standardised contract for domestic workers and employers that stipulates the basic rights and responsibilities of both parties. Ms Sabban said that this has helped establish norms.
But Ms Sana in the Philippines pointed to a need for societal change.
"Almost everyone is a potential employer of a domestic worker," she said. "Do we give domestic workers under our employment their due wages, benefits and other entitlements? Suddenly, the issue is so close, too personal that addressing it means addressing ourselves too."
Updated: January 12, 2013 04:00 AM