The UN International Labour Organization (ILO) is encouraging the drafting of labour legislation to provide foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in the Middle East with legal protection.
Arab trade unions agreed on a statement of principles, including the right to decent wages and union representation for FDWs, after a workshop in Beirut, Lebanon, earlier in November 2010.
“This was an important landmark,” Simel Esim, a gender expert at the ILO in Beirut, told IRIN. “There are some bylaws, decrees and standard unified contracts out there, but specific labour legislation for domestic workers that extends legal protection in a systematic and comprehensive manner is needed.”
Esim said the growing number of FDWs, and the recent high-profile cases of abuse that had led some governments to ban their citizens from seeking domestic work in the Middle East, had focused attention on the issue.
“The phenomenon [FDW] has taken off in recent years as family networks are taking on workers to help with social care, such as caring for elderly parents, people with disabilities and children,” said Esim. “But because domestic labour is in the home it has been largely unseen, or viewed as a private matter.”
In 2009 Lebanon’s Ministry of Labour dew up a standard unified contract for domestic workers, stipulating a maximum 10-hour workday and the right to six days of annual leave, among other conditions. In March 2010 Syria introduced a law specifying that only employment agencies registered with the government could operate. Only Jordan has comprehensive labour legislation covering FDWs.
Apart from regional responses, a proposed ILO Convention to cover domestic workers worldwide is due to be debated in June 2011.
Domestic labour is used worldwide but is especially widespread in the Middle East, where the ILO estimates there are 22 million FDWs, a third of whom are women. FDWs originate mainly from Asian and African countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Ethiopia.
A range of abuse
A Human Rights Watch report in April 2010 said FDWs in the region faced a wide range of abuses. Many experienced poor working conditions, such as needing permission to leave the house, a lack of leave days, having their passports taken away and, in some cases, physical and emotional abuse. The report also noted that access to justice was limited.
Experts said the recruitment system – known as kafala – in which an employing family sponsors the domestic worker, was the first issue that should be tackled.
“The current system makes the worker entirely dependent on the employer, increasing the vulnerability of the worker to labour abuses,” said Esim. “The live-in arrangement for domestic workers is a challenge to monitoring what is going on in the workplace, i.e. the employer’s home.”
Advocacy for the rights of domestic workers has been weak, and the fact that many came from abroad posed a further challenge because they often did not have a national representative body and were not proficient in the language of the receiving country.
“Today, temporary and precarious work is becoming more common, and this especially hurts women and migrant workers,” said Özen Eren, a labour expert at Texas Tech University in the US. “In a globalized world, political will to address the problems is often missing.”
The ILO is also working with governments on other initiatives, including awareness literature, hotlines for FDWs, communal housing that would offer domestic workers an alternative to living in the employer’s home, and government bodies rather than private agencies to manage recruitment.
“Governments, trade unions, and other civil society organizations in both the countries of origin and destination need to be more engaged,” said Esim.
“Private employment agencies are making a profit out of workers who are coming to the region to take care of the social care needs of households here. These … needs should be a part of social policies and programmes of the countries’ governments, rather than being left to private households.”
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]