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Behind the Curtains of the Gulf’s Domestic Help Industry

First published by the BBC in 2017, a video showing a young woman clinging for her life before falling from a seventh-floor window of a Kuwait City high rise residential building garnered international attention. Investigations revealed that the Ethiopian girl suffered severe domestic abuse while employed as a maid for a Kuwaiti family. The video, taken by her employer as she stood next to the window, showed the Ethiopian maid begging to be lifted up before she fell seven stories, sustaining multiple injuries. The investigation closed with no arrests or charges being placed on the employer. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), more than two million women are employed as maids in the Gulf Cooperation Council. Due to a lack of economic opportunities at home, women typically from East Africa and South Asia are attracted to the GCC with jobs as maids, lured with the promise of ample wages to send to their families, comfortable accommodation, and nourishment. However, they often face situations of isolation, entrapment, and physical abuse.

The ILO predicts that one in five migrant domestic workers worldwide is employed in the Gulf, where legislation on ethical employee treatment and enforcement of worker protection laws, especially for female employees, have come under scrutiny. A recent ILO report blames the widespread abuse of domestic help on a lack of legislation and enforcement in the domestic help sector as well as the region’s Kafala system. GCC countries and others in the region like Jordan and Lebanon use the standard Kafala system, which is a sponsorship program that allows nationals to employ domestic help and construction workers from abroad. The Kafala system grew as the domestic help sector developed with the economic boom of the 1990’s, when Gulf families budgeted newfound incomes for domestic help. Today, surveys conducted show that in the UAE, 93 percent of Emirati households employ a maid, with an average of three maids per family. The Kafala system places all responsibilities of monitoring living conditions, providing visas, and paying employees on the employer, effectively allowing employers to exploit workers without fear of legal consequences. Hence it leaves employees vulnerable and bound to their employers. This vulnerability opens up female domestic employees to vast potential exploitation.

A 2017 United Nations report demonstrated the significant need for legislation regarding the rights of migrant workers, especially for female workers in a region where women’s rights have been an area of controversy. The report used Oman as an exemplar, where in 2015 legislators passed new methods of tackling the issue, including establishing a committee and a hotline that allows migrant workers to easily file a complaint and have better access to a trial against their employer to deal with violations like lack of pay, abuse, forced servitude, and confiscation of an employee’s passport. While the methods were effective, Oman seems to be an anomaly, with most Gulf countries lacking fair court systems for migrant workers to sue an employer, especially if said employer has national citizenship.

In 2014, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) study of 99 maids in the United Arab Emirates revealed that 24 had been sexually assaulted by an employer, and almost all had their passports taken away, had wages withheld, and been forced to work up to 21 hours a day. While a revision of the Kafala system seems like the obvious answer, recent legislative changes in some GCC member states have proved futile in counteracting the widespread systemic abuse of domestic workers. A 2017 UAE ratification and adoption of a nationally revised version of the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention aims to provide better living conditions through provisions such as paid sick leave, 12 hours of rest a day, and other terms. However, it appears to be a surface solution to a systemic problem; the bill seems to be completely unenforced and may be entirely ineffective according to the HRW. The HRW also reported that the text of the bill was not released to the public, and since 2017, reports continue to arise of maid abuse in the UAE. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that before 2017 domestic worker rights before were not included in any previous labor bill in the UAE, and the adoption of some bill, regardless of its content, is a step to state recognition of the issue. However, rather than purely changing legislation, the GCC as a whole must establish its own regional Domestic Workers Convention which focuses more on enforcement, the root of the issue.

Aside from a lack of legislation, a Middle East Eye report alleges that abuse often stems from racial discrimination and structural violence. South Asians and East Africans are often seen as inferior to their Arab counterparts and face harsher socioeconomic conditions in the GCC. Historically, Gulf traders travelled and colonized regions of East Africa and South Asia, leading to communities of Afro-Arabs and Indo-Arabs in Gulf countries. Racial discrimination between these communities may be a source of the existing racial discrimination that domestic help in the Middle East face today. These racial divisions are reflected in the domestic help industry and indirectly in other systems, such as healthcare. State healthcare systems in the GCC typically provide free or subsidized healthcare for nationals, and the private sector provides higher cost services to Western and wealthier expatriates. These socioeconomic divisions in healthcare systems affect access to healthcare as a domestic migrant worker in the GCC. Medical care may be unavailable or unaffordable to someone with a low socioeconomic standing as a maid. In addition, the Kafala system does not enforce employers to provide healthcare coverage to employees.

The traumatic story of one maid who returned home with twenty-four nails embedded in her body by her sexually abusive employer is only one of many that display a systemic crisis that plagues the Gulf domestic help industry. GCC countries must examine and reform the Kafala system, challenge racial discrimination, and restructure their enforcement of adopted legislation to ensure that employers engage in safe and ethical employee treatment.

Photo: Kuwait City at Night

About the Author

Winston Otero '22 is a Staff Writer for the World Section of the Brown Political Review.