Fatmata left her home in Sierra Leone in February of 2020, packing her bags for the Sultanate of Oman in hopes of securing “a better means of survival” for her and her family. She expected to find work as a supermarket attendant and earn a salary of roughly $450 dollars a month. Yet, when she arrived in Oman, Fatmata was told she was to serve as a domestic worker for two years and would receive a mere 40 percent of the wages she was initially promised. She expected to enjoy fair working conditions and a decent standard of living; The reality was an 18.25 hour work day with one 30-45 minute break, no place to sleep, and insufficient food. “I was called a slave and [told I] should only work like a slave,” Fatmata told Do Bold, a nonprofit that aims to provide support for migrant workers in the Gulf region. Two years later, Fatmata is still in the process of trying to leave Oman.
Fatmata’s story is emblematic of the dismal living and working conditions of many migrant domestic workers in Gulf countries. Looking forward, Oman ought to reform its labor laws and follow international labor standards to ensure that migrant domestic workers are endowed with the same rights as Omanis.
Migrant workers are an essential part of Gulf countries’ labor force. In Oman, they constitute 67 percent of the workforce and approximately 30 percent of the country’s total population. Of the migrant worker population, 158,537 are female domestic workers like Fatmata. Workers immigrate to Oman from across Asia and Africa, including the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Ethiopia, and Sierra Leone.
Despite migrant workers’ contributions to Oman’s workforce, they are treated as subhuman. Migrant workers are abused, exploited, and denied basic human rights. Before changing its policy due to international backlash, Oman was the only Gulf Cooperation Council country to charge migrant workers for a Covid-19 vaccine while providing them for Omanis at no cost. Not only does such a policy severely weaken efforts to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, but it is also reflective of the discrimination that migrant workers are subjected to. The Omani government does not view them—30 percent of the population—as citizens deserving of assistance.
Migrant workers are also completely isolated from Omani society. The Omanization plan, initially introduced in 1998 to diminish the country’s reliance on migrant worker labor and provide more employment opportunities for locals, has only stretched the divide between migrant workers and Omanis. It has limited migrant workers’ freedoms, barring them from certain professions reserved for Omanis and thus encouraging hiring discrimination. Omanization also adds fuel to the stigma that migrant workers are “stealing jobs” and damaging the livelihoods of Omanis.
Female migrant domestic workers are left particularly vulnerable. It’s common practice for employers to force domestic workers to toil in tortuous conditions, and migrant domestic workers are often the victims of sexual abuse. In September 2022, Do Bold published a report highlighting the abuses endured by Sierra Leonean migrant domestic workers in Oman. Across 22 months, the organization surveyed 656 workers and found that 80 percent work between 16 and 20 hours a day, 77 percent experience discrimination, 57 percent endure physical abuse, and 27 percent are victims of sexual abuse. The report concluded that there is “a thriving human trafficking business and widespread, normalized and accepted practices that indicate forced labour” in Oman. Indeed, founder and director of Do Bold Ekaterina Porras Sivolobova noted in our conversation that, “especially for the Gulf region, when it comes to human trafficking, it is the region with the most prevalence of human trafficking but with the least information about it.”
Employers shut down any attempt workers undertake to leave their job: Many throw out their workers’ passports so they can’t transfer workplaces or flee the country. Even so, Oman’s immigration system prevents migrant domestic workers from quitting their job or switching to a new one without their original employer’s permission. The kafala system authorizes employers to sponsor their workers, which entails paying their travel expenses and providing housing. Under this system, a worker cannot leave her job without the employer’s permission. This system facilitates a dependent relationship between migrant workers and their employers—a dynamic that employers are quick to exploit for their own benefits.
Workers that leave their employers without permission are severely punished, notwithstanding their reason for fleeing. The kafala system allows employers to file “absconding” or “runaway” charges against their domestic worker should they leave. Authorities then detain and arrest the worker before returning her to her employer with no questions asked. After running away from her employer to escape physical and verbal abuse, Indonesian domestic worker Aditya F. was seized by police officers. As punishment, her employer “beat her and broke her teeth.” Because of the kafala system, domestic migrant workers are viewed as the property of their employer, restricting avenues to seek legal redress.
These conditions have caught the attention of officials in migrant domestic workers’ home countries, some of whom, like in Indonesia, have decided to implement a ban to prevent workers from migrating to Oman. According to Human Rights Watch, however, these bans are “ineffective” and place women at a “heightened risk of trafficking or forced labor.”
So, what actions can be taken to improve conditions for migrant domestic workers?
For starters, Oman should ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which it has thus far refused to adopt. This convention safeguards migrant workers’ most basic human rights, including the “right to freedom of expression” and the “right to liberty and security of person.” The very notion that Oman has not signed this convention is living proof of its negligence toward the struggles and needs of migrant workers.
The next step Oman can take after implementing the convention is amending its labor laws to include migrant domestic workers. As it stands, Oman’s labor laws do not include these workers, thus excluding them from vital protections, which include limits on working hours and wage protections. Writing domestic workers into the law is the first step in changing on-the-ground practices.
In addition, Oman ought to bury the kafala system. Domestic workers should be allowed to end their employment contracts at any time without having to provide a reason. They should also have the freedom to transfer employers or leave the country without having to obtain the consent of their sponsor.
The plight of migrant domestic workers is an international human rights crisis, with vast regional and global implications if it remains unaddressed. The work of Do Bold and partner organizations have been instrumental in highlighting migrant domestic workers’ conditions, providing a microphone for migrant domestic workers to share their stories, exposing the intricate and highly active human trafficking system in the region, and laying out next steps for reforms. With enough international pressure and awareness, their efforts will come to fruition.