On an almost daily basis, immigrant domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), face mistreatment and sometimes physical abuse, according to human rights activists.
Noor arrived in Dubai from Ethiopia 18 months ago to work as a housemaid for a local family. Only 19, she is now pregnant after being raped by her employer. Noor is not her real name.
“I don’t want to keep the baby … I need to provide for my family back in Ethiopia,” she told IRIN.
Many immigrants arrive in the UAE looking for domestic work so they can send money home to their impoverished families. Each worker needs to be sponsored for a work permit by the family that employs them. Noor’s employer actually warned her to be careful.
“The wife warned me that her husband had done this before, and not to speak to him too much,” Noor said, sobbing. “But one night he came into my room, threw me on the floor and raped me, while one of his children, a three-year-old, stood in the room and watched.”
She did not report the incident to the police for fear of being deported. When the family learned she was pregnant, they “told me to go home to Ethiopia and have the baby and then return to work for them,” Noor said.
Noor’s attempt to have the baby aborted, failed, so she decided to run away. She is now staying at a safe house run by a local NGO.
“We did register her case with the police,” said Sharla Musabih who runs the shelter for abused women. She said the man who allegedly raped Noor is in police custody.
Noor’s case is not isolated. Although there are no accurate figures, Musabih believes abuse to be common in the UAE, a place where domestic workers make up a large proportion of the population. Noor’s case is, however, said to be an extreme example.
Women at most risk
The UAE’s Ministry of the Interior is reported to estimate the number of domestic workers at about 600,000, most from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, the Philippines, and Pakistan. A 2001 International Labour Organization (ILO) report says Indonesians are the majority, followed by Filipinos.
About 80 per cent of the UAE’s population are expatriate workers, outnumbering nationals, and according to Musabih, it is not always nationals who are accused of committing abuse. Musabih said a Sri Lankan woman said she had been abused and left unpaid by the Indian family she worked for. She was told she was “lucky to have a roof over her head,” Musabih said.
She had also spoken to a Filipino woman who said she was often slapped and told to sit on the floor, as opposed to a chair. The UAE police, she said, have dealt better with cases of alleged domestic abuse in recent years, but she felt the only way to stop abuse was through prosecution.
According to an international watchdog, Human Rights Watch (HRW), there have been no cases of the prosecution in the UAE, of employers accused of raping domestic servants.
“This provides a culture of impunity that perpetuates sexual crimes against domestic workers. Our research indicates that all rape cases of domestic servants that are brought to the attention of the authorities, are settled out of court and no one has been prosecuted,” said Hadi Ghaemi, HRW’s Researcher for Middle East and North Africa Division.
Employers often keep migrant workers’ passports, even though the UAE government has ruled against this.
Some local embassies try to help
According to the Philippines Embassy in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi, there are 36,000 legally-registered Filipino domestic workers in the Gulf nation, around half of them in the city of Dubai. An embassy official said that each year an average of about six percent of these workers, report cases of alleged abuse to the embassy, including beatings and unpaid salaries.
“Some locals have been jailed for this. There is still a venue to address the problem,” an embassy worker told IRIN. “We report physical abuse to [the] police. We have a centre for runaways in the embassy. We take them into our custody and report to immigration authorities, and the sponsor is informed,” the embassy official added.
Some 165,000 Sri Lankans are registered in the UAE, about 70 percent of them domestic workers, predominately female. According to a Sri Lankan embassy source, “The two most common complaints from the worker, are that employers don’t give them salaries, and that they are harassed either physically, sexually or verbally.”
Around 50 legal domestic workers arrive in the UAE from India each month, according to Indian officials in the UAE. The labour department at the Indian embassy in Abu Dhabi says its assists domestic workers who have been mistreated, helping them retrieve passports held by employers. An official from the Indian Embassy told IRIN that it rarely receives complaints from employers about domestic workers.
Job agencies blamed too
The plight of domestic workers is something that has touched the heart of Angela, a Canadian national who helps domestic workers who complain of abuse by their employers. Since November 2005, she and her husband have helped two domestic workers from the Philippines, return home.
“But we have been in contact with dozens and dozens of girls. Ninety-nine percent of the cases are horrific.” “I’ve seen women with bruises all over, and I know another girl who was forced to go into her employer’s room every night for sex,” she said.
Angela cited rape, beating and starvation as ‘common’ forms of abuse. On top of this, “All have spent months paying back agencies for contracts and labour insurance,” she said. She said one girl had nothing to eat except the bread she stole and hid. Most domestic workers said they ate leftovers.
Agencies who recruit domestic workers from afar are aware of the conditions workers will face, Angela said. “The problem starts in the country they come from; some are trafficked and all documents are taken away from them.”
“The maid has no holidays, no day off - this is the law here,” a spokesperson from an employment agency, Gulf Labour Services, told IRIN. “But you [the employer] are responsible for medical bills, food and uniforms; and the employer has to keep [the] passport,” he said when asked whether the employer has the right to keep the workers’ documents, this in contradiction to the law.
HRW’s Middle East researcher, Hadi Ghaemi said, “We have done a number of interviews with runaway domestic workers, and found that there was systematic exploitation.” A common complaint was long working hours of up to 17 hours a day, and malnutrition resulting from a lack of food.
“All complained of no days off, and some were confined and not allowed to leave the house they were working in. There was also one case of rape. The embassies we spoke to said the police did take rape cases seriously," Ghaemi said, adding that the UAE government should modify its labour law so that domestic workers are entitled to the same rights as other migrant workers.
Currently, the labour law excludes domestic workers from its provisions. Article 3.c explicitly excludes domestic servants from protection under the Labour Law: www.mol.gov.ae Nor has the UAE ratified the United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.
IRIN has not yet received a response to questions it sent in May to the UAE’s Ministry of Labour and the immigration department, concerning allegations of the abuse of foreign domestic workers by employers in the country.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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