Rights watchdog warns against abuse of domestic help

Daily News Egypt
6 Min Read

CAIRO: During Ramadan, employers be considerate of the long hours domestic workers have to endure to create the iftar feasts and prepare the sohour meal, says Human Rights Watch (HRW).

New extensive research by HRW revealed that there is a significant amount of abuse of migrant domestic workers in the Middle East and North Africa.

The abuse includes wage exploitation, months or years of non-payment of wages, forced confinement, physical and sexual abuse and extensive work hours without any rest, overtime pay or days off.

“It is disturbing to us that there are a great deal of workers who are abused, the numbers are high, especially in the Gulf area. Verbal and physical abuse is extremely widespread with thousands of workers are treated as bad as slaves, said Clarisa Bencomo, human rights researcher on children’s rights at the Middle East and North Africa arm of the organization.

Bencomo feels that no one suffers as much during Ramadan than the domestic workers who are expected to take on all the extra load of work without complaint.

“Our issue now is that during the month of Ramadan these workers will suffer even more. They have the additional work such as preparing for the iftar meal. They are expected to get up earlier than the family to prepare the sohour and then stay up late after the family have gone to sleep so that they can clean up afterwards.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch said: “In this special time of spiritual reflection, employers should end the abusive treatment of the women who work tirelessly to clean their homes, care for their children, and feed their families.

The workers’ hardships are not limited to Ramadan however; throughout the year domestic workers face several problems.

The two predominant issues for domestic workers are not getting paid and the strenuous and long work hours. “Employers [don’t pay] workers their wages for long periods of time spanning from a few weeks or months to sometimes years. If they do get paid it is worth about as much as a couple of cents. Bencomo said.

Most domestic workers are living in the same houses as their employers where many are working on a 24 hour shift with limited, if any, breaks. “They are always on call. It is very concerning as they tend to have no days off and work around the clock, Bencomo explained.

In Lebanon, Human Rights Watch launched the “Put Yourself in Her Shoes campaign to raise awareness about the horrific way some workers are treated. Since January 2007 at least 95 migrant domestic workers have died in Lebanon, of these deaths 40 were said to have been suicides.

With limited laws to protect the domestic workers, their abuse can go unnoticed.

“There are very few laws, globally that include domestic workers. Employers are usually allowed to set the maximum amount of hours for the least amount of pay. Bencomo commented.

Governments are progressing towards a new law to protect these workers but this is a slow process that could take years before it is finalized.

In Egypt, where several cases of severe physical abuse of domestic workers had made headlines over the years, courts find employers guilty of abuse but there is no law specific to domestic workers. Recently, the Ministry of Manpower and Immigration tried to formulate a set of regulation that would guarantee the rights of Egypt’s female workers employed abroad. The set of regulations, widely believed to be a masked regulation for “domestic maids, was criticized for indirectly encouraging “exporting Egyptian maids abroad.

“There has been a move towards separate legislation in Morocco for these workers. In Saudi Arabia, there are discussions on reforms on how these workers are brought in to the country but the government is moving very slowly with this. The discussion has already taken two and a half years, Bencomo said.

Bencomo believes that there is a lot to be done before these workers get fair treatment. “The government should include domestic workers in their labor laws and these rules should be enforced.

“Workers should be able to make complaints that can be followed up and if the employer is found guilty of criminal actions then he should have a real penalty. In Saudi Arabia if an employer is found to have treated many domestic workers then they are suspended from having these workers for a period of time, this isn’t exactly harsh. She added.

Just as with most things, the human rights watch does not believe it is the sole responsibility of the government, but that of the employers as well.

“We need to focus on getting worker contracts so that they can demand their basic rights. They need to get their wages on time or even the very basic right of a day off and daily breaks. It is vital that the abuse of domestic workers stops now, Bencomo said.

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