In This Country, ‘Domestic Worker’ Is Code for Slave Labor

A new report charges the United Arab Emirates with failing to protect African and Asian domestic workers from abuse and exploitation.

(Photo: Human Rights Watch/Twitter)

Oct 27, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Vince Beiser has reported from more than two dozen countries for Wired, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and others. In 2014 he won the Media for Liberty Award.

One woman was starved for three days after angering her boss. Another said she was raped in the home where she took a job as a domestic servant. A third had her arm broken.

Nearly 100 women told of abuses like these in clandestine interviews with Human Rights Watch late last year that form the basis for a report from the group, released last week. They provide a look behind closed doors in the United Arab Emirates, a wealthy Persian Gulf state where 146,000 African and Asian women work as housecleaners in search of better lives but soon find themselves trapped in abusive and exploitative situations. “Some workers were employed in circumstances that amounted to forced labor or trafficking,” read the report.

Many of the 99 workers HRW interviewed reported being beaten and physically confined to the homes of their employers. Some were punched, slapped, and scraped with fingernails.

Many of the women also said they hadn’t been paid or had been forced to work up to 21 hours a day with no days off. One woman said her employer had not allowed her to eat for three days as a punishment.

Amna Al Meheiri, head of the UAE Foreign Ministry’s human rights department, denounced the report in a statement on Friday, saying it “draws sweeping conclusions based on a small, unrepresentative sample.... Given the number of foreign workers in the UAE, there are bound to be cases of abuse. Such cases do not reflect the general situation, which works to the benefit of the vast majority of employers and employees.”

HRW said it contacted 15 UAE ministries three times each over the past year so it could address allegations in the report and received no response. Labor law for domestic workers was reformed in June to address one issue raised by the report, requiring that employees be provided eight hours of time off per 24-hour period. A few abusers have been successfully prosecuted, though HRW said obstacles to filing complaints remain.

One of the richest countries in the world, the UAE pulls in migrant laborers like honey does ants. Almost 90 percent of the country’s population are migrant workers.

There’s not much domestic workers can do if they’re mistreated. Though some categories of the nation’s 7.3 million migrant workers have legal protections, HRW noted that “domestic workers are explicitly excluded from the UAE’s labor law and from the basic protections that the law and other labor policies afford to most other workers.... Domestic workers have virtually no legal safeguards governing their employment.” Under the UAE’s traditional kafala visa system, migrant workers are essentially tied to the employers who sponsored them. That means a worker can’t leave for a job with another family. Employers can revoke their sponsorship at any time, forcing the worker to return home.

Meanwhile, the agencies that recruited the workers in the first place are often little help—and sometimes the opposite. Several women told HRW that when they went to the agencies seeking help, the agents beat them or forced them to return to their employers.

The UAE isn’t alone in allowing abuse and even enslavement of domestic workers. It’s been documented in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia and even the United States.