Reforms by Middle Eastern and Asian governments, on migrant labour, are still not enough even to provide minimum protection for migrant housemaids, says Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Thousands of Sri Lankan women and girls go abroad to work as housemaids every year and reports of physical abuse, even death, of such migrant workers have become commonplace news.
To improve protection for migrant workers, Sri Lankan governments have been negotiating with major labour receiving countries. But HRW says reforms by these major labour receiving country governments are nowhere near the required level.
Resistance to reforms
“Reforms often encounter stiff resistance both from employers used to having a domestic worker on call around the clock and labour brokers profiting handsomely off a poorly regulated system,” said a women’s rights researcher at HRW, Nisha Varia, in a press release.
The biggest problem is that most governments exclude domestic workers from their main labour laws.
This denies them protections guaranteed to other workers, such as limits to hours of work or a weekly day of rest, says HRW in a report titled Slow Reform: Protection of Migrant Domestic Workers in Asia and the Middle East.
The report looks at the eight major housemaid receiving countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Singapore, and Malaysia.
Some of these countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE are major destinations for Sri Lankan housemaids.
According to the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau, in 2008, as much as 86% of Sri Lankans that went abroad to work, went to these four middle Eastern countries plus Qatar. In total, the Middle East accounted for 93% of Sri Lankan migrant workers. Out of the total 252,000 people going abroad to work in 2008, nearly half (49%) were women and a majority (88%), went to work as housemaids.
But at this point, “Only Jordan has amended its labour law to include domestic workers, guaranteeing protections such as monthly payment of salaries into a bank account, a weekly day off, paid annual and sick leave, and a maximum 10-hour workday. However, domestic workers cannot leave the workplace without permission from their employer,” says the HRW report.
The governments of Lebanon, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia have said they will change existing laws on migrant domestic workers, but have still not done this. However, some of these countries have the worst record of abuses of migrant workers.
For instance, according to the Foreign Employment Bureau, in 2008, the largest number of reported complaints are from Sri Lankans working in Saudi Arabia (4,196 complaints), Kuwait (2,053 complaints) and the UAE (826 cases).
The enforcement of laws in these countries is also not in favour of migrant workers - even at times of major abuses. Usually, battered domestic workers living in a strange country with little or no understanding of the language, simply do not have access to the law at all.
“For example, systems for filing complaints are often out of reach of domestic workers trapped in private homes and unable to speak the local language,” notes HRW. In the rare instances where legal actions have been taken, the cases can drag on for years, while the victim is detained in a shelter with limited facilities and no source of income.
This is not something that Sri Lankan housemaids can afford, because they go abroad due to poverty and their families depend on the remittances to live on. “The lengthy waits and uncertain outcomes cause many domestic workers to withdraw their complaints or negotiate financial settlements so they can return home quickly,” points out HRW.
In many cases the reaction to a migrant worker taking legal action against abuse, is even more virulent than detention in a shelter. Often the reaction is to counter- accuse the migrant worker, who is already a victim, of some crime – generally they are accused of theft or adultery or even which craft.
For instance, HRW points to cases where Sri Lankan domestic workers have been sentenced to prison and whipping in Saudi Arabia, for fornication. This is after their employers had raped and even impregnated them.
In 2008, the Foreign Employment Bureau reported over 9,000 complaints from migrant workers, including 12 suicides, 5 homicides. Meanwhile, another 72 deaths were classified as ‘accidental’ and 195 deaths were called ‘natural deaths.’ In addition, a total of 1,188 cases of harassment( physical or sexual), were also reported. Abuses like not paying wages and breach of contract are even more common.