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Sophia Akram

GCC must reform laws to end trafficking

Laws that entrap domestic workers into servitude like kafala have not been abolished [Getty]

Date of publication: 8 July, 2016

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Comment: Reform of laws governing the rights of migrant domestic workers is painfully slow - a consequence of insufficient political will and a lack of international pressure, writes Sophia Akram.

Around seven years ago, I heard a story, a story of a seemingly insignificant girl, but one that made a lasting impact on me. It was Seda's story, encapsulated by Kevin Bales in Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy.

Seda was brought to Paris from Mali by a family friend. As an adolescent girl, she was told she would be coming to go to school and learn French, a ruse that ultimately trapped her in a nightmare of domestic servitude for her "friend" and their family.

She worked from 7am to 11pm, was made to sleep on the floor, denied days off, forbidden from going outside and beaten. Beaten for minor discrepancies such as taking food, as she was only allowed leftovers. Seda wasn't just beaten in fact, she was tortured in unfathomable ways, and violated to the point of falling unconscious.

Her story resonated with me because she was invisible, at least before her rescue, and her situation was completely avoidable; in part facilitated by legal frameworks that did not recognise her or her rights.

Seda's story seems extreme but the number of Sedas in the world is astonishing. Migrant domestic workers are systematically finding themselves trapped in exploitative and abusive situations, while progress on the movement to improve their situation is incremental.

Of the estimated 11.5 million migrant workers in the world, a fifth of them are working in the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC). According to the US Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) 2016 released at the end of June, their situation remains precarious with little motivation to address their plight both within the GCC and on the global scale. In fact, only two weeks earlier an international day to mark Domestic Workers (IDWD) was held, but it came and went without so much as a blip in national newsfeeds.

One of the key objectives of IDWD was to raise awareness and advocacy efforts for ratification of the ILO Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers (C–189), which sets out protections for domestic workers in line with other labour standards. Since it came into force, not one Gulf country has ratified the convention and their track record on migrant worker abuses remains abysmal.

Since it came into force, not one Gulf country has ratified the ILO convention and their track record on migrant worker abuses remains abysmal

The TIP report presents hundreds of stories of exploitation and abuse which bear similar hallmarks. Employers retain their workers papers and passports; employees are prevented from going outside, having a life and talking to other people, particularly other domestic workers. They are made to work excessive hours and denied breaks or days off; they are often beaten or given cruel punishments such as being denied meals and threatened with arrest.

Migrant domestic workers become particularly vulnerable because they know nobody in their new environment, often don't speak the language and find themselves in a society that functions differently to their own. They fear the authorities, and don't even have their own papers as proof of identity.

This vulnerability is exacerbated by the legal framework in GCC countries. Legal reform has been variable among the six states, with some welcome amendments but there are some worrying consistencies that all six states should address immediately.

Firstly, none of the labour laws in any of the Gulf countries extend to migrant domestic workers, and many explicitly state that they do not apply to domestic servants, leaving a protection gap.

Secondly, Gulf states still have in effect the Kafala visa sponsorship system, based on historic principles of hospitality that govern the treatment and protection of foreign guests. These eventually became formalised in the laws around rights and employment for migrant workers. The system mandates the employer as the "kafeel" or "sponsor", who exacts their demand for labour, met either by direct recruitment or employment agencies. The immigration status is therefore, tied to individual kafeels for the contract period.

The employee has no autonomy under this system - they cannot change jobs and cannot leave the country as they require the employer's permission to "exit".

Thirdly, the complaint and dispute resolution mechanisms in all GCC countries are very weak, which the international trade union confederation believes would "render the basic entitlements of migrant domestic workers illusory". While some reforms are underway in the GCC, they fall short of those required as a minimum standard against C–189, and their enforcement remains difficult.

None of the labour laws in any of the Gulf countries extend to migrant domestic workers

This is because the approach is piecemeal: Saudi Arabia and others may now have laws that state employees must receive rest periods of more than 24 hours, but there are still unfavourable clauses. These include an obligation to follow your employer's orders (which are not restricted to work) and working time restricted to 15 hours, which is almost twice as much as for other types of workers.

These laws that trap domestic workers into servitude have also not been abolished, so such limited improvements are simply that - limited in nature and compounding the discrimination in the system.

While it is gaining momentum internationally, the movement for "emancipating" groups such as domestic workers, who find themselves trapped or in modern slave-like conditions, does not provoke the global outcry that other issues do.

I see this as due to two reasons. Firstly, the lines are often blurred between labour and slavery and many see the option of badly paid work at least preferable to no work, not realising they might become entrapped. Secondly, this is largely - although not exclusively - a problem that affects women, particularly in the realm of domestic work.

Domestic work has generally been relegated to the private sphere of the home and as such is traditionally dismissed from public scrutiny. From a feminist perspective, being paid for work that has ordinarily been expected for free is progressive and empowering, but if that is the case then it needs safeguards in place just as other industries have.

What domestic workers need is access to justice. They need to be able to refer complaints to a non-biased party and be afforded the protection of the law; they need to be able to bargain for their own entitlements and therefore, need to talk with other domestic workers. They also need to be allowed to leave a job and change employer to redress unfavourable conditions.

It would absolutely possible for all of this to be achieved if the Gulf states were to ratify C–189 and put in place adequate standard employment contracts for migrant workers in the GCC. Other states have done so and this immediately benefitted the many workers; but the political will does not exist in the Gulf and neither does the international pressure.

Domestic work has generally been relegated to the private sphere of the home and as such is traditionally dismissed from public scrutiny

The US has been leading the multi-lateral fight against modern-day slavery, and the TIP report ranks states according to their efforts in combating trafficking. Those ranked Tier 3 are liable for US sanctions. Last year Kuwait was ranked Tier 3 although what "non-humanitarian and non-trade sanctions" the US can apply to Kuwait remains to be seen, and they have since been upgraded.  

The TIP process, however, has often come under scrutiny as well, with rumours of the US cutting favours for their allies to avoid contempt or embarrassment. They also fail to talk about C-189, perhaps indicative of the importance attributed to abuses of domestic workers.

Without any meaningful measures, stories like Seda's will continue to multiply, each as hidden as the next. Meaningful action is a simple case of ratifying the international convention, which will harm neither the governments nor the wealthy kafeels.

If this does not happen, international partners should take meaningful action themselves by exerting pressure on states - including their allies - or face tough consequences.


Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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