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Report: Female migrant workers abused in the UAE

New Human Rights Watch report details how UAE laws allegedly enable abuse of nearly 150,000 domestic workers

Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a damning report Thursday on the condition of migrant domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates, alleging that they are frequently “trapped, exploited and abused.”

“I already Bought You,” the title of the 79 page report, refers to the fee “employment agencies” charge the workers. The fee is sometimes covered by the employer in the receiving country, which makes some employers believe they somehow "own" the employee.

According to HRW, some domestic workers complain about not being paid, being beaten, overworked and in some cases, being “treated like animals, or as if they were dirty and physical contact with them would be contaminating.”

“Even those countries that reject our findings and refuse to communicate with us, they still have to deal with the media coverage of the abuses,” Nisha Varia, associate director in HRW’s Women’s Rights Division, told Al Jazeera. “They still have deal with the increased awareness of what’s taking place.”

This, she said, “often instigates internal investigations…and often results in increased engagement with the issues, and that’s really our goal.”

HRW would like to see the abolition of the “kafala” system, which prevents migrant workers from changing jobs or leaving the country without being accused of absconding.

The UAE has revised standard contracts to include at least one day off for the approximately 146,000 female migrant domestic workers employed there, but Varia says these are “half-measures” that do not give domestic migrant workers full protection under labor laws.

Jordan, she said, has included domestic workers under their labor laws, while Bahrain has provided “some coverage.”

“So there is evidence that some movement is possible and we would like to see the UAE, which prides itself as being a leader in the regions – well, this is an opportunity to really be a leader on the issue which continues to be a problem all over the Gulf and offer some strong protections,” said Varia

Potential for positive change

In 2011, the United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO) adopted the Domestic Workers Convention (C189) – a document that defines domestic service as work, deserving, among other things, fair pay and protections.

It also set clear rules for working conditions and access to “complaint mechanisms and means of ensuring compliance with national laws and regulations for the protection of domestic workers.”

So far, only 14 countries have signed on to ratify the document. The UAE is not among them. The country’s embassy did not respond to a call for comment.

However, the ILO has elected the UAE to its governing board and the Gulf country is set to participate in a session at the end of October to focus on a number of labor issues. A Gulf Cooperation Council conference is scheduled on November 23, in Kuwait, where the rights of domestic workers are also on the agenda.

According to Marieke Koning, of the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation, the adoption of C189 was an “historical turning point and in a way, for the first time, we had an international, legal instrument which recognizes and respects the minimum standards that domestic workers should enjoy.”

“When governments and employers and unions had to vote to adopt this convention, the United Arab Emirates was one of the countries which voted in favor of the adoption of the Convention 189, and so we’re disappointed that they don’t take the second step of putting their house in order to ratify the convention themselves,” said Koning.

Still, the impact of the ILO and its engagement with the governments plays a “key role” with the possible execution of this process.

“That has lead, in a relatively short time period, in fundamental changes in favor of domestic workers in more than 30 or 40 countries in the world, either through ratification or labor law reforms, or the approval of collective bargaining," said Koning.

But Koning is as impatient as she is optimistic when it comes to the UAE ratifying changes. “Imagine, every day as a migrant domestic worker that is hurt, exploited and tortured," she said. "And that’s why I say that the time is ticking.”

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