Gulf countries abandon idea of unified contract for domestic workers
With translation by Riham Sheble
After more than a year of debate, the GCC is backing away from introducing a common contract for domestic workers – a legal mechanism that many had hoped would curb the exploitation of women working as maids, nannies and cooks in homes across the Gulf.
Instead, Qatar and its neighbors appear to be refocusing on individual reforms in their own countries, rather than adopting a region-wide approach.
Qatar previously mulled introducing an extensive new law regulating domestic workers in 2011, but apparently postponed it when other countries raised the idea of a regional contract.
After appearing to reach an agreement on a long-debated common contract for domestic workers in November, representatives from Gulf labor ministries backtracked several days later and said they don’t actually have the authority to introduce binding changes, according to various media reports.
The lack of progress has caused dismay among some advocacy organizations, including Migrant-Rights.org, which recently issued a statement criticizing the GCC for falling short on its own promises.
The group, like many other human rights organizations, says legal reforms are needed to better protect domestic workers working in the Gulf from abuse.
Amnesty International estimated there are some 84,000 women working in domestic service jobs in Qatar.
Domestic workers such as maids, gardeners and cooks are not protected by Qatar’s labor laws, and the private nature of their work makes it difficult for authorities to investigate allegations of maltreatment.
Rights groups say this has led to exploitation of some women in Qatar, who have been subject to excessive working hours, late and unpaid wages, restrictions on movement and sexual assaults.
Additionally, a domestic servant fleeing an abusive employer could be charged with absconding and be deported. Meanwhile, any woman who is sexually assaulted could be charged with “illicit relations” if she is not married to the perpetrator.
Amnesty has said the most common complaint among domestic workers is receiving a substitute contract upon arriving in Qatar containing a lower salary and poorer working conditions than what was promised in their home country.
A standardized contract, it was hoped, would address this problem along with improving the working hours and conditions for domestic workers.
In late November, representatives from labor and social affairs ministries from across the Gulf met in Kuwait to discuss draft regulations covering the employment of maids, nannies and other domestic workers.
Stipulations included a weekly day off, the right to live outside the employer’s home, a six-hour working day with paid overtime and the right to travel at any time.
Additionally, employers would be banned from withholding the passports of employees and would have been required to provide domestic workers with air tickets home at the end of their contract, Jamal Al-Dosari, Kuwait’s director general of the public authority for workforce, said at the time.
He added that the common contract would take effect once it was approved by the GCC labor ministers. Several days later, however, Al-Dosari was quoted as saying that no agreement had been reached by the ministers and appeared to shoot down the very concept of a common contract.
The authorities responsible for foreign workers issues vary from country to country, meaning that the labor ministers in the Gulf don’t always have the authority to introduce changes to regulations surrounding domestic workers, Al-Dosari said.
In Kuwait, for example, it is up to the Ministry of Interior to approve and authorize the contracts of domestic workers, according to a report in Kuwait-based Alrai newspaper.
It added that the nation’s MOI had not been consulted on the agreement, which was first proposed more than a year ago.
“The confusion is neither incidental nor uncommon,” Migrant Watch said. “Since the draft contract first emerged in early 2013, GCC states have eschewed transparency and avoided accountability through purposefully ambiguous rhetoric.”
There are signs that the concept of a common contract for domestic workers in the Gulf may never come to fruition. Al-Dosari was quoted as saying that the contract would be used as a “reference” by GCC members.
That’s similar to comments made by Aqeel Ahmed Al-Jassim, the GCC’s labor and social affairs ministers’ council executive bureau director general.
Migrant-Rights.org said he told the advocacy organization in mid-2014 that the contract would not be a binding law, but rather a guideline.
The group argued that this means individual countries can select or ignore various provisions within the model contract as they see fit – something that doesn’t leave the organization with much optimism.
“Each year, GCC states recycle the same promises for domestic worker reform, and each year the changes actually implemented are marginal at best,” the advocacy organization said.