Monday, 14 April 2008

Suffering in Silence: Domestic Workers Need Legal Protection
BCHR calls for domestic workers to be covered by Labour Law and given weekly holidayUrges unions and women's groups to get involved
Bahrain Center for Human Rights2 Jan 2007Ref: 07010200
Migrant domestic workers in the Gulf countries are among the most vulnerable sections of the society. As both females and migrants, often with very little formal education, domestic workers are the most in need of protection by the State. On the contrary, in the Gulf, domestic workers have been specifically excluded from the purview of the Labour Law, and therefore any legal rights as workers. In effect, they work as the property of their employers with no mechanism to ensure they are provided a safe workplace and are not being abused.
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights therefore calls upon the governments of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to amend their Labour Laws such that domestic workers are included under its scope. The BCHR furthers calls on the authorities and civil societies to take immediate steps to require that employers give domestic workers at least one day off from work each week.
This is in line with Article 25 of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which states that:
"Migrant domestic workers shall enjoy treatment not less favourable than that which applies to citizen of the country of employment in respect of remuneration and other conditions of work, such as overtime, hours of work, weekly day off, holidays with pay, safety, health, termination of the employment relationship and any other conditions of work which, according to national labour law and practice, are covered by these terms."
Abuse of domestic workers too frequent
Article 10 of the International Convention states that "No migrant worker or member of his or her family shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment". Article 16 adds that they "shall be entitled to effective protection by the State against violence, physical injury, threats and intimidation, whether by public officials or by private individuals, groups or institutions."
However, in Bahrain and the Gulf, every week, the local media reports on cases of domestic workers, women from South and Southeast Asia, who have been abused and denied basic rights. There are horrific tales of women who have run away from their local employer's homes in search of help. The complaints range from being overworked or not receiving wages, to being beaten or raped.[1]
"With the shocking and huge number of cases that we read in the daily newspapers, we do not see any local citizens brought to justice for committing such abusive acts", BCHR Vice-president Nabeel Rajab said."The cases that make it to the media, however, are just a fraction of the actual cases of domestic worker abuse in the region. Most of the victims suffer in silence," he said.
Abused domestic workers frequently fall victim to clinical depression, and reports of workers who try to escape the suffering by attempting to commit suicide are very common. In April 2006, in the the space of just a month, three housemaids attempted suicide at the Philippine Embassy's shelter for distressed workers [2]. According the US State Department's 2005 Report on Human Rights Practices in Bahrain, "between 30 to 40 percent of the attempted suicide cases handled by the government's psychiatric hospitals were foreign maids" [3].
Courts fail to provide protection
If an abused domestic worker is lucky, her sponsor may eventually put her on a plane back to her home country, without any compensation for the suffering. Such was the case of Indian housemaid P. P. Ayesha in 2006, who was kept in virtual slavery for three months without pay and beaten on separate occasions by a recruitment agency employee and two Bahraini sponsors.[4]
Unfortunately, most abused domestic workers agree to go back home without seeking justice because they have no other choice. A legal case in Bahraini courts would be long and drawn out, so this is rarely an option -- unemployed migrant workers would have no alternate means to support themselves during the duration of a trial, let alone pay for legal expenses. Furthermore, the lack of independence of the judiciary means that employers and sponsors can use their social status to influence court decisions in their favour.

Anita Verma, abused Indian domestic workerThere is only one known case of domestic worker abuse in Bahrain in which the courts have convicted the employer. In this case, the employer was an Indian national – the guilty verdict would have been very unlikely had she been a Bahraini national. The victim, Anita Devi Verma, suffered multiple head wounds, bruises and burns before being saved by BCHR workers. Despite the fact that her employer admitted to the crime, it took two years for the court to reach a verdict. The employer was sentenced to a mere three months in jail and ordered to pay Ms. Verma a paltry sum of BD500 (US$1,326) in compensation.[5]
This failure of the judicial system to protect domestic workers contravenes Article 18 of the International Convention, which states that: "Migrant workers and members of their families shall have the right to equality with nationals of the State concerned before the courts and tribunals. In the determination of any criminal charge against them or of their rights and obligations in a suit of law, they shall be entitled to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law".
A day off is essential for communication and rest
In a region where both women's rights and migrant's right are compromised, domestic workers in the Gulf are immediately at a high risk of having their rights violated. This is compounded by the fact that for many of them, it is their first time away from their families and homes, and they are often unfamiliar with Arabic or English and local customs.
However, what puts domestic workers especially at risk is the fact that they work and live individually in the homes of their employers, isolated from the outside world. Without any protection from the Labour Law, the employers are free to prevent the workers from leaving the residence, or deny them from making telephone calls. This lack of contact with the outside world means that abused domestic workers are unable to seek help or advice from their peers, their embassies, or the police. It also contributes to the loneliness and depression that domestic workers very often suffer from.
As an immediate and minimum remedy, the BCHR calls on the government to require that all domestic workers are given at least one day off from work each week, when they should be allowed to leave the residence.
Unions and women's groups should give them a voice
Sadly, the plight of domestic workers has been ignored not only by the State, but also by civil societies in Bahrain and the Gulf; they have become invisible to society due to the social stigma attached to their status as low-income earning migrants.
The BCHR urges all labour unions and women's rights organizations to take a stand in defending the rights of female domestic workers. We request these civil societies to make the plight of domestic workers part of their organizational agenda, and allow them to participate in meetings and activities with a view to protecting their economic, social and cultural interests.
Domestic workers should be encouraged to become members of unions and womens organizations so that they can have access to a social support network that is otherwise denied to them. In particular, the civil societies should assist the domestic workers in organizing themselves so they can have a collective voice with which to defend themselves.
We urge the media and the embassies of sending countries to support us in the demand for one day off per week, and ask them to join us in renewing the demand for domestic workers to be included in the purview of the Labour Law.
[1] "The shattered dreams", Bahrain Tribune, 18 December 2006
[2] "Suicide bid by maid...", Gulf Daily News, 9 April 2006
[3] Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2005, US State Department, 8 March 2006
[4] "Assaulted maid flies home penniless", Gulf Daily News, 2 October 2006
[5] "Abused maid yearns to go home", Gulf Daily News, 1 July 2005, and "Woman jailed for abusing maid", Gulf Daily News, 27 June 2005
"Circumstances facing Migrant women (Domestic Workers) in the Gulf", Paper presented by BCHR Vice President Nabeel Rajab to the Annual Conference of the World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations, Bangkok, 25 - 28 September 2003
"Holding Back and Confiscating Passports of Migrant Workers and Forbidding Them from Traveling", BCHR, 26 September 2005
"Swept Under the Rug: Abuses Against Domestic Workers Around the World", Human Rights Watch, July 2006
"Death and the Maid: Work, Violence, and the Filipina in the International Labor Market", Dan Gatmaytan, Harvard Women's Law Journal, Spring 1997

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