Gulf states are home to over 2.4 million domestic workers, according to Human Rights Watch. Yet these migrant workers, often of Southeast Asian origin, at times experience little protection. There have been cases in which expat workers have been subjected to poor working conditions, strenuous environments, and an average workweek of up to 60 hours in the region.
Unfortunately, sometimes media outlets report about a number of employers who are confiscating the workers’ ID and passports upon arrival into their homes, though GCC officials say such a habit is illegal, which makes the escape process – should it ever be needed – even more terrifying.
In my opinion, there are two primary reasons as to why domestic workers are subjected to these conditions: the implementation of specific labor laws protecting their rights and well-being, as well as social alienation from their host communities and therefore a lack of education and understanding of their rights.
Facebook as a means of human rights education
Social media is a tool that can step in to fill the gaps in communication. Although not every domestic worker has access to the Internet, the ones who do are using social media to document their trials and tribulations. In November 2015, a group of Ethiopian maids in Kuwait managed to leak cell-phone footage of the conditions they are subjected to in a prison cell. After this surfaced, the Ethiopian embassy announced that the women were now awaiting deportation. A group of lawyers and activists offered to step in and help pay the fees in order to shorten their sentences. In the video, the women claim they have been beaten and abused.
This is not the first case where domestic workers publish videos on Facebook in order to garner attention.
Mobile phones must become a basic right
As argued by Mark Zuckerburg, a connected mobile phone needs to become a basic human right. In the case of domestic workers in the Gulf, this is needed now more than ever. A mobile phone can provide them with the social connectivity with their community and allow them to maintain their mental and psychological well-being. More importantly, a mobile phone offers a chance of rescue and refuge. It allows domestic workers the opportunity to get in contact with their embassy if they are having issues with their employer, or in a worst-case scenario, even contact the police for more urgent issues, such as rape or physical abuse.
Additionally, a mobile phone can be used as an educative tool to raise awareness of their rights. A Facebook group called UAE Labor Law Clarifications offers free advice on labor laws, dealing with difficult employers, and how to get out. The group has over 90,000 members.
Home and host governments are equally responsible
Ultimately, there is only so much that an embassy can do for its citizens. The cost of deportation or removal from the host country can be seen as a challenge in cases where the employer does not regularly pay the domestic worker. This can be overcome with a simple arrival kit provided by employment agencies, which includes a newly-opened bank account. A bank account means that if the domestic worker has to run away and leave her belongings behind, his/her money would still be safe and secure in a bank account, therefore allowing her to pay for her flight home.
There is plenty that host governments can do. In 2014, GCC member states agreed on terms in the contracts of domestic workers, including an 8-hour work day and a day off every week, but the methods of implementation and enforcement have not been made clear.
Ultimately, it is the responsibility of both the host and the domestic worker’s home government to educate both the employer and the employee of their rights in order to end the abuse.
Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir
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