By Sabin Muzaffar
International Women's Initiative News Writer
Caregiving has long been considered the domain of the female, and women across the world spend disproportionately more time than men in providing care to the young and old alike, often with little or no remuneration. Whether paid or unpaid, millions of women play a pivotal role in what is now termed the “care economy” through domestic employment both in their home countries and abroad. Although its importance as a pillar of economic development is often overlooked, care work has become a critical dimension of globalization in many countries by providing women with employment and meeting the needs of those who cannot care for themselves.
Women who work outside their home countries, or transnational domestic workers, are particularly vulnerable to abuses, including harassment and exploitation by recruiters, employers, and various public and private agents involved in labor migration processes. While many states across the Global South generally encourage such migration for economic purposes, receiving countries often have insubstantial policies to protect the rights of female transnational domestic workers.
Countries across the Middle East receive some of the largest numbers of transnational migrants working both legally and illegally. Saudi Arabia receives the largest number migrant domestic laborers, primarily from Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, and the United Arab Emirates follows close behind with over 75% of its population falling into the category of migrant workers. Oil-rich countries in particular have seen an influx of female transnational workers, and since care work is seen as informal employment and thus poorly regulated, many of these women experience poor living conditions and physical abuse at the hands of their employers, both male and female.
In one case, Renuka Thanuja, a 40-year-old domestic worker from Sri Lanka working in Bahrain, related how her male employer tried to make sexual advances on her, attempting to enter her room while she slept even though her husband was living under the same roof. In another case, a Bangladeshi woman named Salma legally entered the UAE but ran away from her employer’s home even before her passport was officially stamped, thus rendering her status illegal. She was forced to leave one job after another, either because of the employer’s children’s poor treatment of her, an employer’s indecent behavior, or squalid living conditions. As the only breadwinner for her family back in Bangladesh, Salma’s vulnerability was mainly due to her illegal migrant status, which kept her in fear of deportation.
In the UAE, policies, laws, and the migrant sponsorship practice known as kafala are structured in ways that severely restrict the rights of female domestic workers. According to research by Human Rights Watch, the absence of legal protections in the UAE leaves domestic workers, especially from Asia and Africa, vulnerable to abuses. These workers often require their current employers’ consent in order to end their contracts and find new jobs. Moreover, sending countries routinely fail to curb “deceptive recruitment practices” or assist their citizens who are trapped in abusive working conditions abroad.
In response to numerous reports of abuses against domestic workers, policymakers in the UAE have begun to devise plans to create protections for female migrant workers against sexual and other forms of physical violence. According to the Migration Policy Institute, over the past several years the government has implemented measures including wage protection mechanisms and a prohibition on employers’ confiscation of their employees’ passports. In 2013, the government passed an amendment to a law that offers greater protection to victims of human trafficking and also stepped up outreach efforts to airport security personnel and other actors who could play a role in curbing trafficking. More broadly, the UAE has demonstrated willingness to cooperate with the international community on improving labor standards, including active participation in the Abu Dhabi Dialogue, which aims to establish better regulations on labor migration. However, many of these measures have been haphazardly enforced, and the kafala sponsorship system continues to hamper policymakers’ ability to regulate labor migration processes.
The plight of female transnational workers in the Middle East can be attributed to a web of factors, including weak enforcement mechanisms, deeply entrenched patriarchal mindsets, the often pernicious role of recruitment agencies that charge exorbitant fees for visas and other services, and employers’ exploitation of workers who wish to return home or find alternative employment. Regardless of the causes, it is time for lawmakers to take more concrete steps towards redesigning policies to protect domestic workers, including setting up entities such as an ombudsperson office or watchdog body that includes a range of governmental and civil society actors that can represent the interests of female migrant workers. Governments and international nongovernmental organizations should also partner with domestic worker associations to address grievances. Ultimately, a rights-based approach to the globalization of caregiving work is necessary to challenge and dismantle the gender inequality endemic in this sector and in labor migration more broadly.