Maids: Are They Being Served?

Human Rights Watch has once again turned its spotlight on the living and working conditions of domestic workers or housemaids in the Middle East.

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Published: Fri 19 Dec 2008, 10:10 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 3:55 PM

While the US-based rights group has recognised that most governments in the region have responded to international concerns and are moving to protect migrant women workers, it says they will mean nothing until some definite safeguards are put in place. This is why it is pushing the governments to act quickly to fulfill their obligations to protect the rights of migrant women.

It’s a well-known fact that millions of women from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Philippines and some African countries work in the Middle East. And every year thousands more arrive. It is also not possible to fudge the fact that many of these helpless women face physical and sexual abuse, violence and violation of their basic rights at the hands of their employers.

Since maids or domestic help are excluded from legal protection of law offered to other workers in most countries, in many cases there’s no system in place to check such abuse or even take action when a very tiny minority manages to bring it to the notice of the authorities concerned. According to HRW, Lebanon the Mediterranean paradise that is home to a large population of Sri Lankan housemaids tops the dubious list of such countries.

Nearly every week one of an estimated 200,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon is killed. Suicide, falling while trying to escape employers and untreated illnesses are the main causes of death. The employers are rarely prosecuted. HRW says maids in Lebanon, as elsewhere in the Middle East and Asia, are vulnerable to beatings, rape and even murder. Another country that often reports cases of abuse is Saudi Arabia, home to a significant number of domestic help from Southeast Asian nations.

Doubtless, this is a disturbing state of affairs. However, the fact that most countries in the region are formulating and taking long-term and effective measures to deal with the problem gives one hope.

The UAE already has laws in place that protect its domestic workers. And it has zero tolerance for employers and recruitment agencies and others who are responsible for abuse or failure. The UAE has adopted 36 recommendations of the 74 made by the international community after the country presented its first national report card to the United Nations on human rights situation in the country.

Several of our neighbours including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Lebanon are also initiating reforms and are in the process of drafting constitutional changes and laws to protect this most vulnerable section of expat work force.

But clearly the region needs to do more to deal with the problem. The media could play a critical role on this front both by acting as a watchdog as well as suggesting better mechanisms and safeguards to protect these unfortunate women. The Saudi media has been running a campaign against the abuse of maids in the country. It’s not only courageously reporting such abuse but it’s also building public opinion too by naming and shaming the offenders. That may be the way to go for all of us.

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