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Maid to work: Gulf labourers hope for day off




Sam Bollier


New proposal aims to protect rights of region's many domestic workers, but critics say charter does not go far enough.

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Doha, Qatar

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Dolores, a mother of seven from the Philippines, moved to Qatar in 2011 to work as a live-in maid, where she cleans, cooks, and takes care of her employer's daughter.

Like many of the roughly 2-3 million domestic workers across the Gulf region, Dolores - whose name has been changed to protect her identity - works almost every single day. "[My employer], she cannot give the day off. No day off for me... So many Filipinas here run away because [of] this problem," she told Al Jazeera.

Many domestic labourers in the Gulf work very long hours, with estimates ranging from 60 to 100 hours a week on average. Labour laws in the Gulf states explicitly exclude domestic workers, most of whom are women from South or East Asian countries. Rights groups say many maids in the region are underpaid, unable to freely change employers, and often suffer from abuse.

But situations like Dolores' could change if Gulf countries adopt a new proposal setting standards on working conditions of domestic labourers - drivers, gardeners, and cooks as well as maids. Notably, the proposal would guarantee the workers one full day of rest per week - which has proven to be a controversial measure in some quarters.

The proposal, which would bind employers and maids by a single contract used across the states of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) - Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Oman - is expected to be tabled for approval at a meeting of the region's labour ministers this October.

Mahmoud Abdulla Falamrzy, a senior official at Qatar's Ministry of Labour, told Al Jazeera the contract was meant to guarantee acceptable working conditions in compliance with international labour standards, such as the Convention on Domestic Workers adopted by the International Labour Organization in 2011.

In addition to the weekly day off, the draft contract could reduce the chance of unscrupulous employers underpaying - or simply not paying - their help, giving maids the right to have their salaries paid into a personal bank account.

"The burden [of] proof is on the employer to prove that these wages have been paid," said Rima Kalush, the programme coordinator of Migrant Rights, a Bahrain-based NGO.

Such was the problem Shilpa faced upon arriving to work as a maid in Qatar. An Indian woman from Hyderabad, she told Al Jazeera that she worked for almost two and a half years without being paid by her employer, who claimed she did not have the money to do so.

After leaving to illegally work for another family that did pay her, Shilpa - whose name has also been changed to protect her identity - said she was arrested for running away from her employer and sent to jail in 2011, before being deported to India.

Labour pains

But because the draft contract would apply only within the Gulf countries, unscrupulous recruitment practices in workers' home countries could remain unsolved, explained Kalush.

Dolores, the Filipina maid, said she was led to believe she would be paid 1,700 riyals ($467) a month as a housemaid in Qatar. But, she said, the contract she signed in the Philippines was written only in Arabic, which she cannot read. When she arrived in Qatar, she learned that she would be paid just 900 riyals ($247) a month.

Deceptive recruitment practices plague employers, too: Umm Mohamed, a Qatari woman who has been hiring maids for 25 years, said some maids she hired through recruitment agencies had not even been told they would be working as maids before arriving.

Rights groups and activists contacted by Al Jazeera also worry how the terms of the contract will be enforced within the Gulf. Kalush said the text of the contract "doesn’t really state how [governments are] going to monitor" that its terms are being adhered to.

"In some countries like Uruguay, the government is allowed to inspect the homes of private employers," to ensure domestic workers are being treated properly, she told Al Jazeera. "But there’s no mechanism that we can see as to how the GCC is actually going to enforce this."

Other provisions are ambiguous. For instance, the contract does not specify whether domestic workers are allowed to spend their day off outside of the home where they work.

Umm Mohammed already gives her maids a day off, and does not mind doing so. But she worries that when they leave the house they may engage in prostitution or extramarital affairs, and that she, as the maids' sponsor, would be blamed.

A similar problem is shaping up in Saudi Arabia, which recently signed a separate, bilateral agreement with the Philippines guaranteeing its maids a day off each week.

Victor Fernandez Jr, the president of the Philippines Association of Service Exporters Inc, a consortium representing about 700 recruitment agencies, said "many employers here in Saudi Arabia, being quite conservative, are a little bit worried about this. They say: 'What if they go visit a boyfriend [on their day off] and they get pregnant?'"

'Maid wars'

Yet Fernandez is optimistic that the draft contract will "hel[p] weed out people who cannot afford to pay decent wages to the domestic helper".

If the contract succeeds in improving conditions and curbing abuses, this could help dampen some of the diplomatic spats that periodically flare up between "sending countries" that export domestic workers and the "receiving countries" that hire them.

Although sending countries' economies rely on the infusions of cash that maids working abroad remit to their families, political pressure at home - and simple national pride - often spur sending countries to demand better treatment for their workers.

Earlier this year, for instance, Sri Lanka banned its nationals under the age of 25 from working as maids in Saudi Arabia after a Sri Lankan maid was beheaded for allegedly killing a Saudi baby she was tasked with caring for. The Philippines had implemented a de facto ban until 2012 on employing Filipina maids in Saudi Arabia, charging that its domestic workers were being mistreated, said Fernandez.

Similar disputes have occurred between Indonesia and Qatar, Indonesia and Kuwait, and Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates. Last year, Nepal banned women under the age of 30 from working in any Gulf country, citing reports of abuse.

Falamrzy, the Ministry of Labour official, said adoption of the draft contract and complying with international standards could reassure labour-sending countries that their citizens work under decent conditions, and "greatly reduce the frequency of disputes with those countries".

Yet Marieke Koning of the International Trade Union Confederation noted the draft contract does not refer to a minimum wage, a flashpoint in many maid disputes. In some Gulf countries, maids are reportedly paid less than a quarter of the average employee's wage, according to the International Labour Organization.

Falamrzy defended the lack of a minimum wage provision. Wages in Qatar are "determined by supply and demand, as based on the skills of the workers and the market demand for their services", he told Al Jazeera, stressing that employers' obligation to cover maids' basic living expenses was an alternative to a minimum wage.


Economic sectors

Occupations in services - Domestic work

Content types

Policy analysis

Geographical focuses

Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and Regional relevance