GCC labor ministers agree on unified contract defining rights of maids

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Stephan Geyer/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

A weekly day off, the right to live outside their employer’s home, a six-hour working day with paid overtime and the right to travel at any time are set to be part of a new domestic workers contract agreed to by GCC labor ministers, including Qatar’s.

The draft provisions were agreed upon by Labor and Social Affairs Ministers who met in Kuwait earlier this week.

They are expected to be ratified during the third consultative meeting for Asian labor-sending and labor-receiving countries, known as the Abu Dhabi Dialogue, which takes place today and tomorrow, also in Kuwait.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Penny Yi Wang

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Unifying working conditions of domestic labor in Qatar and across the rest of the Gulf have long been discussed, but little movement has been made on any solid proposals.

This latest contract was first proposed in early 2013, but then stalled in subsequent talks as member states failed to agree on clauses such as a mandatory day off and a cap on working hours.

Now it would appear that the ministers have resolved their differences, as the director general of the public authority for workforce Jamal Al-Dosari confirmed to Kuwaiti state news agency KUNA that undersecretaries had finally agreed on the key aspects of the contract. He was quoted as saying:

“The blueprint of the contract provides for the right to leave, sets the daily working hours at six and paid overtime at two hours, and requires provision of decent dwelling.

“It bans employers from holding the passports of employees, ensures the freedom of housemaids to move or live outside the home of employer or travel at any time, and commits employers to furnish their housemaids with air ticket in case final termination of their contract.”

The single contract, which would affect around 2.4 million domestic staff working in the region’s six GCC countries, is expected to come into effect once it has been approved by labor ministers, possibly this week.

Meanwhile, a Bahraini labor ministry official invited human rights groups and foreign labor organizations to share their observations and concerns about domestic workers with GCC countries.

Undersecretary Sabah Al-Dosari added: “We in the GCC countries welcome the foreign workers and appreciate their contributions to the development of our countries.”

Earlier this week, 90 human rights and labor organizations issued a joint statement, reiterating calls for urgent action to protect migrant workers from abuse in the Gulf.

“Whether it’s the scale of abuse of domestic workers hidden from public view or the shocking death toll among construction workers, the plight of migrants in the Gulf demands urgent and profound reform,” said Rothna Begum, Middle East women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. This should include a thorough overhaul of the abusive kafala visa sponsorship system.”

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which represents the rights of workers throughout the world, told Doha News that while it welcomed the introduction of rights for domestic workers, it wanted to see the detail of the new provisions to ensure they complied with Convention 189 of the International Labor Organization, which outlined its own minimum requirements for domestic workers.

“We call on the Labor Ministers to make this draft public, so we can review the detail and make sure that what is being proposed complies with Convention 189. If it does, then of course we would welcome it,” an ITUC spokesperson said.

However, she said that questions remained over how the new contract would be enforced.

“There must be a robust inspection and reporting system in place for workers to use if they have to,” she added.

Pressure for reform

Complaints of  low pay, abuse and poor working conditions among housemaids and other domestic staff in the region are common.

In April last year, Amnesty International published a 63-page report  “My sleep is my break: Exploitation of migrant domestic workers in Qatar,” which called for a total overhaul of the system governing the rights of domestic staff, which it described as being broken beyond repair.

The report, which comprised of interviews with 52 women working as maids, included harrowing accounts of psychological, physical and sometimes sexual abuse of domestic workers based in Qatar, at the hands of both local and expat sponsors.

Using figures from the 2010 census, the report estimated that around 84,000 women in Qatar work in a domestic service role. Typically from poor countries, the women are a particularly vulnerable group that are subject to kafala rules, but are not currently protected under the country’s labor law.

Some of the most common complaints include being made to sign substitute contracts on a lower salary and with poorer working conditions, not having a day off, not being allowed out on their own and long working hours.

Human rights organizations also report maids suffering physical and sexual violence and verbal abuse from their employers.

Those who choose to leave their situation are classified as “runaways” and can be arrested and jailed, pending deportation.

François Crépeau

Peter Kovessy

François Crépeau

UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants Francois Creppeau found last November that most women being held here had left their employers due to poor working conditions. He encouraged authorities to stop punishing domestic workers for being abused.

Also on the agenda for labor ministers is to discuss changes to the kafala (sponsorship) system, which restricts the movement of workers between employers.

Qatar first announced in May plans to revise its system to make it easier for expats to change jobs and leave the country. However no firm date has been set for when these would come into effect.

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