Domestic work and workers in the Gulf: Invisible, Indispensable and Unrecognised

Vani Saraswathi, Associate Editor and Director of Projects, Migrant-Rights.org

Vani Saraswathi draws attention to how, as migrants, female domestic workers in the Gulf often do not have their human rights or migrant rights recognised

The space to discuss human rights of lower income migrant workers in the Gulf states has been widening ever so slightly. The reasons are manifold – the crisis driving certain countries to find new allies; international spotlight on Qatar 2022, Dubai Expo, the Louvre in Abu Dhabi; and pressure from sending countries that find its citizens in an increasingly hostile environment. In addition, multinational corporations operating in the Gulf states are being held accountable by governments and watchdogs in the countries they are headquartered.

The discourse overall has been about ensuring rights of migrant workers and questioning the skewed power equation between ‘sponsor’ and worker. Yet, when it comes to the plight of migrant domestic workers – a largely feminised sector – the victim narrative prevails, with patriarchal policies in both sending and receiving countries seeking to ‘protect’ the worker from her own choices. 

This manifests as banning them from leaving their countries to work abroad; and once they land in the country of employment, ‘protecting’ them by impeding their mobility.

Migrant-Rights.org over the last four years has worked at the grassroots level in the GCC, advocating for rights of domestic workers. Most of this has been in Qatar, and to a lesser degree in Kuwait and Saudi. Because direct involvement with a domestic worker would put both her and our staff at risk, we have had to work with stakeholders who influence a domestic worker’s life in the Gulf. Yes, it’s the most unideal of approaches. 

And the question always lingers, “Are we perpetrating the opposite of what we are trying to advocate? I.e., The agency of an empowered worker.” Which is why we don’t speak on behalf of the migrant worker, even though we grab every opportunity to be informed by them.

The approach we have taken is to educate those who employ domestic workers on the laws of the country and international human rights standards. It’s only recently that GCC states have started passing domestic workers laws or regulations. Oman is the only country that still does not extend any legal protection outside of the kafala system to domestic workers.

Even the available (and nowhere near comprehensive) legal provisions are not widely understood, and when understood, does not always translate to changes in attitudes. The stakeholders we work with are the individual employers, the recruiters, embassies of sending countries, and businesses. The last needs an explanation, as it is not obvious immediately why we engage with businesses.

The labour market in Gulf states is highly skewed in favour of men, from lower income to the executive level. However, more and more women are entering the workforce, and their continued participation is highly dependent on having a hired help at home for housekeeping and caregiving services – all of which are considered women’s work. And there’s the section of newly affluent who have the luxury (if not the necessity) to employ someone, and hence do. 

Neither necessity nor affluence dictates that there’s immediate respect or appreciation for domestic work or the worker. When we speak to individual employers, we appeal to their sense of fairness. When we speak to the embassies we advocate for better policies and bilateral agreements. When we speak to recruitment agents, we seek to change processes and highlight violations.

When we reach out to businesses, we expect a slightly more overarching measure. To take into account the corporate code of conduct, and apply it to how their staff behave outside the workplace too. A human rights abuse is serious, whether it happens on the premises or outside. To give impunity to the abuser is problematic. 

The first step in our outreach is how best to educate staff who employ domestic workers, and next is how to hold them accountable for behaviour that is harmful to another person.

Bringing businesses to the table to discuss this particularly feminised issue, viewed as the ‘private affairs’ of their staff, has only been possible because a small handful of people actively believe that it has to be addressed.

In Qatar, an international law firm, Clyde & Co has a significant employment practices section. They, as our pro bono partner, help us develop tools and content that is practical for businesses to use. They also make themselves available at the roundtable sessions to address legal issues, pertaining to domestic workers. The roundtables itself have been possible because certain embassies and professional organisations have supported and hosted them, imploring their members or constituents to address protection and empowerment of domestic workers.

The Canadian embassy, Embassy of Netherlands, American Chamber of Commerce Qatar, QDVC, Georgetown University in Qatar, CNA-Q, Bedaya Centre, Qatar Human Resources Professionals Forum have been some of the most invested stakeholders in our business outreach. Some have hosted roundtables, some have shared the tools we create, and some others have tested the tools before we roll it out. These are still in the minority.

Not all businesses see it as their responsibility to address problems faced by domestic workers. And that’s the challenge that we continue to grapple with. Women need to work in spaces that respect them and the job they do, and the factors and influences that make this difficult have to be countered.