Continuing abuse of foreign housemaids in Oman

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Violations of housemaids’ rights remain a major problem in Oman, both for society and for the government.  The image of the country they present is just the opposite of what the government wants the world to see.

Society alone cannot be blamed; nor can the violations housemaids suffer be portrayed simply as one-off cases of abuse that take place in the absence of laws offering them protection.

The most vulnerable to exploitation and abuse are housemaids from African countries such as Tanzania, Ethiopia and Nigeria, and those whose embassies in Oman offer them no protection.

The Omani Centre for Human Rights (OCHR) has received numerous reports of abuse from housemaids in Oman, most of whom are too afraid of reprisals from their sponsors to give their real names.

Some maids tell the OCHR they have reported mistreatment or sexual harassment to police stations nearby, but to no avail, as the police have not initiated any official proceedings or undertaken any investigation into their reports. 

What usually happens when a sponsor is “annoyed” by a housemaid complaining is that he sends her back to the agency that recruited her, and the agency immediately sends a replacement.

Housemaids’ passports are withheld for fear of their absconding; they are denied weekly time off; and they work long hours in degrading living conditions.  They have to be ready for service at whatever time they are given an order, and their duties may cover more than one household.

If a housemaid asks to leave Oman, or even just to change her sponsor, she has to pay for her flight home herself, or else forego her wages until she is replaced.

The OCHR has seen video evidence of sexual harassment, in which a sponsor tried to force a housemaid to have sex with him.

However the clearest evidence of the abuse of housemaids can be found in the advertisements published on one of Oman’s best known online platforms, in which female workers are presented as commodities to be bought, sold or exchanged.  The same website encourages negative attitudes toward housemaids, and offers advice on how to control them.

The main complaints received by the OCHR are as follows:

  • Housemaids may be forced to work in more than one home owned by the same family, or by relatives of the family, without any extra pay or even prior agreement.
  • Many domestic workers are hired at an agreed fixed rate of pay and benefits, but then find themselves in practice being paid less than the agreed amount, and without any benefits at all.
  • Many housemaids are denied a single day or even a few hours off each week. 
  • Their movements are restricted, and they are prevented from leaving the house unless accompanied by a member of the family, and only for a limited time.
  • Some housemaids are forced to sleep in the kitchen, as their sponsors fail to provide them with suitable accommodation within the house where they are working.
  • Several housemaids have testified that they suffered sexual harassment from at least one family member in the house where they were working.  Their sponsors would mostly not do anything to prevent this harassment, and in some cases the sponsor himself would be party to it.

Despite increasing problems for migrant workers, there is as yet no dedicated body monitoring the conditions of domestic workers, and no hotline through which they can lodge complaints.  Several housemaids said police stations in the provinces and cities where they worked did not take their complaints seriously, and the situation usually backfired on them, as they ended up suffering reprisals from the families in whose homes they worked.

Similarly, there is no independent or even government-backed civil society activity to educate the public and try to change the way housemaids are typically treated, which quite simply amounts slavery.

Improving workers’ conditions and creating new laws to protect them, whatever their nationalities, is a matter of simple humanity and the responsibility of every individual.  It is not the responsibility of the government alone, but there does have to be an official legal mechanism to end all forms of this continuing abuse of housemaids.

Help us at OCHR to uncover and publicise these violations, so that we can ensure that every housemaid is treated properly, with humanity and respect, in a way that offers her protection and guarantees her rights.