International Domestic Workers Day – June 16th
Today, the world celebrates International Domestic Workers Day. The issue of domestic workers is getting increasing attention in view of the precarious situation of female domestic workers – housemaids – and the abuse they suffer in some Arab countries.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated in 2016 that there were 67 million domestic workers globally, 80 percent of whom were women, and 90 percent of whom had no social security protections such as paid sick leave or unemployment benefits. Migrant domestic workers face even greater discrimination than that experienced by domestic workers in general.
Oman is one of those countries where housemaids face the problems of long working hours, low pay, appalling living conditions, confiscation of their passports and restrictions on their movements, and according to complaints received by the Omani Centre for Human Rights (OCHR), the Omani authorities are doing nothing in response to housemaids’ reports of abuse.
The Centre notes that one of the main reasons for the existence of such problems is the kafala (sponsorship) law, which allows Omani employers to withhold workers’ personal documents and transfer their sponsorship from one employer to another without consulting them.
Conditions have become even worse for housemaids during the coronavirus pandemic. In August last year the United Nations reported on “the abuse and poor treatment that some migrant domestic workers in the Middle East have suffered since the onset of the pandemic”. It said that “workers in this region were already vulnerable to abuse, as domestic work is excluded from labour laws in many countries”. It added that “in Arab states that favour the kafala system there is a serious imbalance in the worker-employer relationship, which makes migrant domestic workers particularly vulnerable”, and that for those who live within the households of their employers “working conditions are likely to have worsened”.[SE1] 
Human Rights Watch also commented that because of the pandemic situation many domestic workers, “especially live-in domestic workers on migrant visas such as those in the Middle East, might find themselves with extra responsibilities and longer working hours, with children out of school and other household members at home”.
Based on an extensive survey of housemaids in Oman, the OCHR has concluded that Oman neither complies with nor respects Articles 3 and 5 of ILO Convention No. 189 concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers. These two Articles require member states to ensure the effective promotion and protection of the human rights of all domestic workers, and to ensure that domestic workers enjoy effective protection against all forms of abuse, harassment and violence.
Omani law allows sponsoring employers, under the kafala system, to confiscate domestic workers’ documents such as passports or identity cards, in breach of Article 9 of the ILO Convention. It also fails to give them written contracts that would enable housemaids to know and assert their rights by specifying their place of work and working hours. This failure violates Article 7 of the ILO Convention, which sets out a detailed list of the terms and conditions of employment of which domestic workers should be clearly informed, where possible through written contracts.
Similarly, housemaids are not free to transfer their contracts from one sponsor to another, whereas sponsors frequently transfer contracts to other sponsors simply by sending housemaids back to the recruitment agency.
In light of the above, the Omani Centre for Human Rights urges the Omani government to:
- abolish the kafala sponsorship system, which amounts to a form of slavery;
- provide a telephone helpline for victims of violence or ill-treatment, and provide them with the protection they need;
- give housemaids the right to leave a job whenever they want, and to have regular working hours and days off as well as being provided with suitable accommodation;
- regulate the work of all recruitment agencies bringing domestic workers to Oman, and strengthen measures to prevent housemaids being used as tradable commodities;
- compel recruitment agencies to provide domestic workers with clear employment contracts in compliance with Article 7 of ILO Convention 189; and
- ratify the International Labour Organisation’s Convention No. 189 concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers.
[SE1]completing the quote