June 16th – International Domestic Workers Day: Oman Continues to Violate Housemaids Rights and the Relevant International Conventions
On 16 June each year the world marks International Domestic Workers Day, in recognition that domestic workers are entitled to have all their rights respected, and be treated as professionals and human beings. Tens of millions of migrant domestic workers suffer violations of their basic rights all over the world, and in the Gulf states in particular as a result of the kafala sponsorship system. This system grants sponsors extensive powers over employees that in themselves violate international treaties like the 2011 Convention No. 189 and Recommendation No. 201 concerning decent work for domestic workers. The kafala system may also have contributed to a culture surrounding domestic workers that does not live up to the principles of respecting personal freedoms and treating domestic workers in a serious, professional manner.
The Omani Centre for Human Rights (OCHR) regularly receives reports from housemaids in Oman who suffer a variety of abuses, such as having their passports withheld to ensure they do not run away; being subjected to physical, verbal and sexual violence; having to work long hours for meagre pay seven days a week, with no fixed day off; finding themselves transferred from one Omani sponsor to another without being consulted; or having their freedom of movement violated by being forbidden to leave the house.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), describing the dreadful conditions endured by many housemaids in Oman, tells the story of Latika, who ended up working as a housemaid in Muscat after her husband became paralysed and needed an expensive operation. Latika travelled to the United Arab Emirates, where she was hired by an Omani man who confiscated her passport and took her across the border to Oman. She told HRW how he made her work 15 hours a day and did not pay her for five months, then beat her, cut her hair and burned her feet with hot water when she asked for her salary. Shortly after that incident Latika managed to run away.
Housemaids who complain to the OCHR say the Omani authorities do nothing about their complaints. Munira, a Tanzanian housemaid who worked in Oman in 2014, told HRW about a situation where she had been working in four houses owned by her sponsor for just 50 riyals (US$130 dollars) a month, and when she complained to the recruitment agent in Oman that this wasn’t fair and she wanted to go home, he told her: “You can’t go anywhere; your boss has your passport. So shut up and keep working.”
Denying workers their passports and preventing them from freely moving about contravenes Article 8 of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which guarantees migrant workers the freedom to leave any country, and Article 15, which states that no migrant worker may be deprived of their property. Furthermore, employers of domestic workers in Oman are not required to comply with written contracts that clearly set out the number of hours to be worked, time off and other working conditions, as a kind of insurance in case a worker needs to claim rights that are not being honoured. Working without a written contract breaches Article 7 of ILO Convention No. 189 and Recommendation No. 201 concerning decent work for domestic workers.
The situation for housemaids in many countries, including Oman, is a humanitarian disaster. No human being should be mistreated and compelled to work in conditions akin to slavery, with their freedom of movement denied, and have to remain in the workplace seven days a week, work unspecified long hours, and suffer various forms of degradation and abuse. It is completely unacceptable that the fate of housemaids should be dependent on the moral character of their employers rather than laws enacted, upheld and enforced by the state.
The government should pay the closest attention to housemaids, since they are one of the most abused groups in society. Being in a foreign country, often with little knowledge of either Arabic or English, leaves them in a vulnerable position where they are unable to seek help. The OCHR urges the Omani government to introduce laws specifically addressing the nature of housemaids’ work, such as by setting a maximum number of hours a week they are allowed to work, and prohibiting employers from retaining their passports or preventing them from moving about with complete freedom. It should also designate an official body to examine housemaids’ complaints about harsh working conditions, violence, non-payment of salaries, and other abuses.