More than 52.6 million* domestic workers across the world, including South Asians employed in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region, are set to get more protection through a landmark treaty.

Adopted on June 16, 2011 by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers would ensure domestic workers enjoyed conditions that are no less favorable than other workers. Ensuring weekly days off, limits to hours of work, and a minimum wage for domestic workers, the new convention enlists detailed requirements for governments to regulate private employment agencies, investigate complaints, and prohibit the practice of deducting domestic workers’ salaries to pay recruitment fees. The new standards also oblige governments to protect domestic workers from violence and abuse, and to ensure effective monitoring and enforcement.

But what should be most handy for the expatriate domestic workers in situations of dispute is the convention stipulation that makes it right of the migrant domestic workers to receive a written contract that is enforceable in the country of employment.

Conference delegates adopted the Convention on Domestic Workers (2011) by a vote of 396 to 16, with 63 abstentions and the accompanying Recommendation by a vote of 434 to 8, with 42 abstentions.

The ILO is the only tripartite organization of the UN, and each of its 183 Member States is represented by two government delegates, and one employer and one worker delegate, with an independent vote.

As per an Associated Press (AP) report, the convention will come into effect upon the ratification of two countries. The Philippines and Uruguay have already said they would ratify the accord.

“We are moving the standards system of the ILO into the informal economy for the first time, and this is a breakthrough of great significance,” said Juan Somavia, ILO Director-General. “History is being made.”

“This is a truly major achievement,” said Manuela Tomei, Director of the ILO’s Conditions of Work and Employment Programme, calling the new standards “robust, yet flexible.” Ms. Tomei added that the new standards make clear that “domestic workers are neither servants nor ‘members of the family’, but workers. And after today they can no longer be considered second-class workers.”

Domestic workers in the GCC region have long been at the receiving end of grave abuses and labour exploitation, including excessive working hours without rest, non-payment of wages, forced confinement, physical and sexual abuse.

Welcoming the adoption of the convention, Nisha Varia, senior women’s rights researcher at US-based rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said, “Discrimination against women and poor legal protections have allowed abuses against domestic workers to flourish in every corner of the world. This new convention is a long overdue recognition of housekeepers, nannies, and caregivers as workers who deserve respect and equal treatment under the law.”

The ILO is the only tripartite organization of the UN, and each of its 183 Member States is represented by two government delegates, and one employer and one worker delegate, with an independent vote.

In a statement, HRW said members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) reversed early opposition to the convention and expressed support in the latest round of negotiations and final vote.

Swaziland was the only government that did not vote in favour of the convention while El Salvador, Malaysia, Panama, the United Kingdom, Singapore, Sudan, the Czech Republic, and Thailand abstained from the vote.

Kafala, the Modern-Day Slavery System

“There are no suicide-bombers in the U.A.E.; only the weekly suicide of a worker in despair of his salary, his work conditions, his foul dormitory and his future.”

– Shaykh Dr. Abdal Qadir as-Sufi

That sums up the state and fate of most blue-collar migrant worker – domestic and otherwise – that goes for employment in the GCC region under the archaic ‘Kafala’ sponsorship system that the GCC nations have in place.

Kafala, which literally means sponsorship, comes from the root word meaning “to feed.” It is best translated as “foster parenting.” Algerian family law defines the concept thusly: “Kafala, or legal fostering, is the promise to undertake without payment the upkeep, education and protection of a minor, in the same way as a father would do for his son”.

That rather personal term from Islamic scriptures has, unfortunately, come to speak for the status of a migrant (domestic) worker in the GCC region. It not only explains the root of the problem, but also puts into perspective Manuela Tomei’s statement about domestic workers being neither servants, nor family members.

Unfortunately, as the story of Sri Lankan maid L G Ariyawathi proved last year, some employers indeed treat domestic workers as neither servants, nor family members – for, they treat them as flogging meat!

Nails removed from leg and forehead of Sri Lankan maid L G Ariyawathi (Photo Courtesy: The Sunday Leader; fair use)

Last August, L.G. Ariyawathi, who was employed in Saudi Arabia, had to return to Colombo after a shocking case of 24 nails and needles being hammered into her body by the couple who had employed her. The nails ranged in length from one to two inches (2.5 to 5 centimeters) while the needles were about one inch (2.5 centimeters).

“They did not allow me even to rest. The woman at the house had heated the nails and then the man inserted them into my body,” Ariyawathi told a local Sri Lankan paper after her operation in Colombo.

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Employment Bureau said Ariyawathi had been too afraid to complain about the abuse to Saudi authorities, fearing that her employers might not let her return home.

And therein lies the foundation of all things wrong with Kafala system: Under the kafala system, changing jobs is exceedingly difficult; those who leave their place of employment, with some exceptions for professionals, must leave the country for a mandated period (in Dubai it is six months) before they can return to take on new employment. So, even in extreme circumstances, if live-in maids attempt to flee their employers, the action is more often than not legally deemed to constitute “absconding” and can amount to a criminal violation of the terms of their visas.

After many years of persistent pressure by groups like HRW, last year, the US State Department urged Gulf countries to scrap their sponsorship system for migrant workers. In a 373-page report, the department said that employers in the Gulf States exploit the widely used kafala system to abuse workers and named Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as the region’s worst offenders. Both the named countries were described by the department as a “destination country for men and women subjected to trafficking in persons, specifically forced labour.”

With South Asians making up the most of the domestic workers’ community in those countries, the ILO Convention acquires even greater significance for the SAARC region.

In its introductory text, the new Convention says that “domestic work continues to be undervalued and invisible and is mainly carried out by women and girls, many of whom are migrants or members of disadvantaged communities and who are particularly vulnerable to discrimination in respect of conditions of employment and work, and to other abuses of human rights.”

The ILO Convention defines domestic work as work performed in or for a household or households. While the new instruments cover all domestic workers, they provide for special measures to protect those workers who, because of their young age or nationality or live-in status, may be exposed to additional risks relative to their peers, among others.

With, for example, 400,000 of the total global Sri Lankan migrant worker strength of 1.5 million work in Saudi Arabia alone, mostly as domestic workers at that, it becomes clear how significant a quantum of South Asian community is set to be addressed by the ILO convention.

Here’s hoping that we never get to hear of another L.G. Ariyawathi.


* As per recent ILO estimates.


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