Domestic helpers continue to be at the mercy of abusive employers due to their exclusion from changes made to ‘kafala’, the visa sponsorship system of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) .
According to the 79-page report “‘I Already Bought You’: Abuse and Exploitation of Female Migrant Domestic Workers in the United Arab Emirates” by rights watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW), the kafala system enables migrant workers to “enter, live and work legally in the UAE (via) a single employer who also serves as the worker’s visa ‘sponsor’”.
“On top of chaining them to their employer, the UAE explicitly excluded domestic workers from the protection of the labor law, and then left them, isolated, in unregulated private homes. As such, domestic workers- many of whom are from the Philippines- find them exposed to abuse,” said Rothna Begum, Women’s Rights researcher for HRW and author of the report.
Because the kafala system requires permission from even abusive employers to leave, domestic workers must either complete their contracts and get their sponsors to cancel their work permit and residence visa or get a “no-objection” certificate signed by their employer before the end of their contract. The second option will require paying a sponsorship transfer fee to the immigration department.
Most, however, resort to absconding from their employers, leading to fines, deportation, a one-year entry ban, and — according to the 2014 UAE standard contract — forfeiture of rights.
Domestic workers caught in the act of absconding may get sent back to their owners, exposing them to further abuse.
These acts, detailed in the HRW report, include physical, sexual, psychological, and verbal abuse; excessive work hours with little sleep; passport and cellphone confiscation; and denial of food, healthcare, and proper living accommodations.
Marelie Brua, a former OFW, testified to the systemic abuse of workers, saying her employer’s children treated her like a plaything after her parents “bought” her for 10,000 dirhams.
“Sabi ni madam na lahat kami, nagpipirma- kasi sa pamilya nila, walo ang Pilipina na nandun, pero hindi sila nakatanggap ng $400 — 500 dirhams lang. Yung sa akin, eight (800 dirhams), pero alam ko na hindi ‘yun ung equivalent na pera sa $400,” she said.
Despite being urged by the UN and by a US Trafficking in Persons report to abolish or change the kafala, deep cultural roots prevent its citizens and government from completely abandoning the system.
Yet Begum thinks it is a systemic problem and not a cultural one, saying the existence of the system allowed its promotion as a cultural phenomenon.
“When a system fosters it (or) allows for such abuse to take place and effectively tells the employer ‘You can make her work for how many hours a day, you don’t have to give her a day off’ because there’s no law that says you have to give her a day off, employers will make them work seven days a week,” she explained.
She added that the cultural background of employers didn’t matter, as both Emiratis and expats, which make up 80 percent of UAE’s population, are capable of perpetrating abuse.
Pressure, household changes needed for kafala changes
Begum said enough pressure must be put on the government by labor-sending countries and by countries it is economically tied to encourage UAE to change ‘kafala’.
She also stressed that the UAE must include their domestic forced labor issues in dealing with human trafficking, which only deals with sexual exploitation.
“Their own body that deals with trafficking has stated that they want to keep labor issues separate from trafficking, which means they do not wanna deal with the systematic abuses that allow trafficking and forced labor to take place, which is primarily the kafala system,” she said.
Lorenzo Jungco, special assistant from the DFA Office for Migrant Workers, said that while Persian Gulf states are sincere in their efforts to change labor practices, this change must reach its citizens first.
“Those ideals are (at) the government level. It has to permeate down the household level in order for it to be effective,” Jungco said.
Kafala rules were changed by Ministerial Resolution No. 1186 in 2010, allowing migrant workers to transfer from one employer to another without finishing their contracts if certain conditions are met.
But unlike other migrant workers covered by the new labor law, domestic workers are excluded from its coverage, leading to routine abuses of kafala. — JDS, GMA News