The conditions of domestic workers in the Middle East

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The conditions of domestic workers in the Middle East

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Author: Rola Abimourched
Published: 26-11-2010
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KAFA (English: enough) Violence & Exploitation
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KAFA (English: enough) Violence & Exploitation is a Lebanese Civil SocietyOrganisation founded in 2005 by a group of professionals and humanrights activists.


KAFA’s mission is to work towards eradicating all forms of gender-based violence and exploitation of women and children through the advocacy of legal reform and change of policies and practices, influencing public opinion, and empowering women and children.


In a partnership project with the Danish Refugee Council, funded by KVINFO, KAFA aims to end the exploitation of female migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, who are exposed to violence. The project focuses on enhancing the legal status and rights of migrant domestic workers and changing the attitude towards them in Lebanese society by targeting the problem at various levels.

The legal framework and social practices in Lebanon and Jordan provide employers with a great deal of control over the living and working conditions of migrant domestic workers. However, this leaves these workers with few options when it comes to demanding their rights or seeking protection from and redress for abuse.


Domestic work is an essential component in maintaining a household. However, it is often relegated to the informal economy. Individuals, who work in this sector, are usually on the margins of society – women of different racial and/or ethnic origins who may come from a poorer socio-economic background than that of their employers.


Structural adjustment policies have weakened social support systems and facilitated the migration of mainly women from the Global South to the North and to other higher-income southern countries in order to fill these care gaps. At the same time, globalisation and the spread of free-market economics has introduced new patterns of consumption and images of affluence driving the demand for and supply of labour. These factors spur the feminisation of labour migration, prompting debates on whether migration for employment empowers or disempowers women.


Migrant women, in particular female migrant domestic workers, are seen as a vulnerable category of individuals outside of the protection of the State. At the core of this problematic is gender: how it functions to reinforce the subordinate status of migrant women and to reproduce patriarchal structures. While the employment of domestic workers frees women to pursue work and leisure activities, it does not question gender norms or challenge assumptions concerning the responsibility of women in maintaining the family. Instead, women shift the burden of care to poorer, lower-status women.


Stories of abuse and mistreatment

In Lebanon and Jordan domestic work is an important sector of employment for mainly migrant women from Asia and Africa. Estimates from both countries indicate a large population of migrant domestic workers – 200,000 in Lebanon (2010) and 300,000 in Jordan (2009). Women who enter under this visa category work as nannies, helpers, caregivers, and cooks, and at times are compelled to work in the businesses of their employers or in the houses of their employers’ friends and family members.


Stories of abuse and mistreatment are rife. ‘Lyn*’s’ story of her experience working in Jordan provides an example of the types of abuse women can face.  Lyn worked from 5am to 12am every day, taking care of four children; she stated, “Sometimes I’m falling down, quickly…for them my work is always bad, always too slow.” Additionally, her female employer would hit, threaten and verbally abuse her on a regular basis. Many migrant women report non-payment of wages, overwork, withholding of their passports and other identity documents, and the lack of appropriate accommodation or food, as well as physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. The high rates of suicide and deaths reported in Lebanon provide a dramatic picture of the desperate situation facing some women.


During one month between August and September 2010, a review of newspaper articles in Lebanon revealed nine cases of migrant domestic workers who committed suicide or died while working.


The legal framework and social practices in both countries provide employers with a great deal of control over the living and working conditions of migrant domestic workers, yet leaves these workers with few options when it comes to demanding their rights or seeking protection from and redress for abusive situations. In particular, the sponsorship (kafala) system, which governs the entry and residency of migrant workers in Lebanon and Jordan, provides an opportunity for employers to exploit workers. This system ties the worker to a single employer (sponsor) for the duration of his or her work contract.


Once the contract is terminated, the sponsor is responsible for the repatriation of the worker, and workers who wish to change employers must first obtain a release from his or her previous employer. Even if an employee “runs away” from an abusive situation, she becomes irregular as soon as she leaves the house of her sponsor. 


On another level, gender norms that associate women with the home and domestic work as unique and not like any other type of work drive the State’s reluctance to regulate this “private” relationship. The Lebanese government excludes domestic workers from the Labour Law, leaving their conditions of work and rights to contractual law. In 2009, the government approved the Unified Contract for Female and Male Migrant Domestic Workers, requiring all employers and migrant domestic workers to sign this contract as a condition for issuing the work and residency permits.


The unified contract is an important step in that it provides a common set of rights and responsibilities for employers and domestic workers. However, it presents several limitations; in particular, the contract remains silent on violations such as an employer’s retention of the worker’s passport and it does not guarantee workers with freedom of mobility.


In contrast, the Jordanian government in 2008 amended the Labour Law to include domestic workers and issued the associated implementing regulations in 2009. While this is an important step towards providing greater protection for migrant domestic workers and offers a possible model for the region, the implemented regulations still treat domestic work as a special category and require domestic workers to obtain their employers’ permission to leave the house and excluding workers from maternity benefits. In both countries, the difficulty of enforcing regulations, the length of time it takes for the courts to reach a decision, and discrimination by officials towards migrant domestic workers discourage migrant women from seeking redress in the courts.


Gender norms put pressure on domestic workers

 At the individual level, gender norms allow employers to justify demands for workers to work long hours without rest and their control over workers’ lives. Maternalism and discourses that identify the domestic worker like “a daughter” serve to rationalise employers’ restrictions on the mobility of workers and association with individuals outside the household. Simultaneously, gender norms put pressure on women to fulfil their roles, creating a situation in which the relationship between the female employer and domestic worker is often tense and characterized by competition.


The female employer is urged to occupy the position of the main enforcer/supervisor of the domestic worker’s behaviour and labour. Likewise, female employers attempt to simultaneously affirm their authority as the mother and wife and their higher social status through various rationalisations and representations of workers that reaffirm the worker’s low status and dependency.


So far, reforms, such as the unified contract in Lebanon, have generally ignored the gender dimension of domestic work and have excluded migrant women from the process. New regulations treat migrant domestic workers as a special category of workers in need of protection, rather than as individuals with rights as workers, migrants and women.


To empower migrant women, both governments and societies will need to address how gender norms constrain women’s roles— whether they are citizens or non-citizens—as well as the link between the status of Jordanian and Lebanese women and that of migrant domestic workers. Regulations that preserve the control of the employer over his/her employee need to be challenged. Included in this is the sponsorship system and legislation, which treats domestic workers as dependents of their employers. Ideally, migrant domestic workers themselves should be included in this reform process in order to gain a greater voice and influence to determine their own living and working conditions.


*Lyn, the Philippines Embassy Safe House, interview by the author, January 31, 2005, Amman, Jordan. Lyn is not her real name.