UAE on track to improve conditions for migrant domestic workers: rights organization

BEIRUT (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Criticized globally for its treatment of migrant workers, the United Arab Emirates is on track to improve conditions for domestic staff with a proposed new law praised by human rights organizations on Thursday.

A new bill, passed by the Federal National Council on May 31 and now awaiting presidential approval, will give domestic workers 30 days paid vacation a year, one day off a week, medical insurance, and a contract before starting work.

The UAE relies heavily on migrant labor with an estimated 8 million migrant workers making up more than 80 percent of its population, according to the International Labour Organization, with many domestic workers hired from Southeast Asia.

But the Gulf Arab state has been slammed by groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) for allowing domestic staff to endure long hours, unpaid wages and abuse.

The new draft law, however, was described by human rights groups as a step in the right direction.

“The protections given to domestic workers are quite decent,” Jakub Sobik of Anti-Slavery International, a London-based rights organization, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The UAE’s Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation said in statement on its website this month that the bill, once signed into law, “will bring the rights and protections afforded domestic employees into line with other workers in the UAE”.

The law will also prohibit employment of domestic workers aged under 18 and aim to tackle discrimination.

“It is the first time that domestic workers will be protected for better rights ... although considered very basic protections, they are very important,” said Rothna Begum, Middle East women’s rights researcher at HRW.

But while welcoming the legal change, rights organizations voiced concerns about its enforcement and implementation - like how labor inspections will be conducted.

“Domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse because ... they work in private households,” said Sobik.

Another area of uncertainty for the organizations is the fact that the “kafala” or sponsorship system, that forces foreign workers to seek their employer’s consent to change jobs or leave the country, is still in place.

Vani Saraswathi, associate editor at advocacy group that works to advance the rights of migrant workers in the Middle East, said there also needed to be a wider discussion on how domestic workers are viewed and treated.

“We hope that people would be more careful about exploiting the workers, but laws alone are not going to reduce abuse. I think there has to be a far wider discourse,” Saraswathi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.