Horrors Behind Closed Doors: Domestic Workers’ Rights In The UAE


Domestic workers make up approximately 5% of the UAE’s population, nevertheless, they continue to be one of the most vulnerable groups in the state. The Middle East is a region of the world that is often overlooked in the assessment of human rights on the domestic level. This is largely due to the sensitive nature of the topic of human rights, and the various laws in place to reduce speculation and research being conducted on government implementation of human rights. Within this context, the treatment of domestic workers, housemaids, in particular, has received insufficient attention from international organizations and other states resulting in little change. This is surprising, as over 96% of Emirati families employ domestic workers, making up a total of 20% of the workforce.

The UAE is one of the largest foreign labour-receiving countries in the world, with approximately eight million foreign labourers residing in the state, making up 88.5% of UAE residents. The early 1973 oil boom in the Gulf Region resulted in an unprecedented increase in disposable income, and consequently living standards, resulting in an increase in the popularity of employing domestic workers. Slavery in the UAE was prohibited in 1963, nevertheless, current practices by employers of domestic workers are often identified as modern-day slavery. This slavery is disguised by contracts and legitimized by the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) inherently flawed kafala system.

The kafala system is an initiative adopted by members of the GCC that is a method of sponsorship for a migrant to secure a visa to enter the UAE. Kafala legally binds the workers to their employer, leaving the fate of the migrant worker dependent on the goodwill of the employer. The kafala system contractually ties employees to their sponsors following the acquirement of a work contract and a permit for residence and work. Although not a legal requirement of the system, employers often withhold their employee’s passports as a method of regulating their movements. This ensures no risk is brought upon the employer for inappropriate behaviour by the employee. The UAE’s constitution prohibits entry into a home without the owner’s permission or a warrant, making inspections of the rights of the domestic workers difficult.

In the UAE, domestic workers are not covered by the same labour laws as workers of other professions and receive less support and services than those protected by such laws, news.com.au reports. Although the Minister of this department, H.E. Saqr Ghobash has stated that the recent passing of the bill approving the Domestic Labour Law “will ensure that employees in a domestic setting are guaranteed the full protections of the UAE government,” Title One (Definitions and General Provision) of the Labour Law of the UAE still does not extend the provisions of the law to “domestic servants in private households.”

The U.S. Department of State 2016 report on the UAE outlines the human rights efforts and violations instigated by the government. The report emphasizes many issues raised in similar reports released by non-governmental organizations, such as the Human Rights Watch (HRW). Emphasis was placed on the lack of enforcement of certain policies, particularly the vulnerability of domestic workers due to their exclusion from labour laws. References were made to legal aid offered to domestic workers by the government in cases of contract violation. However, it was noted that such cases of abuse rarely featured in court due to discriminatory attitudes towards domestic workers and Sharia Courts requiring an “extremely high burden of proof” for cases of sexual violence. This limits the opportunities for victims to receive justice and consequently prevents amendments being made to current practices.

An HRW report entitled, “I Already Bought You,” on the abuse and exploitation of female migrant domestic workers, includes testaments of victims of human rights abuses, with 99 women having been interviewed. The testaments provided include accounts of physical abuse, one domestic worker revealing that her employer has “slapped me and banged my head on the wall, then spit on me.” Additionally, accounts of physiological and verbal abuse such as an employer screaming “You have no brain” to their domestic worker, in public, are included. Although not recognized to be as severe as other forms of assault, more ‘administrative’ oriented forms of abuse are amongst the most common. Of the 99 women interviewed, 10 claimed that they were not in possession of their passports, additionally, many had not been paid for up to 18 months’ worth of wages, an unacceptable abuse of a vulnerable group of migrant women.

International and local non-governmental actors have been incapable of achieving change due to the restrictions implemented by the UAE government. Changes must be made to current conditions and the region’s status quo in their treatment towards domestic workers. What fails to be addressed in previously implemented ‘solutions’ is the monitoring and enforcement of the practice of passed legislation and approved domestic policies. There must be an incentive put in place to ensure that domestic workers are being protected. To achieve a satisfactory standard in the practice of human rights for domestic workers, the three following recommendations must be implemented.

Firstly, local laws should be amended to ensure that domestic workers, and those speaking on their behalf, are not prosecuted in the case that they choose to protest their working conditions. The 2016 World Report alludes to various ‘security’ features adopted by the government to reduce activism within the state, including the prosecution of journalists, torture and forcible disappearances, banning international human rights organizations from entering the state, and draconian counter-terrorism laws that prevent victims from speaking out about their suffering. Additionally, the threat of the death penalty, under the UAE’s 2014 counterterrorism law, has been used against activists found to “undermine national unity or social peace.” Such anti-democratic laws limit the practice of Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Without amending the undemocratic laws in place, progress will remain slow.

Secondly, the current labour law should be amended to include domestic workers. The current ‘Domestic Labour Law’ which was approved by the President of the UAE on October 5, 2017, is an insufficient document outlining the most basic of rights of a domestic worker. A minimum wage is not sufficiently outlined, as well as terms often used within the new legislation such as ‘decent’ not being defined therefore allowing the term to be understood subjectively, leaving the domestic worker at risk of poor treatment. There is not a strong enough argument for why domestic workers should be isolated from the general, and more protective, Labour Law and confined to the minimally protective Domestic Labour Law. Nevertheless, the recently passed Domestic Labour Law may prove surprising and produce strong domestic policies; only time will tell.

Lastly, an agency should be created that will monitor migrant domestic workers entering the UAE. A lack of accountability and implementation is the main cause of the abuse of the human rights of domestic workers. An agency should be responsible for supervising the working conditions; health, both mental and physical; and, basic worker rights, such as hourly rates and working hours. On January 22, 2018, the UAE announced that it is to set up an independent human rights committee, The Gulf Today reports. The committee will be built on the basis of the Paris Principles. Although this is a monumental announcement, to ensure the effectiveness of this agency, it should work closely with the United Nations and the International Labour Organization to ensure transparency and honesty. Obligatory quarterly reports should be produced as a method of tracking progress and if progress is made, the UAE should be rewarded by receiving praise and recognition.

The UAE has violated both domestic laws and international conventions which it has ratified. A substantial gap between practice and human rights norms exists, and changes must be made to ensure that every resident of the UAE is being cared for according to the UDHR. The experiences of domestic workers in the UAE often do not meet the standards of domestic laws, due to domestic workers not being recognized under the UAE’s labour laws, and non-traditional abuse experiences, such as poor living conditions, are not easily recognized as a human rights violation. Regardless, all forms of abuses are to a certain extent neglected by the UAE government. The UAE should take the opportunity to lead the region in developing a new attitude towards domestic workers; if this is achieved, the UAE is likely to be hailed the leader of the region and domestic workers will live both safely and contently.

Zoe Knight