No Helping Hand to Helping Hands

In February 2018, an Emirati mother and daughter were sentenced to one and a half years of jail for torturing their migrant maid to death. The husband, who was the sponsor of the maid, was penalised for three thousand dinars. Numerous cases like this have surfaced in the media reports in the last few years. Though these reports are just skin-deep when it comes to the extent to which millions of domestic workers all around the world are exploited on a daily basis. The incident brings forth a lot of queries regarding the laws for labour protection present in the host country. In retrospect, it also makes us question the value of a life. Does the status of the person really determine the value of his or her life and mental or physical trauma that he or she endures? Also, does the position of an individual’s work signify how that person should be treated?

According to ILO reports, the demand for domestic help in Asia has increased by roughly an estimate of 50% over the last 15 years (1995-2012). It might be based on the fact that the disparity is quite extensive in Asia compared to the other continents. The richer states often face a shortage in the supply of workers willing to work in a private household. Therefore, they redeem themselves by importing the services from poorer states. The main importers in Asia are the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Singapore, Hong Kong, and Malaysia, whereas the dominant exporters in the market are the Philippines, India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka.

Even though this is a huge sector with a lot of potential, there are only a few laws in place which actually regulate the market. This problem is heightened by the fact that labour legislation in most Asian countries doesn’t recognise these workers as a part of the labour body. Also, workers’ trade unions are usually not prevalent in most Asian countries. Thus, low-skilled workers lose out on bargaining power when it comes to their security, wages, working hours and other facilities.

The plight of the migrant workers is worse because they solely rely on employment contracts which paves the way for their residence in a foreign country. They are fully dependent on their employers, who act as their sponsors to the host country. They are also responsible for their work visa. On the other hand, the service agencies, the intermediaries between the two parties, also pressurise the employees to work under all circumstances. Most of these workers have no knowledge of the local tongue or the laws of the country. Therefore, this builds a power structure which gives immense control to the employers. Due to this, there is more opportunity for abuse of power and exploitation of labour.

Equal pay for equal content of work is not a reality, even for skilled females in formal sectors. Eighty percent of the domestic workers, globally, are women. Thus, this sector is plagued by low wages. It is fuelled by the popular notion that household work should be done by any woman. Thus, the significance of the workers’ innate skills is minimal. In an investigation conducted by the Singaporean government, it was found that the average income of a housemaid is one-tenth of the average income of a Singaporean. Adding to this is the problem of severe working conditions: no fixed working hours (assumptions of employers that the housemaid should be available around-the-clock), no rest day a week (normally, its consecutive 24 hours of leave for other labour work), no proper paid annual leaves, no overtime compensation, and isolation for the foreign workers in a new country.

To rectify this situation, the ILO is now asking for the major host countries to define maximum time limits for work in a week. Also, proper laws for overtime work, rest days should be fixed between the worker and employer at the time when the contract is made along with the pre-decided annual holidays. Another problem in this setup is that most contracts do not mention any paid maternity leave. This is the biggest problem for the highly feminised sector and a problem that laws generally don’t focus on. Moreover, in certain countries, discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion, and age is extensive in nature. For example, in the GCC countries, a Filipina housemaid is highly valued and is paid higher compared to the workers from other countries.

In the past few years, the governments of the labour exporting countries have tried to fix a few problems by entering into bilateral memoranda with the host countries. The Philippines is a good example and it has worked extensively to protect the rights of its nationals in foreign countries. They have recently passed the Kasambahay Bill in the parliament in an act of protecting the privacy and freedom of their citizens working abroad. But this is not a fully effective substitute for proper laws which are not present in the employing nations. For the migrant housemaids, the problem is aggravated by the mere fact that they are completely dependent on the employers for accommodation and basic necessities. It is not uncommon to find the workers complaining about the lack of food and very bad living conditions. Overworking their bodies without a break or proper meals forces a lot of them to run away from their employers. But these cases are still humane compared to other kinds of harassment that are faced by the housemaids on a daily basis. Their complaints fall on deaf ears or no ears at all. There have been a massive number of cases in which the housemaid has been subjected to verbal, physical and sexual abuse from the members of the family that they have to live with.

A report by ILO states that around 60% of the domestic workers are victims of abuse. It is truly a helpless situation for them. The restriction on freedom to movement (in some countries, they don’t have their passports or their employers lock them in) and imbalances in the power structure make them absolutely vulnerable to all sorts of violence and injustice. According to a report, more than 40% of workers in Singapore have faced some sort of abuse.

However, this is pretty tame compared to the conditions of the workers in the Gulf countries. The GCC countries have a pre-dominant Kafala system which basically confiscates the passports of the labourers as soon as they land in the airport. It seems as if the workers lose all their rights when they step onto the foreign land. Contract labourers at times get no help from the agency and are left at the mercy of the employers. The law, in every way, happens to work against the innocents, who have no option of fleeing from aggressive employers.

In an act to appease the ILO, certain countries of the GCC, like Bahrain and Lebanon, have come forward to repeal the Kafala system to make the confiscation of passports illegal. However, media reports from these countries say that such is not the ground reality. The change is not very evident. All in all, it seems as if the employers don’t really see the housemaids as humans. Until that happens, legal and social change will not occur. It will simply take a lot more time before employers are made to face justice, a justice where they cannot get away with a crime just by paying off penalties or blood money.


Atreyi Bhaumik

I am a student in Delhi University, pursuing bachelors in Economics. I also have a keen interest in Policy and probably will explore that field in the future.

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