MANILA, Philippines – Many Asian and African women working as domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates say their employers beat them with sticks or cables, punched and slapped them, and there's little they can do because they're excluded from the country's labor law protections, a rights group said Thursday.
The abuse complaints are rampant throughout the wealthy Persian Gulf region that relies on foreign labor. The Human Rights Watch says the problem is that the migrant workers' residency is tied to their employers through a sponsorship system that prevents them easily changing jobs.
It cited passport confiscation, non-payment of wages, excessive work, forced confinement, food deprivation and psychological, physical and sexual abuse.
The New York-based advocacy group said the report was based on interviews with 99 women domestic workers, recruitment agents and employers in the UAE. Twenty-two of the women said their employers physically abused them, beating them with sticks or cables, punching or slapping their faces, kicking or chocking them. Six said their employers or members of the household sexually assaulted or harassed them.
Some 146,000 migrant women are employed as domestic helpers in the UAE, one of the world's 10 richest countries. Most of them come from the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Ethiopia.
A 28-year-old Indonesian quoted in the report said her employer beat her every day and in March last year twisted her right arm behind her back so severely that it broke a bone above her wrist. The employer refused to take her to a doctor. Two months later, the employer threw a shoe at her foot so forcefully her foot bled. The worker managed to escape.
Another Indonesian worker said her employer raped her last year when he took her to clean a second house he bought. A Filipino worker said her employers would slap or punch her to make her "work harder."
Almost all workers interviewed complained of long hours, up to 21 hours per day in extreme cases, the report added. Many complained of not being paid on time or in full. One said she was never paid for almost three years.
The report said workers often endure months of abuse and exploitation because of fear of deportation, of being banned for future employment or being charged for "absconding."
Human Rights Watch called for a repeal or changes to the UAE visa sponsorship system that give employers control over domestic workers' immigration status, freedom of movement and freedom to terminate employment. It urged the workers' home countries to improve cooperation with the UAE on oversight of the recruitment process, validity of contracts and resolving legal cases.
Philippine Labor Secretary Erlinda Baldoz said her country has stopped processing contracts for domestic helpers bound for UAE, because the UAE won't let Filipino labor officials verify contracts. She said the Department of Foreign Affairs can take the lead in bilateral talks to change the visa sponsorship system.
Other countries in the oil-rich Gulf, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have also faced criticism over their treatment of migrant workers.