MANILA, Philippines – Many Asian and African women working as domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates have reported being overworked, beaten or sexually abused by their employers but are often trapped in slave-like conditions 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. Human Rights Watch said in a report that the migrant workers' residency is tied to their employers through a sponsorship system that prevents them from changing jobs and opens them to charges if they run away.
It cited passport confiscation, non-payment of wages, long hours of work, forced confinement, food deprivation and psychological, physical and sexual abuse.
The New York-based advocacy group said the report was based on interviews late last year with 99 female domestic workers, recruitment agents and employers in the United Arab Emirates. Twenty-two of the women said their employers physically abused them, beating them with sticks or cables, punching or slapping their faces, kicking or choking them. Six said their employers or members of the household sexually assaulted or harassed them.
"The UAE's sponsorship system chains domestic workers to their employers and then leaves them isolated and at risk of abuse behind the closed doors of private homes," said Rothna Begum, Middle East women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "With no labor law protection for domestic workers, employers can, and many do, overwork, underpay, and abuse these women."
At least 146,000 migrant women work as domestic helpers in the United Arab Emirates, one of the world's 10 richest countries. Most of them come from the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Ethiopia.
The report said authorities in June began requiring a weekly day off and 8 hours of rest within 24 hours for domestic workers. But the changes are weaker than labor protections for other workers that are enforceable by judicial authorities.
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. 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 and many complained of not being paid on time or in full, the report said. One said she was never paid for almost three years.
The report said workers often endure months of abuse due to fear of deportation, of being banned for future employment or being charged with "absconding."
Two Filipino former domestic workers recounted their suffering in the United Arab Emirates during the report's launch in Manila.
Marelie Brua, 24, said she escaped from her employer after two months of 22 to 23 hours of work a day, being fed rotten food, paid half of what was stipulated in her contract and collapsing twice due to exhaustion.
When she complained, her employer said, "We bought you for 10,000 dirhams ($2,700), do you know that?"
Marina Sarno, a 39-year-old mother of four, said she worked from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. the next day and was fed stale bread. Her employer, who kept her cellphone and documents, scolded her when she was too sick to work. "I told her not to treat me like an animal," Sarno said.
When Sarno's husband contacted Philippine authorities, her bosses allowed her to go home. But her recruiter made her sign a quit claim in exchange for her air ticket, and the employer confiscated Sarno's savings, she said.
Philippine Labor Secretary Erlinda Baldoz said Manila has stopped processing contracts for domestic helpers bound for the United Arab Emirates because it won't let Philippine labor officials verify contracts.