Rights group says female house maids in Middle East remain at risk of exploitation, abuse

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Reforms undertaken by governments in the Middle East to protect domestic workers from abuse are insufficient to shield women working as house maids from abuse and violence, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.

Millions of mostly Asian women who work in countries like Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates remain at risk of human trafficking, forced labor, confinement and sexual violence, the New York-based group said.

Although several governments have made improvements for migrant domestic workers in the past five years, reform has been slow and incremental, Nisha Varia, the group's senior researcher of women's rights told The Associated Press.

"There has been a big change in the sense that these countries are recognizing there is a problem," Varia said in a phone interview. "But while many governments are introducing reforms, most have yet to implement them."

The 26-page report released Thursday documents progress in extending protections to mostly Asian women working as house maids in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait and the Emirates.

Women working in private homes often work 20-hour days, face forced confinement and are sometimes physically and sexually abused, the report said.

Their passports are confiscated upon arrival, leaving employers in full control of their house maids' lives under what is known as a "sponsorship system."

The custom remains the biggest factor contributing to abuse, leaving women trapped in abusive situations since they are not allowed to legally change an employer, HRW said.

The group also urged that it's essential that domestic workers' rights — now governed by immigration law in most Mideast countries — are included in the labor law, assuring them of basic rights such as setting their work hours, regulating the quality of food and housing they get and guaranteeing them a day off a week.

"Governments will have to think creatively how to reach out to women working in private homes," Varia said. "It is a unique working environment."

While Human Rights Watch praised Jordan for including domestic work in the country's labor law, it said that "enforcement remains a big concern."

Most migrant workers in the Middle East — 1,5 million, according to HRW's assessment — are employed in Saudi Arabia. About 200,000 migrants work in Lebanon and 660,000 in Kuwait.

Domestic work in foreign countries is an important source of employment for women in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Nepal, India, and Ethiopia. Their earnings abroad amount to much of the billions of dollars of remittances sent home each year.