Bahrain Tribune - 26 June 2003

Women’s groups, non-governmental organisations and human rights bodies should be more involved in monitoring working conditions and living standards of domestic workers, especially housemaids, said vice-president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) Nabeel Rajab.

In a stinging speech at a Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs forum to discuss the plight of domestic workers, Rajab commented that housemaids who come to Bahrain were usually from the lowest socio-economic level in their countries and were not only exploited through overwork but sometimes sexually assaulted and culturally discriminated against.

“These women pay the price for choosing to become domestic workers from the time they leave their homes until they reach their employer’s home,” he explained.

“They belong to the most abused of the workforce, and not enough is being done to break the chain of exploitation that binds them.”

Rajab suggested that the first area of corrective treatment should be restoring the sanctity of the domestic worker’s contract.

“Often, the housemaid pays a recruiting agent or middleman in her hometown for the privilege of being recruited to work in Bahrain, she pays the government agency for a passport, and then she comes here and has her contract redrawn by her employer and takes a lower wage for more work.

“By this time she’s deeply in debt, and the only way ahead for her is to work her way through the contract for the pittance she’s offered.”

He suggested that all contracts drawn up for housemaids should carry a minimum salary, clearly lay out the salary, the terms and conditions of work, the days off per month and rest period per day and the annual leave and passage terms.

“This contract should be signed by the employer, the domestic worker, the embassy official from the housemaid’s country of origin, the recruitment-agency representative and a labour ministry official. The contract should be considered binding on all parties in case of dispute, and any violations should be tackled seriously.

“Such a policy at government level would do much to clear up accusations of ill-treatment by housemaids.” He indicated that BCHR had recommended that a Unifem (a UN women’s organisation)-designed contract for domestic workers should be implemented by the ministry in Bahrain to protect the rights of housemaids as has been done in Jordan.

“At present, not only are housemaids outside the purview of the law, they’ve no say in their own work conditions,” he underlined.

“The employer decides the nature of the maid’s work, whether she’ll be a nanny, cook, cleaner or all the above, whether she’ll work for five people or 10, whether her services will be lent to other households, her working hours and rest periods.”

Rajab stressed that a legally binding and government-enforced contract would provide a short-cut to handling problems of domestic-worker abuse since many housemaids are illiterate, unaware of their rights and have no access to social workers and to people from their community who would help them bridge the cultural gap and emotional vacuum created by a new place of residence.

He was especially critical of the fact that there were no clear procedures to handle complaints of abuse that housemaids made at police stations.

“We must remember that these are women who come from societies where figures of authority, such as policemen and government officials, are regarded as being on the employer’s side.

“When they sum up the courage to report abuse to the police in a foreign country, the Bahrain system is to send them back to their employer’s home with no follow-up action or reassurances.

“This shatters their trust in the system, and so we’ve increasing number of runaway maids forced to turn to illicit activities such as prostitution to sustain themselves.”

He called for the involvement of BCHR and especially the Migrant Worker’s Group in resolving the issues of domestic abuse and the appointment of social workers by the ministry and through NGOs which can then work with the police to resolve complaints from housemaids.

“The ministry’s forum yesterday was a very important milestone on the path to addressing these issues coherently along with plans by the intra-ministerial task force to create a half-way home for abused maids and the involvement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we’re looking at some solutions to these issues. With the involvement of human-rights groups, women’s groups and NGOs, we can tackle the problem better.”