Waiting For Reform & Recognition: Female Migrant Domestic Workers In Bahrain
24 December 2010
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) calls on the local and international community to give special attention to the plight of female migrant domestic workers in the Kingdom of Bahrain. To a great extent, this sector of Bahraini society has been ignored and excluded from the discourse on women's and migrants’ rights in Bahrain. Women and children around the globe are the most vulnerable section of society to the effects of economic, political and social ills; for migrant women, the conditions are even worse. According to the ILO, domestic work is the "single most important category of employment among women migrants to the Gulf as well as to Lebanon and Jordan." In 2008 BCHR, Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights and CARAM Asia collaborated in releasing a report on the situation of female migrant domestic workers in the Kingdom of Bahrain. This year on the International Migrants Day, BCHR follows up on the 2008 report with an updated appraisal of the situation of female migrant domestic workers in Bahrain. This report summarizes the continued problems faced by migrant domestic workers and the lack of improvements over the past two years. Following an appraisal of the current situation, this report offers several key recommendations to the Bahraini government on the issue of female migrant domestic workers.
The United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there are approximately 214 million migrants worldwide, with nearly half of them being women. The ILO warns that the global financial and economic crisis has exacerbated the situation of migrant women workers, especially workers from developing countries. Across the globe migrant workers face issues of discrimination, abuse and low pay. Bahrain is home to over 438,000 migrant workers mainly originating from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. Women in Bahrain face job discrimination and harassment. Migrant domestic workers --estimated to be around 70,000 in Bahrain -- suffer these and many more undignified abuses. Leaving behind their home countries in search of a high income, many migrant workers pay exorbitant migration and recruitment fees to gain employment in Bahrain. Upon arrival, however they find living and working conditions not worth the price.
Migrant workers employed in Bahraini households, especially female domestic workers, are often “invisible” and therefore particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. They work and live within the confines of their employer’s home. Domestic workers do not fall under the purview of Bahrain's labour laws, because of their 'unrecognized' status. Thus they are unable to exercise the rights and freedoms afforded to expatriate workers. It is difficult to scrutinize and regulate the working and living conditions of domestic workers. There is little protection for their rights embedded in Bahraini law. Consequently, they are frequently subjected to conditions of forced servitude. Migrant domestic workers face a multitude of problems: long (and often undefined) working hours, low salaries, the withholding of salaries and poor living conditions such as being forced to sleep outside or in cramped quarters and denied food. They suffer from psychological, physical and sexual abuse. In addition they are subjected to restrictions on movement, including the withholding of passports by their employers. It is extremely difficult for victims of these gross abuses of human dignity and human rights to seek legal redress.
Since 2008, the Bahraini government has received international praise for its labour law reforms and proposed future reforms. However, these changes are not sufficient in protecting the physical and financial well-being of migrant domestic workers. Bahrain made a stride forward in improving the quality of life for migrant workers through a reform allowing migrant workers to change employers (without their employer’s consent and in the absence of allegations of nonpayment or abuse). This major improvement for migrant workers does not apply to domestic workers.
Although Bahrain has ratified the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, it fails to uphold those standards for female migrant domestic workers. Furthermore, Bahrain has not ratified other important treaties related to the protection of migrant workers such as the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families or relevant ILO conventions.
ANALYSIS OF THE SITUATION
LACK OF LEGAL PROTECTION
As domestic workers do not fall under the purview of Bahraini labour law, abuse of power at the hands of employers goes largely unchecked by the government. Employment contracts for domestic workers are set between the employer and worker, at the employer's discretion. The government provides a model contract, but it is merely a suggestion and not a requirement. Vague terms of contract lead to confusion over the exact job requirements. Often this results in domestic workers taking on multiple roles within the household including cleaner, babysitter and cook as well as tending to their employer's relatives as well. According to a 2005 ILO study, the average number of work hours for female domestic workers in Bahrain was 108 per week, slightly higher than in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (101 and 105 respectively). These women had an average of 1 day off per month. Another issue faced by domestic workers is contract substitution whereby the worker agrees to one contract while still in their home country, but they are made to sign a new contract with different (often worse terms) upon arrival.
Bahrain has pledged to cancel the Kafala (sponsorship) system for expatriate workers. It is among the first of the GCC countries to make this pledge to remove what has been criticized as a system of "modern day slavery." Although Bahrain has announced the cancellation of the sponsorship system, this has yet to be implemented. Furthermore, domestic workers are not slated to be included in the reformed labour laws. Domestic workers are legally required to live with their sponsor (employer). Their legal status in Bahrain is dependent upon the continued sponsorship of their employers. Migrant workers in exploitative or abusive situations face a catch-22. Their employer is their key to legal residency status in Bahrain, but workers who attempt to flee abusive or exploitative living and working conditions risk arrest, prolonged detention and deportation. If a domestic worker attempts to leave their employer’s home without the employer’s consent, the employer can report the worker as a runaway to the police, grounds for arrest. It has been the case in Bahrain that victims of abuse who fled their employer’s home to file a complaint were detained by police as runaways. A frequent consequence of this system is that domestic workers who suffer abuse do not make complaints against their employers.
There is no formal system in place to monitor the contracts between employers and domestic workers. Nor is there a formal system for monitoring working conditions. A recent legal reform entitles workers to maintain their passports in their possession. It is still common practice, however, for employer’s to withhold passports, limiting freedom of movement. Since domestic workers are excluded from labour laws, the regulation of domestic work is sorely lacking, at the expense of victims of abuse.
One major positive change that took effect in 2010 is the introduction of the Easy Exit Program. This government initiative allows illegal migrant workers, including domestic workers, to leave Bahrain quickly and easily. This program was adopted to help the estimated 43,000 illegal migrant workers in Bahrain. As long as a migrant worker is not involved in a pending legal case, they can pay simply pay a fine and leave Bahrain immediately .
MISTREATMENT AND VIOLENCE
Reports of abuse and mistreatment against female migrant domestic workers have continued to surface in local newspapers and from foreign embassies since the 2008 report. According to the Labor Ministry, 322 domestic workers ran away from their sponsors in 2009. In the first five months of 2010 another 42 fled their sponsors.
Contributing to the vulnerable situation of domestic workers is the practice of hiring runaways or illegal residents. According to the Labour Ministry Inspection and Labour Director Ahmed Al Haiki the practice of hiring domestic workers off the street has worsened recently. This is a higher risk situation for migrant domestic workers. Their illegal work and residency status, further limits their legal rights and can increase apprehension in reporting mistreatment and abuse.
During Ramadan in the month August, the Filipino Workers Resource Center (FWRC) run by the Embassy of the Philippines reported that between August 11th and August 24th alone, 22 female domestic workers sought shelter from abuse at the hands of their employers. The FWRC reported that they typically receive 30 domestic workers during the month of Ramadan, 50 percent more than the average monthly intake.
The Philippines' Mass Repatriation Program aims to repatriate distressed workers by assisting in resolving outstanding issues and fines. The FWRC and Philippine Government in coordination with the Labour Market Regulatory Authority repatriated 39 illegal Filipino domestic workers and laborers in August. Many of the illegal Filipino workers in Bahrain leave the Philippines undocumented through an illegal escort system.
In August, the Gulf Daily News reported the abuse of a 32 year old Indian housemaid who was under the care of the MWPS after running away from her employer. The maid reported that during her two months of employment she had been subjected to physical and verbal abuse from her employer's wife, had not been paid her monthly salary of 50BD and was refused meals. She ran away from her employer's home and was discovered by a Bahraini citizen who took her to the Indian embassy to file a complaint. The Indian embassy assisted her in filing a complaint at the Khamis police station where her employer had already reported her as a runaway. The maid left Bahrain in November after being cared for at the MWPS shelter for three months. In December the Lower Criminal Court found the employer's wife guilty of assault. The Bahraini woman was sentenced to one month in jail and fined 280 BD. The MWPS reported that it was pursing further financial compensation in Civil Court.
Bahrain witnessed the mass exit of 300 Sri Lankan domestic workers between May and November of 2010. The domestic workers left Bahrain under the government’s new Easy Exit program. Reasons cited for leaving were physical abuse, sexual harassment, non-payment of salaries and being overworked. Out of the approximate 13,000 Sri Lankan migrants in Bahrain it is estimated that there are 3,000 Sri Lankan domestic workers in Bahrain.
Another serious problem resulting from the mistreatment of domestic workers is suicide. There were several reported cases of female migrant domestic workers resorting to suicide.
LACK OF ACCESS TO JUSTICE
Only a small number of female migrant domestic workers are able or willing to seek legal action against their employer. The fear of reprisal, arrest or deportation inhibits many from stepping forward to report abuse. Additionally, although the government and local NGOs have carried out information campaigns, many migrant domestic workers are unaware of their rights. This is especially true for domestic workers who work long hours in the household and have little access or interaction outside the confines of their employer’s home.
Those who seek legal redress for exploitative working conditions find little institutional support within the government. They must rely on their foreign embassy or NGOs such as the Migrant Worker Protection Society (MWPS) to facilitate the proper legal recourse against abusive employers. Court cases can take several months, costing migrant workers valuable time and money. If a domestic worker is involved in a pending court case they are legally prohibited from leaving the country until the issue is resolved.
Female migrant domestic workers are the most vulnerable sector of Bahraini society to illegal human trafficking. In their annual report on human trafficking the U.S. Department of State rated Bahrain as a tier II country for human trafficking. A tier II classification applies to “Countries whose governments do not fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards” The report noted that although Bahrain has made some attempts to curb human trafficking in to the country, including introducing the anti-trafficking law, there is still a great deal of work to do. Most notably, the report cites that the government lacks a formal procedure for identifying victims among vulnerable groups, such as migrant domestic workers. The report charges that Bahrain does not provide adequate protective services for victims. Although the government funds the Dar Al Aman shelter for trafficking victims, only a small number of victims are being directed there. Foreign embassies and the MWPS generally take on the responsibility for caring for trafficking victims. The report also cites concern over the lack of legal alternatives for the removal of trafficking victims to countries where they face retribution or hardship.
The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights proposes the following recommendations to the government of Bahrain: • Take immediate steps to amend the Labour Law to cover domestic workers and to put in place all necessary measures to ensure its implementation. • To implement all recommendations issued by the UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons following her visit to Bahrain in October-November 2006, including: – To abolish the sponsorship system. – To establish mechanisms to monitor the working conditions and compliance of employment contracts of domestic workers in the households of their employers. – To inspect, in the presence of employers and workers, all migrant workers’ contracts. – To prohibit mandatory HIV/AIDS-testing of targeted groups. – To guarantee foreign workers the right to an accessible and fair system of justice. – To automatically inform embassies when their nationals are being detained and to facilitate visits by the relevant consular officials. • To ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. • To ratify relevant International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions, including Convention No. 97 (1949) on Migration for Employment, and No. 143 (1975) concerning Migrations in Abusive Conditions and the Promotion of Equality of Opportunity and Treatment of Migrant Workers. • To adopt anti-trafficking legislation and practices to fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking set forth in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act • Continue to enforce the 2008 anti-trafficking law and significantly increase the investigation and prosecution of trafficking offenses, especially those involving forced domestic labor • Adopt formal procedures for identifying trafficking victims among domestic workers and ensure that victims of trafficking are not punished for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked, such as illegal migration or prostitution • Adopt legal alternatives for victims of trafficking when they face retribution or hardship in their country of origin