In recent years, a large number of women have traveled from the Philippines, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India and Sri Lanka to work as domestic employees in the GCC countries. The trend of migrant domestic workers in the GCC countries has been facilitated by the economic boom in which the citizens enjoy free homes, education and other social and economic benefits thus enabling them to acquire domestic workers. In the UAE, domestic workers are seen as a status symbol based on the number of workers a household can be able to acquire and maintain. It is estimated that 150,000 Emirati families employ about 300,000 domestic workers, and the domestic workers represent 5% to 10% of the total population in UAE (Sönmez, Apostopoulos, Tran & Rentrope, 2013). In 2007, UAE issued the highest number of visas or domestic workers exceeding that issued by Saudi Arabia, a much bigger economy. However, the country has been forced to implement various changes in the labor regulations to cater for the domestic demand for low-skilled workers while catering for the interest of the workers (Chonghaile, 2014). This paper explores the escalating issue of immigrant domestic workers in UAE and GCC and the interferences of other states on local labor regulations in UAE.
The trend of immigrant domestic workers in the UAE and other GCC countries is facilitated by the economic incentives of both the exporting and receiving countries, a system of employment agencies for recruiting workers on behalf of sponsors and poor economic conditions in the exporting countries that force people to seek employment abroad (Sönmez et al., 2013). Issues of human rights abuse and exploitation of domestic workers in the GCC countries have been known to the recruiting agencies and labor-sending countries for a long time, but recent incidences have attracted more attention to the problems experienced by domestic workers.
The UAE has a long history of discriminating and exploiting migrant employees through domestic policies on social welfare. In 1998, UAE started a program to test the entire population of communicable diseases including HIV/AIDs, Hepatitis, and Tuberculosis with one of the major aims being to deport all migrant workers who tested positive (Sönmez et al., 2013). In these exercises to test for communicable diseases, some immigrant workers were incarcerated as the government processed their deportation to countries of origin.
The current issues of exploitation of domestic workers in the UAE revolve around the use of Kafala sponsorship system. The Kafala system is an immigration worker policy that seeks to maintain the local values of Emiratization in which the locals are favored over immigrant workers (Malit & Youha, 2013). Basically, GCC countries do not allow a free labor market for immigrant workers where the workers can be able to negotiate their pay and choose the highest bidder. The Kafala system of sponsorship eliminates any form of competition among employers by restricting contract negotiations to the recruitment process in the countries of origin. The immigrant workers enter into a contract with the sponsoring employers before leaving their country of origin and on their arrival in the GCC countries, their passport and identification documents are taken by the employer. The employers are able to control the migrant domestic workers by withholding their documents and salary in arrears. Under the Kafala system, domestic workers are managed under the Ministry of Interior while other immigrant workers are under the authority of the Ministry of Labor in the UAE and as a result, domestic workers are exempted from the protection provided by labor laws (Malit & Youha, 2013).
The Kafala system was facilitated by the need by the government of UAE to protect the locals from competition with expatriate laborers (Malit & Youha, 2013). At the time of implementing the Kafala system, the local people in the UAE found it difficult to secure jobs in the growing private sector since they did not have the necessary skills. Most local people could only be accommodated in the public sector, and this meant that the growing private sector would be occupied by foreigners. The local labor policies were thus aimed at protecting the interest of UAE citizens by facilitating their employment in influential positions in the private sector.
The Kafala system has been blamed of facilitating human trafficking and forced labor for domestic workers in the UAE (Khan & Harroff-Tavel, 2011). The migrant workers rely on the employment agencies when entering into a contract with the sponsoring employers and thus have limited say in the terms of employment. Also, the Kafala system makes it possible for employers in the UAE to violate the rights of domestic workers within the requirements of the International Labor Organization and local laws. For instance, in the Kafala system domestic workers are not formally recognized as employees, the households where they work is not considered a working place and the sponsoring employers are only considered as private persons (Sönmez et al., 2013). This system means that both the workers and the employees are not covered by the 1980 UAE labor law or the 2007 draft labor law on employee protection. Despite the UAE and other GCC countries being members of the International Labor Organization, the Kafala system makes it possible to violate the of international labor laws (Human Rights Watch, 2011).
Human rights organization and scholars have described the Kafala system as a form of slavery as the immigrant domestic workers lose total control over their welfare after entering into a contract with the sponsoring employers (Sönmez et al., 2013). It is estimated that a large number of migrants lack formal documentation after abandoning their abusive employers without securing their passports and other identification papers that were confiscated after their arrival.
Expatriate labor-source countries have taken various steps to protect their nationals from forced labor and other exploitations in the GCC countries. In recent years, major sources of domestic workers including the Philippines and Indonesia have placed restrictions on their citizens with the aim of stopping the wave of immigration to the GCC countries. For instance, India placed restrictions barring women below 30 years from working as domestic workers in foreign countries (Sanar, 2015). The measures by individual countries and international condemnation have influenced UAE and other GCC countries to implement changes to their local policies in order to meet the demand for expatriate labor while sustaining the workforce requirements in households. The local regulations by the Philippines and other countries have led to a sharp decline in the number of available domestic workers in the UAE over the past few years. News reports from the GCC countries show that households are finding it more difficult to recruit domestic workers and in many cases families are forced to keep underperforming workers because of difficulties of finding their replacement (Sanar, 2015). In addition, the cost of hiring and maintaining migrant domestic workers has significantly increased thus forcing many families to live with unwanted employees.
The local initiatives to restrict the number of domestic workers traveling in the GCC countries were based on the view that employers are more likely to address the issues affecting their employees when the employees are short in supply and when the cost of replacing an employee is high (Staff, 2013). Basically, many families in the UAE depend heavily on domestic workers and thus the government is concerned about the local policies adopted by the labor-source countries (Chonghaile, 2014).
Over the past few years, the UAE government has reformed its labor laws in response to widespread condemnation of the Kafala system. The government started by reforming the policies that allowed confiscation of immigrant workers’ passports by the sponsoring employers and introduction of wage protection measures. UAE is a member of International Labor Organization, and the local laws do not allow the sponsoring employers to retain the passport of the immigrant domestic workers (Sönmez et al., 2013). However, many employers ignore these laws, and also there are various ways in which the sponsoring employers can avoid the formal system of acquiring immigrant domestic workers.
Although domestic workers are not covered by several major labor reforms in the UAE, there have been significant changes in the policies that require households to cater for the interests of the domestic workers. In 2012, the UAE Federal National Council approved a law that touched on the provision of paid vacation and sick leave for immigrant domestic workers (Malit & Youha, 2013). This legislation requires domestic employers to provide their employees with days off from their work and ensure their health welfare by providing a sick leave whenever necessary. In addition to this legislation, the UAE government amended a federal law in 2013 to help in safeguarding the rights of victims of human trafficking (Malit & Youha, 2013). The government has also been involved in awareness campaigns among those who are in positions that can be used to prevent human trafficking in the country.
The plight of immigrant domestic workers in the GCC countries has forced the government of these countries to enforce some policies on international labor cooperation and also enter into bilateral agreements with major sources of expatriate labor (Human Rights Watch, 2011). In 2007, the UAE established bilateral cooperation with the Philippine government on labor issues and this relationship formed the basis of standardized contract protection for Filipino workers (Malit & Youha, 2013). In 2008, the UAE actively participated in a regional discussion involving 11 countries on a framework for regulating labor migration. Other measures taken by the UAE and other GCC countries include occasional immigration restrictive measures targeting certain countries that export low skilled labor. In response to international condemnation of the treatment of domestic workers, the UAE announced a two-month amnesty program in 2012 in which illegal migrant workers were allowed to either formalize their status in the country or return to their countries of origin without any punishment (Malit & Youha, 2013).
Basically, the expatriate labor-source countries have had a lot of influence on the local labor regulations in the UAE and the GCC (Staff, 2013). These countries want the UAE to respect labor international labor laws despite the special interests by the GCC countries to protect their citizens from competition from expatriates (Khan & Harroff-Tavel, 2011). The influence of other countries on local labor policies in the UAE can be demonstrated by recent civil movements from certain countries that have the aim of protecting their citizens working in the UAE. For example, the Lawyers for Human Rights International, an NGO based in India, has been very active in advocating for laws to protect domestic workers in the UAE. The Philippines also has a number of civil society movements that create awareness about the plight of domestic workers in UAE and advocate for changes in labor laws (Malit & Youha, 2013).
The issues related to immigrant domestic workers in the UAE and other GCC countries have led to major changes in policies in labor regulations that tend to interfere with local regulations that are meant to safeguard the interest of these countries. The Kafala system in the UAE was established by the government to protect the interests of UAE nationals in the labor market, but the system has been condemned for facilitating human rights violations among the migrant domestic workers. It is clear that the UAE has been forced to change some of its local labor policies in order to accommodate the needs of domestic employers while at the same time adhering to the requirements of international labor standards. The major exporters of domestic workers to the GCC countries have stepped up their efforts in calling for local reforms on policies that are oppressive to immigrant workers. The impact of domestic workers on the local policies in the UAE and GCC can be demonstrated by various changes that have been adopted by the government of UAE on labor laws and bilateral labor agreement with the Philippines and other major sources of expatriate labor on low-skilled jobs.