Gulf labour laws fail to halt abuse

UAE housemaid's case highlights vulnerability of region's foreign workers to exploitation.

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    Every year thousands of women arrive in the Gulf to take up jobs as domestic workers.

    The majority of them leave behind their families on a huge financial gamble to try to earn enough in remittances.

    But behind closed doors, in the homes of their employers, some find themselves trapped in a cycle of horrific abuse.

    Al Jazeera's Charles Stratford spoke to one housemaid, Mary, who suffered two years of abuse in the United Arab Emirates.

    Two and a half years ago, Mary left her family in East Africa to work as a maid in a private house in the Middle East.

    "The beatings started on the second day," she said. "No day passed without beatings. If she didn't beat me in the day she would beat me at night."

    One day she was ordered to have sex with another maid. When she refused, her employer threatened her with more beatings.

    "She said the law was in her favour. Not in mine," Mary said.

    Inherent vulnerability

    Simel Esim, a specialist in domestic worker abuse at the International Labour Organisation (ILO), said the workers are simply not protected by labour laws.

    "Domestic workers ... are excluded from unionising and organising around the globe," she  said.

    "[This] kind of economic infrastructure [in the Gulf] has created a huge inflow of labour migration that requires immediate and urgent attention.

    "The sponsorship system ... The way it is set up, it is bound to fail.

    "You are attaching a person's legal status, visa status and employment to one person as the employer and also the provider of housing, food and health care.

    "It creates total dependency and total dependency means total vulnerability and opens the door wide for abuse and exploitation."

    Mary left her country determined to earn money for her family. But two years later, she is horrified at the prospect of her family knowing about her suffering.

    "How can I go back home with this body? My mother is sick," she said. "If she sees me like this she will die of shock. I am so ashamed to see my friends. Even now I feel shame."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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