Domestic workers in Middle East risk abuse amid COVID-19 crisis

Governments have a responsibility to protect foreign domestic workers.

Lebanon workers
A migrant domestic worker holds up a placard during a parade, in advance of May Day, in Beirut on April 29, 2012 [File: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

Governments around the world have imposed restrictions on movements of citizens to counter the threat of COVID-19 and limit its spread. But for millions of Asian and African migrant domestic workers in the Middle East, these important safeguards also increase the risk of serious abuse.

I have spent over 10 years interviewing domestic workers in the region and documenting their working conditions. I believe that, without strong action by governments and mass media campaigns, we can expect an increase in the number of domestic workers forced to work practically around the clock.

I have documented these abuses over the years, especially when domestic workers work for large families, family events, or during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Such overwork has driven many of them to exhaustion, illness, depression, and some to suicide.

Now, domestic workers will most likely face additional cooking, cleaning, and caring demands with entire families at home all day and children out of school. Restrictions on leaving the house also mean that employers may force them to work on their legally mandated day off. They may also prohibit workers from leaving the house even if government rules allow it.

While some migrant domestic workers have decent working conditions, many face abusive conditions largely because of abusive immigration policies and weak or non-existent labour law protections. Domestic workers have told me that employers forced them to work up to 21 hours a day without rest and no day off, gave them little food, underpaid, delayed or withheld their wages, restricted communication with their families, confiscated their passports, and physically or sexually abused them.

The restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to exacerbate such conditions. Employers may demand more cleaning and disinfecting of their homes. Domestic workers are often not provided with protective equipment or adequate instructions and have suffered burns or injuries from harsh cleaning products. They may also be required to take care of anyone who may fall ill, including someone with COVID-19.

With families facing job loss, delayed wages, or other economic insecurity, this may mean employers will delay or refuse to pay domestic workers. Some may reduce workers’ food, while prioritising their own family members.

Some domestic workers have told me in previous years that they were given little food or scraps from family meals, or starved as punishment. In Lebanon, which already had an economic crisis, some employers delayed or stopped paying their domestic workers altogether.

Families’ anxiety around the coronavirus and lockdown measures can lead to frayed tensions. As with the documented increase in intimate partner violence during the pandemic, the conditions are ripe for verbal, physical, and sexual abuse to increase against domestic workers trapped in abusive situations.

Similarly, domestic workers will face even more difficulty escaping such abuse. Under the kafala (sponsorship) system, which exists across the region to varying degrees, migrant workers’ visas are tied to their employers and they are not allowed to leave or change employers without their employer’s permission. Domestic workers who escaped abusive employers ended up arrested and returned to abusive employers or imprisoned and deported for “absconding”.

New COVID-19 rules could impose additional penalties on domestic workers for fleeing abuse. Middle East governments have not sent messages to employers on fair treatment of domestic workers confined with their employers at home, nor have they tried to identify and support domestic workers in distress, or to ensure that domestic workers who escape abuse are not arrested as violators of any curfew or lockdown restrictions.

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, Lebanon, and Jordan – which host some of the largest migrant domestic worker populations – should address these dangers with television and social media campaigns to educate employers on their obligations to respect domestic workers’ rights including by ensuring an eight-hour working day, a weekly day off, protective equipment for cleaning or caring for sick people, and regular communication with their family and friends.

There should be a zero-tolerance message to employers about labour abuses like unpaid wages or physical or verbal abuse, along with reminders of the penalties they can face.

Governments should also facilitate information campaigns for domestic workers in the languages they speak through their embassies, SMS campaigns, television, and organisations that assist domestic workers. Such information should include information on how to protect themselves from COVID-19, their rights at work, and a hotline that workers or their families can call if they are in distress.

Governments should intervene to protect any worker reporting abuse, ensure safe accommodation for workers in distress that is compliant with health and safety to protect them from COVID-19, and facilitate filing complaints against employers and safe repatriation should they wish to go home.

These are unprecedented times. While governments and individuals put into effect extraordinary measures to control the deadly coronavirus, the authorities also need to ensure that this emergency does not exacerbate abuse and to actively protect vulnerable populations.

Migrant domestic workers take care of families in the Middle East; these families and governments should take care of them too.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.