New labour contract fails to protect domestic workers in the Gulf


Sreekala worked as a domestic in Kuwait a few years ago, and still looks broken as she recounts her experience of being ‘sold’ into servitude.

She was denied food, faced long working hours until 02.00 at night and she was even locked in the house when the employer went on holiday.

Sreekala is in tears as she talks about the threats she received from her employer: she was told, for example, that if they killed her, they could disguise her death as a car accident or by saying that she fell over.

This is just one of the thousands of horror stories that illustrate the systematic exploitation and abuse of female migrant domestic workers in countries throughout the Gulf.

A proposed ‘Standardised Employment Contract’ (SEC) is scheduled for adoption at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Conference in October in Bahrain.

However, it is doubtful that the current proposal will make a difference for migrant domestic workers.

There is no indication that the SEC will be accompanied by enforcement mechanisms to secure its implementation.

The document also contains loopholes that the employers can use for their own benefit. For instance, they could state that a worker’s injury was deliberately self-inflicted which frees employers from providing medical care as stipulated in Article 4 of the contract.

And in its current form, the document falls short of the minimum standards set forth in ILO Convention 189 – the Domestic Work Convention.

Unless these issues are tackled seriously, we foresee that employers will continue with their abusive and exploitative practices.

Earlier this year, we read news stories in which GCC officials claimed that the SEC “provides the utmost legal degrees of protection for domestic workers” and argued that the contract “is in line with international standards”.

However, an analysis of a leaked copy of the proposed SEC by the ITUC shows that it is far from complaint with international standards.

An earlier and similar GCC proposal was issued in 2008, but then failed to deliver. It took the GCC leadership five years to attempt to find another agreement and adopt a proposal for a SEC. However, there are still too many domestic worker rights deficits in national legislation that need to be addressed as an urgent and serious matter.

Today, ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow urges the GCC to amend the Contract based on the relevant provisions of ILO Convention 189. An amended version should be the basis for discussion at the GCC Conference in Bahrain.

In principle, the GCC should not have any reservations: they voted unanimously for the adoption of the ILO Convention 189 on 16 June 2011.

More recently, states like Bahrain extended provisions of its labour law to domestic workers, including those related to labour contracts, wage calculation, annual leave, dispute settlement and the right to freedom of association. In addition, Saudi Arabia also agreed on various solid provisions including a minimum wage floor of 400 US dollars in a bilateral agreement on Filipino Household Service Workers with the Philippines.

This shows that it is possible for leaders taking part in the GCC Conference in October to take decisions supporting the rights of domestic workers.

Ensuring rights for domestic workers is an urgent matter. We need to prevent women from having to face what Sreelaka went through – or even worse: torture, sexual abuse, murder and death sentences due to unfair trials based on false evidence.

The global trade union movement – campaigning hand-in-hand with domestic workers for the ratification of C189 – will be watching.