Jahanara* had had enough. For a year, the Bangladeshi cook had been working 12 to 16 hours a day, eating only leftovers and sleeping on the kitchen floor of her employer’s Abu Dhabi home – all for half the salary she had been promised. She had to prepare four fresh meals a day for the eight-member family, who gave her little rest. She was tired, she had no phone and she was alone. So, in the summer of 2014, in the middle of the night after a long day’s work, she snuck out into the driveway, scaled the front gate and escaped.
Jahanara ran along the road in the dark. She did not know where she was going. Eventually, a Pakistani taxi driver pulled over, and asked her if she had run away from her employer, and whether she needed help. She admitted she had no money, and no clue where she wanted to go. The driver gave her a ride, dropping her off in the neighboring emirate of Dubai, in the Deira neighborhood. There, he introduced her to Vijaya,* an Indian woman in her late fifties who had been working in the Gulf for more than two decades.
“It’s like I found family here in this strange land.”
Vijaya gave the nervous young woman a meal of rice, dal and, as Jahanara still recalls, “a beautiful fish fry.” She arranged for Jahanara to rent half a room in her apartment and, within a week, had found her part-time housekeeping work in the homes of two expat families.
Jahanara is a 31-year-old single woman from north Bangladesh, and Vijaya, 60, is a grandmother of eight from Mumbai, India. Jahanara speaks Bengali, while Vijaya speaks Telugu. Despite the differences in age and background, the two women have become close friends. They communicate in gestures and broken Urdu.
“It’s like I found family here in this strange land,” Jahanara says.
The younger woman now cleans four houses a day, and cooks dinner for a fifth, while the older woman works as a masseuse, giving traditional oil massages to mothers and babies.
Jahanara’s experience in Abu Dhabi was not the first time she had been exploited as a domestic worker in the Gulf. She originally left Bangladesh six years ago, and has been home only once since then, when she ran away from abusive employers in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and the police deported her. She had no choice – under the much-criticized kafala system for legally employing migrant workers, a domestic worker is attached to a particular household that sponsors their visa. Employers often keep the worker’s passport to prevent their leaving, although this is illegal in most Gulf countries today.
Under kafala, quitting a bad boss means losing your passport and vital work visa, and potentially being arrested or deported. This is why, the second time, Jahanara escaped in the dead of night. Now, she works outside official channels.
“You earn at least three times more if you’re ‘khalli walli,’” Vijaya says, using a colloquial Arabic term for undocumented or freelance migrant workers. The name loosely translates as “take it or leave it.”
“You get to sleep in your own house, you get paid on time and if your employer misbehaves, you can find a new one,” she says.
“The Gulf needs us, but like a bad husband, it also exploits us.”
Ever year, driven by poverty, family pressure, conflict or natural disasters back home, millions of women, mainly from developing countries, get on flights to the Gulf with their fingers crossed that they won’t be abused when they get there.
It’s a dangerous trade-off, but one that can work out for some. When Jahanara and Vijaya describe their lives, the two women repeatedly weigh the possibility of financial empowerment against inadequate wages, routine abuse and vulnerability.
By working for 23 years in Dubai and Muscat in Oman, Vijaya has funded the education of her three children, the construction of a house for her son in a Mumbai slum and the weddings of two daughters. She is overworked and underpaid, but she says that’s “normal.” As she sees it, it’s all part of working on the margins of one of the world’s most successful economies.
“The Gulf needs us,” Vijaya says. “But like a bad husband, it also exploits us.”
The International Labour Organization (ILO) reports that there are 11.5 million migrant domestic workers around the world – 73 percent of them are women. In 2016, there were 3.77 million domestic workers in Oman, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
In a single household in these states, it’s common to find several domestic workers employed to do everything from cleaning and cooking, to guarding the home and tutoring the children.
Unlike other sectors, the demand for domestic workers has been resilient to economic downturns. Estimated to be one of the world’s largest employers of domestic workers, Saudi Arabia hosts around 2.42 million. The majority of these workers (733,000) entered the country between 2016 and 2017, during its fiscal deficit. In 2017, domestic workers comprised a full 22 percent of Kuwait’s working age population. Oman has seen a threefold explosion in its domestic work sector since 2008. Overall, the GCC’s migrant domestic work sector has been growing at an annual average of 8.7 percent for the past decade.
That growth is partly fueled by the increasing numbers of women entering the workforce. The percentage of Saudi Arabia’s adult female population in the formal labor force has risen from 18 percent to 22 percent over the past decade. In Qatar, the figure has jumped from 49 percent to 58 percent. And as more women go to work, there’s a growing need for others to take over the child and elderly care in their households. Experts call this transfer of care work from unpaid family members to paid workers from other countries the “global care chain.”
“I have a Pakistani driver, an Indonesian cook, an Indian cleaner, a Filipino home nurse and a Sri Lankan nanny. None of them speaks Arabic, and they can hardly speak to each other, but they run my household like a well-oiled machine.”
A 2017 report, which examined the effect of changing demographics in the Gulf, found that dramatically decreased fertility – thanks to improved female education and later marriages – and greater numbers of the dependent elderly have resulted in an “increased trend for labour participation of ‘traditional’ informal care givers (usually women).”
The enduring use of migrant domestic workers in the region is also a result of local traditions. For example, while Saudi Arabia was still the only country in the world that banned women from driving, there was a consistent need for male personal drivers, many coming from abroad. The ban was lifted in June 2018, but the demand for drivers is still high because many women don’t yet have licenses.
“Without domestic workers, societies could not function here,” says Mohammed Abu Baker, a lawyer in Abu Dhabi and a UAE national. “I was brought up by many Indian nannies, at a time when Indians were our primary migrants. Now, I have a Pakistani driver, an Indonesian cook, an Indian cleaner, a Filipino home nurse and a Sri Lankan nanny. None of them speak Arabic, and they can hardly speak to each other, but they run my household like a well-oiled machine.”
There is also demand from expatriate families, with dual wage earners looking for professional cleaning services, part-time cooks and full-time childcare workers.
“When I came from Seattle with my husband, we were determined not to hire servants,” says Laura*, a 35-year-old teacher in an American primary school in Abu Dhabi. “But after we got pregnant, and I got my teaching job, we had to get full-time help.”
“My American guilt about hiring house help disappeared in months!” she says, as her Sri Lankan cook Frida quietly passes around home-baked cookies. “It is impossible to imagine these conveniences back home, at this price.”
Laura says she pays minimum wage, and funds Frida’s medical insurance – “all as per law.” But she also knows that conveniences for women like her often come at a cost paid by women like Frida. As part of her local church’s “good Samaritan group” – as social workers must call themselves to avoid government scrutiny – Laura has helped fundraise medical and legal expenses for at least 40 abused migrant workers over the past two years.
Living isolated in a house with limited mobility and no community, many domestic workers, especially women, are vulnerable to abuse. Afraid to lose their right to work, employees can endure a lot before running away, including serious sexual assault. Legal provisions do exist – in many countries, workers can file a criminal complaint against their employers, or approach labor courts for help. But often they are unaware of, or unable to access, the existing labor protections and resources.
“I never believed the horror stories before, but when you meet woman after woman with bruises or unpaid wages, you start understanding that the same system that makes my life easier is actually broken,” Laura says.
In 2007, Jayatri* made one of the hardest decisions of her life. She left her two young children at home in Sri Lanka, while the country was at war, to be with another family in Saudi Arabia.
It was near the end of Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war and 22-year-old Jayatri had been struggling to support her family since her husband’s death in the war two years earlier. The 26-year conflict claimed the lives of tens of thousands of fathers, husbands, sons and brothers, forcing many Tamil women to take on the role of sole breadwinner for their families. But there are few job opportunities for women in a culture that still largely believes their place is in the home. Women who are single or widowed already face stigma, which only gets worse if they also try to find paying work in Sri Lanka.
“I never believed the horror stories before, but when you meet woman after woman with bruises or unpaid wages, you start understanding that the same system that makes my life easier, is actually broken.”
S. Senthurajah, executive director of SOND, an organization that raises awareness about safe migration, says that as a result, an increasing number of women are migrating from Sri Lanka to the Gulf. More than 160,000 Sri Lankan women leave home annually to work in other countries, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Malaysia, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Senthurajah says recruitment agencies specifically target vulnerable female heads of households: widows, single and divorced women and women whose husbands are disabled or otherwise unable to work to support the family. Women like Jayatri.
When a local recruitment agency approached her and offered her a job as a domestic worker in the Gulf, it was an opportunity she felt she couldn’t turn down. She traveled from Vavuniya, a town in the island’s north – which was then under the control of Tamil Tiger rebels – to Colombo, to undergo a few weeks of housekeeping training.
She left her young children, a boy and a girl, with her mother. When she eventually arrived in Saudi Arabia, her passport was taken by the local recruitment agency and she was driven to her new home where there were 15 children to look after. From the start, she was abused.
“I spent five months in that house being tortured, hit and with no proper food and no salary. I worked from 5 a.m. to midnight every day,” she says, not wanting to divulge any more details about how she was treated.
“I just wanted to go home.”
Jayatri complained repeatedly to the recruitment agency, who insisted that she’d signed a contract for two years and that there was no way out. She was eventually transferred to another home, but the situation there was just as bad: She worked 18 hours a day and was abused, again.
“It was like jail,” she says.
“I spent five months in that house being tortured, hit and with no proper food and no salary. I worked from 5 a.m. to midnight every day.”
In 2009, Jayatri arrived back in northern Sri Lanka with nothing to show for what she had endured in Saudi Arabia. She was never paid for either job. She now works as a housemaid in Vavuniya earning $60 per month. It’s not enough.
“This is the only opportunity I have,” she says. “There’s no support. There are so many difficulties here.”
Jayatri’s traumatic time in Saudi Arabia is one of many stories of abuse that have come out of the country in recent years. While there are no reliable statistics on the number of migrant domestic workers who suffer abuse at the hands of their employers, Human Rights Watch says that each year the Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs and the embassies of source countries shelter thousands of domestic workers with complaints against their employers or recruiters.
Excessive workload and unpaid wages are the most common complaints. But employers largely act with impunity, Senthurajah says.
“It’s like a human slave sale,” Ravindra De Silva, cofounder of AFRIEL, an organization that works with returnee migrant workers in northern Sri Lanka, tells News Deeply.
“Recruitment agencies have agents in different regions of the country and through those agents, they collect women as a group and send them. The agents know which families [to] pick easily – widows and those with financial difficulties,” he says.
In 2016, a man turned up at Meera’s* mud-brick home on the outskirts of Jaffna, the capital of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, offering her a job in the Gulf.
“Recruitment agencies have agents in different regions of the country and through those agents, they collect women as a group and send them. The agents know which families [to] pick easily – widows and those with financial difficulties”
“They told me I could earn well if I went abroad and that they could help me to look after my family,” she says.
Within a few months of arriving in Saudi Arabia, Meera, 42, couldn’t keep up with the long hours and strenuous housework. She cooked and cleaned for 12 family members and rarely got a break.
Her employer then became abusive.
“He started beating me and put acid in my eyes,” she says. He also sexually assaulted her.
But she endured the attacks and mistreatment, holding on to the hope of making enough money to secure her family’s future. After eight months, she went back home. She was never paid.
Now Meera makes ends meet by working as a day laborer. “The agency keeps coming back, telling me how poor we are and that I should go back [to Saudi Arabia] for my children,” she says.
“I’ll never go back again. I got nothing from it, [except] now I can’t see properly because of the acid in my eyes.”
While thousands of women travel to a foreign country for work and end up exploited and abused, there are also those who make the journey and find what they were looking for: opportunity and self-reliance. Every day, more than 1,500 Nepalis leave the country for employment abroad, primarily in Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, India and Malaysia. Of the estimated 2.5 million Nepalis working overseas, about 11 percent are female.
Many women from South Asian countries who work in the Gulf send remittances home that are used to improve their family’s socio-economic status, covering the cost of education, health care, food and housing. In addition to financial remittances, the social remittances of female migrants in terms of skills, attitudes, ideas and knowledge can also have wide-ranging benefits, including contributing to economic development and gender equality back home.
Kunan Gurung, project coordinator at Pourakhi Nepal, an organization focused on supporting female returnee migrants, says those who have “successful” migration journeys are often able to use their experiences abroad to challenge gender norms.
“Our society is patriarchal and male-dominated, but the boundaries expand for women who return from the Gulf successfully because they have money and thus some power.”
“Our society is patriarchal and male-dominated, but the boundaries expand for women who return from the Gulf successfully because they have money and thus some power,” he says.
“The women have left their village, taken a plane and have lived in the developed world. Such experiences leave them feeling empowered.”
Gurung says many returning migrant workers invest their savings in their own businesses, from tailoring to chicken farms. But it can be difficult, because women often find that the skills they earned while working abroad can’t help them make money back home. To counter this, Pourakhi trains women in entrepreneurship to not only try to limit re-migration and keep families together but also to ensure women are equipped with tangible skills in the context of life in Nepal.
But for the women in Nepal who, like Jayatri in Sri Lanka, return without having earned any money, deep-rooted stigma can block their chances to work and separate them from their families. Women who come home with nothing are looked at with suspicion and accused of being sexually active, Gurung says.
“The reality is that women are not looked after in the Gulf, in most cases,” he says.
In Kathmandu, Pourakhi runs an emergency shelter for returning female migrants. Every evening, staff wait at Kathmandu airport for flights landing from the Gulf. They approach returning migrants – women who stand out because of their conservative clothes and “the look on their faces” – and offer shelter, food and support.
Of the 2,000 women they have housed over the last nine years, 42 have returned pregnant and 21 with children.
“There are so many problems returnee migrants face. Most women don’t have contact with their families because their employer didn’t pay, or they have health issues or they’re pregnant,” says Krishna Gurung (no relation to Kunan), Pourakhi’s shelter manager.
“They don’t reintegrate with their families. Their families don’t accept them.” Which could be the biggest tragedy of all. Because the chance to make life better for their families is what drives so many women to leave home in the first place.
Realizing how crucial their workers are to the Gulf economies, major labor-sending countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, India and the Philippines have been using both pressure and dialogue to improve conditions for their citizens.
Over recent years, they have instituted a wide array of bans and restrictions, often linked to particularly horrifying cases of abuse. Nepal has banned women from working in the Gulf in 2016; the same year, India disallowed women under 30 from migrating to the Gulf. In 2013, Sri Lanka temporarily banned women from leaving the country for domestic work, citing abuse abroad and neglected families at home, and now requires a family background report before women can travel.
The most high-profile diplomatic dispute over domestic workers unfolded between the Philippines and Kuwait this year. In January, the Philippines banned workers from going to Kuwait, and made the ban “permanent” in February after a 29-year-old Filipino maid, Joanna Demafelis, was found dead in a freezer in her employers’ abandoned apartment in Kuwait City.
“Bans provide some political leverage for the sending country.”
At the time, the Philippines’ firebrand president, Rodrigo Duterte, said he would “sell my soul to the devil” to get his citizens home from Kuwait to live comfortably back home. Thousands of Filipino citizens were repatriated through a voluntary return scheme in the first half of 2018, while Kuwait made overtures to Ethiopia to recruit more maids to replace the lost labor force. Duterte’s ban was eventually lifted in May, after Kuwait agreed to reform its migrant work sector, ending the seizure of passports and phones, and instituting a 24-hour hotline for abused workers.
It’s well established that bans do not stop women from traveling to the Gulf to become domestic workers. Bandana Pattanaik, the international coordinator of the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, has criticized bans as being “patriarchal, limiting to female agency and also ending up encouraging illegal human smuggling.”
But others point out that the international pressure generated by travel bans has had some effect, as in the case with the Philippines and Kuwait. “Bans provide some political leverage for the sending country,” says Kathmandu-based researcher Upasana Khadka. “But bans do not work as permanent solutions.”
Today, after decades of criticism and campaigning around labor rights violations, the Gulf is seeing a slow shift toward building better policies for domestic workers.
“In the past five years, five of the six GCC countries have started to adopt laws for the protection of migrant domestic workers for the very first time,” says Rothna Begum, women’s rights researcher for Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch.
“The GCC countries have long cultivated the image of being luxurious economies meant for the good life,” Begum says. “This image is hard to maintain as labor exploitation comes to light. So, while they try to shut the reporting down, they have also been forced to address some of the issues raised by their critics.”
Legal and institutional reforms have been announced in the domestic work sector in all GCC countries except Oman. These regulate and standardize contracts, mandate better living conditions, formalize recruitment, and plan rehabilitation and legal redress for abused workers.
This gradual reform is due to international pressure and monitoring by human rights groups and international worker unions. After the 2014 crash in the oil economy, the sudden need for foreign investment exposed the GCC and the multinational companies doing business there to more global scrutiny.
Countries in the Gulf are also hoping that the new national policies will attract more professional and skilled home workers. “Domestic work is a corrupt, messy sector. The host countries are trying to make it more professional,” says M. Bheem Reddy, vice president of the Hyderabad-based Migrant Rights Council, which engages with women workers from the southern districts of India.
“The GCC countries have for long cultivated the image of being luxurious economies meant for the good life. This image is hard to maintain as labor exploitation comes to light.”
Many of the Gulf states are moving toward nationalization – creating more space for their own citizens in the private sector – this means they also want to regulate one of the fastest growing job sectors in the region. “This starts with dignity and proper pay for the existing migrant workers,” Reddy says.
There have been attempts to develop a regional standard for domestic labor rights, with little success. In 2011, the ILO set standards on decent work and minimum protection through the landmark Domestic Workers Convention. All the GCC countries adopted the Convention, but none have ratified it, which means the rules are not binding.
Instead, each Gulf country has taken its own steps to try to protect household workers who come from abroad.
After reports of forced labor in the lead-up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatar faced a formal inquiry by the ILO if it didn’t put in place migrant labor protections. Under that pressure, in 2017, the country passed a law on domestic work. The law stipulates free health care, a regular monthly salary, maximum 10-hour work days, and three weeks’ severance pay. Later, it set a temporary minimum wage for migrant workers, at $200 a month.
The UAE’s new reforms are motivated by the Gulf crisis – which has seen Qatar blockaded by its neighbors – as well as a desire to be seen as one of the more progressive GCC countries. The UAE had a draft law on domestic work since 2012, but only passed it in 2017, after Kuwait published its own law. The royal decree gives household workers a regular weekly day off, daily rest of at least 12 hours, access to a mobile phone, 30 days paid annual leave and the right to retain personal documents like passports. Most importantly, it has moved domestic work from the purview of the interior ministry to the labor ministry – a long-standing demand from rights advocates.
The UAE has also become the first Gulf country to allow inspectors access to a household after securing a warrant from the prosecutor. This process would be triggered by a worker’s distress call or complaint, but it’s unclear if regular state inspections will also occur. Before this law, says Begum, the biggest obstacle to enforcing labor protection in domestic work was the inability for authorities to monitor the workspace of a cleaner or cook, because it is a private home, unlike a hotel or a construction site.
The UAE has not followed Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia in stipulating a minimum wage for domestic workers. But it has issued licenses for 40 Tadbeer Service Centers, which will replace recruitment agencies by the end of the year. Employers in the UAE will have to submit their requests for workers through these centers, which are run by private licensed agents but supervised by the Ministry of Human Resources. Each of the centers has accommodation for workers and can also sponsor their visas, freeing them up to take on part-time jobs while also catering to growing demand from UAE nationals and expats for legal part-timers.
“You focus on the success stories you hear, and hope you’ll have that luck.”
B. L. Surendranath, general secretary of the Immigration Protection Center in Hyderabad, India, visited some of these centers in Dubai earlier this year, on the invitation of the UAE human resources ministry. “I was pleasantly surprised at the well-thought-out ideas at the model Tadbeer Center,” he says. “Half the conflicts [between employer and worker] are because of miscommunication, which the center will sort out through conflict resolution counselors.”
Saudi Arabia passed a labor law in 2015, but it didn’t extend to domestic work. Now, as unemployment among its nationals touches a high of 12.8 percent, its efforts to create more jobs include regulating the migrant workforce. The Saudi government has launched an electronic platform called Musaned to directly hire migrant domestic workers, cutting out recruitment agencies altogether. Women migrant workers will soon live in dormitories and hostels run by labor supply agencies, not the homes of their employers. The labor ministry has also launched a multi-language hotline for domestic workers to lodge complaints.
Dhaka-based migrant rights activist Shakirul Islam, from Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Programme, welcomes these changes, but remains circumspect. “Most women who return to Bangladesh from Saudi [Arabia] say that the revised laws have no impact on their lives,” he says. “My understanding is that the employers are not aware of the law on the one hand, and on the other, do not care about it.”
Migrant rights activists, ILO officials, the governments of source countries and workers themselves are cautiously optimistic about the progressive direction of reforms in the Gulf. “But it is clear that none of the laws penalize employers of domestic workers for labor rights violations,” says Islam.
Rights activists and reports from the ILO, U.N. and migrants’ rights forums have for decades repeated that full protection of domestic workers is impossible as long as GCC countries continue to have some form of the kafala sponsorship system.
Saudi Arabia continues to require workers to secure an exit permit from their employers if they want to leave the country, while Qatar’s 2015 law to replace the kafala sponsorship system does not extend to domestic workers. Reddy of the Migrant Rights Council says the UAE’s attempt to tackle kafala by allowing Tadbeer Center agents to sponsor visas does not make agents accountable if they repeatedly send different workers to the same abusive employer.
For now, it seems the women working on the margins of some of the richest economies in the world will remain vulnerable to abuse and exploitation from their employers. And as long as opportunities exist for them in the Gulf that they can’t find at home, thousands will come to fulfil the demand for domestic and care work, knowing they could be risking everything for little or no return.
Jahanara says the only thing for women in her position to do is to take the chance and hope for the best.
“You focus on the success stories you hear, and hope you’ll have that luck.”
*Names have been changed to protect sources’ identities.