Migrant domestic workers from Bangladesh and many other Asian and African countries are "beaten, exploited, and trapped in forced labour situations" in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), said a report of Human Rights Watch yesterday.
"Labour-sending countries also do not fully protect the workers against deceptive recruitment practices or provide adequate assistance to abused nationals abroad," it states.
The 79-page report titled “'I Already Bought You': Abuse and Exploitation of Female Migrant Domestic Workers in the United Arab Emirates” documents how the UAE's visa sponsorship system, known as kafala, and the lack of labour law protections leave migrant domestic workers exposed to abuse.
“The UAE's sponsorship system chains domestic workers to their employers and then leaves them isolated and at risk of abuse behind the closed doors of private homes,” said Rothna Begum, Middle East women's rights researcher at the HRW.
“With no labour law protections for domestic workers, employers can, and many do, overwork, underpay, and abuse these women,” she said.
However, Bangladesh government officials responsible to take care of the expatriates apparently are not much aware of their nationals' exploitation in the Middle Eastern country.
“We usually don't receive such complaints," said Muhammad Imran, Bangladesh ambassador to the UAE.
"When any victim comes to us with a complaint, we respond to it sincerely,” he said over the phone yesterday.
When his attention was drawn to the HRW report, he said, “I can't make comments as I haven't gone through the report yet”.
Similar responses were received when this correspondent contacted the expatriates' welfare and overseas employment ministry.
“We get very few complaints from our female migrants working in the UAE. Usually, two or three migrants in a month contact us with their complaints,” said Khondaker Showkat Hossain, secretary of the ministry.
Currently, the UAE is hiring only female workers from Bangladesh and around 5,000 Bangladeshi women, according to the government, are going to the Gulf nation for domestic jobs every month.
However, Showkat admitted that migrants sometimes fall victim to exploitations by agency brokers and employers.
He hoped all the issues concerning the Bangladeshi migrants' welfare would be raised during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's visit to the UAE due next week.
However, Bangladesh Ovibashi Mohila Sramik Association director Sumaiya Islam thinks there are truths in the HRW findings.
“Still there's no legal protection for the Bangladeshi victims in the UAE,” she observed.
At least 1,46,000 female migrant domestic workers -- possibly many more -- from countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Ethiopia work in the UAE, according to the HRW report.
"Domestic workers told the HRW about not being paid, not having rest periods or time off, being confined in the employer's homes, and of excessive workloads, with working days of up to 21 hours," said the report prepared after interviewing 99 of domestic female workers, as well as recruitment agencies, lawyers, and others.
"They described being deprived of food and reported psychological, physical, and sexual abuse.
"Many said their employers treated them like animals, or as if they were dirty and physical contact with them would be contaminating. In some cases the abuses amounted to forced labour or trafficking."
In June 2014, the UAE authorities revised the standard domestic worker labour contract to require a weekly day off and eight hours of rest in any 24-hour period.
However, the contract does not address other issues such as limits on working hours.
The UAE authorities have reformed some aspects of the kafala system in recent years, but not for domestic workers, observed the New York-based rights watchdog.
The kafala system, under which employers confiscate passports of the workers and restrict their freedom to switch jobs, makes an individual's right to work and legal presence in the host country dependent on his or her employer, rendering him or her vulnerable to exploitation. In fact, migrants cannot even leave or enter the country without their employer's permission.
“Many domestic workers who leave abusive employers face a stone wall,” said Rothna Begum of the HRW. “They can be prosecuted for running away, while their abusers have little to fear.”
On labour-sending countries' services for the abused domestic workers, the report said some embassies or consulates in the UAE do not have shelters or adequate staffing to deal with the victims.
But they should increase trained staff to help abused workers and bolster cooperation with the UAE government to monitor recruitment and contracts, resolve labour disputes, and combat forced labour, the HRW recommended.