BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - One Indonesian maid in the United Arab Emirates toiled 21 hours a day, serving 20 people with no days off. Another was not paid for three years and then received only half the wages she was owed.
Nearly one in four maids interviewed by researchers had been beaten with sticks or cables, punched, choked and spat on.
These are female domestic workers who move from Asia and Africa to the UAE with the promise of decent pay and work, only to be overworked, underpaid and abused, trapped in what may amount to slavery, with no laws to protect them or give them recourse to justice, according to a 79-page report released on Thursday by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
"Some domestic workers told us their employers spoke to or treated them as if they owned them, like one worker whose employer told her, 'I already bought you'", Rothna Begum, author of the report and women's rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa for HRW, wrote in an email from Manila, where the report was launched.
Begum, who conducted most of the interviews in the UAE in November and December 2013, said employers could easily trap, exploit and abuse workers because the UAE system ties a domestic worker's visa to her employer and does not let a domestic worker seek new employment without the original employer's consent.
"Even if their employer is abusive, if they flee their employer they are punished with deportation and a re-entry ban of one year," she said.
The UAE is one of the richest countries in the world, ranked eighth by the World Bank in terms of per capita GDP , and relies heavily on foreign workers, who make up about 88.5 percent of the 8 million people living in the country, the report said.
According to HRW, at least 146,000 female domestic workers from countries including the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Ethiopia work in the UAE.
While the country's labour law limits working hours and provides for overtime pay, domestic workers are explicitly excluded from this law, leaving them "virtually no legal safeguards governing their employment", the report said.
This means there is no real limit to their working hours and no obligatory overtime pay, Begum said.
"The UAE ultimately allows for an environment that is ripe for exploitation of domestic workers."
SLAVERY UNDER INTERNATIONAL LAW?
In interviews with 99 female domestic workers late last year, HRW documented a range of abuses:
- 22 women said they had been physically abused by their employers;
- six had been raped, molested or sexually harassed;
- 17 had not been paid the wages they were due for periods ranging from two weeks to 31 months;
- almost all worked long hours, from 15 to 21 hours a day, and 50 said they had never been given a day off.
The report said some of the cases may "amount to slavery under international law."
In June 2014, the UAE revised the standard domestic worker labour contract to require a weekly day off and eight hours of rest in any 24-hour period, but this is no substitute for labour law protection enforceable by judicial authorities, HRW said.
It urged the UAE government to reform the visa system for domestic workers so that they can change employer, and to extend labour law protection to domestic workers in line with the new International Labour Organization domestic workers' convention that the UAE voted for and which came into force in 2013.
(Editing by Tim Pearce)
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