This week marks the start of Ramadan, and from sunrise to sunset Muslims households will engage in an act of purification, reflection and fasting. For many Muslims, Ramadan is also synonymous with the gathering of extended family for Iftar, the breaking of the fast with food and festivities. Extra hungry mouths mean extensive preparations, cooking and cleaning. In a number of Middle Eastern and Asian countries, much of this work falls on the domestic workers. Far from a time of refection and celebration, these workers, who are often migrant women and girls, will experience increased pressure, working hours, and in the worst case scenario, violence or other forms of abuse from their employers.
The daily tasks of a household domestic worker certainly entails difficult physical labor, which is dirty and often dangerous, and that by any stretch constitutes a full day’s work if not more than a full days work because many domestic workers are required to be “on call” in the evenings to care for elders or children. Moreover, because the work is carried out behind closed doors by predominantly by women and other vulnerable groups, such as migrants, victims of caste discrimination, and children, domestic workers struggles to gain due recognition as actual laborers. Domestic workers frequently suffer from lack of regulation and the same institutional failure to prosecute domestic abuse crimes that require crossing the public-private threshold. Many domestic workers report crimes almost identical in character to victims of domestic violence as this blog has covered before. Such abuse often includes repeated physical assaults, psychological abuse and sexual assault. Migrant and trafficked domestic workers are in a particularly vulnerable position when their employers illegally confiscate their passports and documents or retain the majority of the workers’ wages to tether them to the household. Some are even kept under lock and key in conditions that are nothing short of modern day slavery.
No country in the world has formulated adequate schemes to respond to the abuse that occurs in the home toward domestic workers, but it is especially necessary to formulate laws and systems for the protection of domestic workers in countries with high levels of young migrant domestic workers. According to the Committee for Asian Women, in their report Decent Work Deficits: The situation of domestic workers in India, Indonesia, Nepal, and the Philippines, it is estimated that there are 100,000 women domestic workers from India alone in the Middle East. According to the Kuwaiti Times, “Each Kuwaiti home has an average of two to three maids, in addition to chauffeurs and cooks, but for Ramadan this number rises as more domestic staff are employed.” Though an important part of Ramadan is associated with purification though good deeds, this tenet does not always translate to tolerable working conditions in the employers home.Focusing on Kuwait, the New York Times recently reported on the large numbers of domestic workers fleeing abusive situations seek refuge in their respective embassies; so many seek refuge that during the religious holiday capacity is stretched and they sleep in crowded conditions on floors throughout the embassies.
Click here to see a photo slideshow by New York Times depicting the plight of domestic workers in Kuwait.
“…when Ramadan starts, the number of maids seeking protection is expected to grow, perhaps by the hundreds, straining the capacity of the improvised shelters, embassy officials say. With Kuwaiti families staying up into the early hours of the morning, some maids say they cook more, work longer hours and sleep less….Rosflor Armada, who is staying in the Philippines Embassy, said that last year during Ramadan, she cooked all day for the evening meal and was allowed to sleep only about two hours a night.”
Unfortunately, a poor track record on properly investigating sexual abuse of domestic workers is a universal failing. However, the strict rules governing sexual behavior can doubly punish victims of unwanted sexual harassment. According to Human Rights Watch’s report, Decent Work for Domestic Workers: The Case for Global Labor Standards, “in countries such as Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, domestic workers were frightened to report sexual violence because of the risk that they may be prosecuted and convicted for adultery and fornication.”
The problem goes much deeper than the failure to prosecute perpetrators of serious violent and sexual crimes. At the root of the problem is the lack of recognition that an employer’s home is also a domestic worker’s place of work, which should give rise to rights and legal obligations. The International Labor Organization has begun the process of recognizing the plight of domestic workers in a meeting convened earlier in June 2010. There is still not clear leadership on this issue from many countries, so international labor rights groups, such as the International Labor Rights Forum, continue to call for change in preparation for the high level ILO meetings to occur in 2011.Photo by AlexPears (cc)