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Sri Lankan maids suffer abuse in ME

November 15, 2007


DUBAI: The governments of Gulf countries including Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as well as Lebanon, are failing to curb abuses against Sri Lankan domestic workers, Human Rights Watch charged Wednesday.

The UAE swiftly dismissed the claims, saying the New York-based rights group deliberately ignored its efforts to improve the conditions of foreign workers.

In a 131-page report, HRW said the domestic helpers typically labour for 16 to 21 hours a day, without rest breaks or days off, for extremely low wages of 15 to 30 US cents an hour.

“Some domestic workers told Human Rights Watch how they were subjected to forced confinement, food deprivation, physical and verbal abuse, forced labour, and sexual harassment and rape by their employers,” it said.

More than 660,000 Sri Lankan women work abroad as domestic workers, nearly 90 per cent of them in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Lebanon, according to HRW.

The rights group, which based its report on 170 interviews with domestic workers, government officials and labour recruiters, said the Sri Lankan and Middle East governments fail to protect the women.

“Governments in the Gulf expose Sri Lankan domestic workers to abuse by refusing to guarantee a weekly rest day, limits to the work day, freedom of movement and other rights that most workers take for granted,” said Jennifer Turner, a women’s rights researcher at HRW.

“Too many abusive employers and unscrupulous labour agents get away with exploiting these workers without any real punishment.” While labour agents in Sri Lanka charge excessive fees that leave migrants heavily indebted, employers routinely confiscate workers’ passports, confine them to the workplace, and in many cases restrict communication, HRW said.

“Some employers also withhold wages for months to years at a time.” The group quoted one domestic helper in Saudi Arabia as saying she did not receive a salary for one year and five months, and that whenever she asked for money, “they would beat me, or cut me with a knife, or burn me.” Numerous employers refused to allow domestic workers to return home during the 2006 war in Lebanon, withholding their passports and wages, HRW said.

It said the UAE introduced a standard contract for domestic workers in April and proposed a new law, while Kuwait also has a standard contract for such labour.

But these contracts give domestic workers separate and weaker protection than those in the main labour laws, it said.

The UAE said HRW had “once again chosen to ignore many of the positive steps adopted by the UAE in recent months to improve conditions for temporary foreign workers in the country.” Many of HRW’s recommendations have already been met or are in progress, the state WAM news agency quoted Anwar Gargash, minister of state for Federal National Council affairs, as saying.

“The UAE decreed the drafting of a new law in October 2007 to protect and regulate the domestic labour force which will afford them the protection given to other workers under UAE federal labour law,” he said.

“This law will be guided by local and international standards and practices,” Gargash said.

Other measures include enforcing mandatory employment contracts to protect workers’ rights, relaxing regulations for changing jobs, and running a victim care programme.

“While much remains to be accomplished, the UAE government -- working with the private sector and other organisations — is taking significant initiatives to protect human rights and to improve the environments of all workers in the country,” he said.—AFP