International Domestic Workers Day – June 16th  

Today, the world celebrates International Domestic Workers Day. The issue of domestic workers is getting increasing attention in view of the precarious situation of female domestic workers – housemaids – and the abuse they suffer in some Arab countries. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines domestic workers as ‘workers who perform work in or for a private household or households’. They state that the responsibilities of a domestic worker may encompass tasks such as cleaning the house, cooking, washing and ironing clothes, caring for children, elderly, or sick family members, gardening, guarding the house, driving for the family, and even taking care of household pets.

The ILO estimated that there are  75.6 million domestic workers worldwide, 76.2 per cent are women. Approximately 81 percent of domestic workers are employed informally, a rate that is double that of other employees. These workers often endure some of the most strenuous working conditions, earning only 56 percent of the average monthly wages of other employees. 

Oman is among the countries where domestic workers/housemaids face significant challenges, including long, unspecified working hours, low pay, appalling living conditions, confiscation of their passports, and restrictions on their movements. According to complaints received by the OCHRD, the Omani authorities are not addressing reports of abuse from housemaids seriously or professionally. Some complaints received by the OCHRD indicate instances of missing female domestic workers, where contact with their families in their home countries has ceased.

The OCHRD observes that a primary contributing factor to these issues is the kafala (sponsorship) system, which permits Omani employers to retain workers’ personal documents and transfer their sponsorship to another employer without the workers’ consent.

The kafala system constitutes a legal framework that delineates the contractual relationship between migrant or expatriate workers and their employers. This system was initially implemented to provide affordable and plentiful labour during periods of significant economic expansion. Proponents argue that the kafala system supports local business interests and contributes to overall economic development.

Based on a general survey concerning domestic workers in Oman conducted by the OCHRD, the survey results concluded that Oman does not comply with or respect Articles 3 and 5 of the ILO Convention No. 189 on decent work for domestic workers. These articles require member states to ensure the effective promotion and protection of the human rights of all domestic workers, as well as to guarantee that domestic workers enjoy effective protection against all forms of abuse, harassment, and violence.

Under the (Kafala) sponsorship system, recruitment agencies or individuals who become sponsors of domestic workers—those who take responsibility for their employment—confiscate domestic workers’ documents such as passports or identity cards. This practice violates Article 9 of the ILO Convention. Additionally, they fail to provide written contracts that would enable domestic workers to understand and assert their rights by specifying the place of employment and working hours. This failure breaches Article 7 of the ILO Convention, which mandates a detailed list of terms and conditions of employment that domestic workers must be clearly informed about, ideally through written contracts.

The same applies to the freedom, and autonomy of workers regarding the non-transfer of their employment contracts from one sponsor to another. Typically, their contracts are transferred to a new sponsor as soon as the original sponsor returns the worker to the recruitment agency. This practice constitutes a clear violation of Article 9.

Although Oman Human Rights Commission, in its guide on the rights and duties of expatriates working labour in Oman (original Ar version), outlines several rights and obligations for domestic workers, it does not address the specific issues faced by domestic workers or the mechanisms for resolving complaints should they arise. The guide does not specify whether the commission has any legal measures or precautions in place to handle such matters.

Based on Ministerial Decision No. 189/2004 by the Ministry of Labour, the guide does mention that domestic workers are entitled to a return ticket to their home country if the provided job differs from the agreed terms. However, it overlooks the fact that most domestic workers come from economically struggling countries and often find themselves in dire situations, unable to return home. Many of these workers arrive after having paid or borrowed significant sums of money to secure their jobs. Consequently, they are often trapped in adverse conditions, unable to go back to their home countries

Additionally, in its response to several international reports concerning the poor conditions and treatment of domestic workers from specific countries in Oman, the commission acknowledged that violations do occur or have occurred. It pointed out that one of the contributing factors to these problems is the situation these workers face in their home countries. However, the commission did not provide any clarification regarding the legal measures taken against recruitment agencies in Oman involved in deception or fraud. Furthermore, it did not explain whether domestic workers receive legal assistance or have direct access to the relevant authorities.

Aِlthough Article 5 of the new Labour Law, Decree 53/2023, prohibits employers from imposing any forced labour on workers, it is worth noting that the law exempts domestic workers from its provisions. The second article explicitly states that the law “does not apply to those whose work is governed by special laws or regulations.” Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that Oman is among the countries that have not yet signed the International Labour Organization convention on discrimination in employment and occupation. 

In light of the above, the OCHRD urges the Omani government to:

  •       abolish the kafala sponsorship system, which amounts to a form of slavery;
  •       provide a telephone helpline for victims of violence or ill-treatment, and provide them with the protection they need;
  •       give housemaids the right to leave a job whenever they want, and to have regular working hours and days off as well as being provided with suitable accommodation;
  •       regulate the work of all recruitment agencies bringing domestic workers to Oman, and strengthen measures to prevent housemaids being used as tradable commodities;
  •       compel recruitment agencies to provide domestic workers with clear employment contracts in compliance with Article 7 of ILO Convention 189; and
  •       ratify the International Labour Organisation’s Convention No. 189 concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers.

To submit proposals concerning the revision of local laws aimed at specifically improving the conditions of domestic workers or generally enhancing the situation of migrant labourers, please contact us at the following email address:

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