Exploitative working conditions in this sector stem from two mutually reinforcing roots: the exclusion of domestic work from national labour laws (which gives unscrupulous employers carte blanche to set up abusive working conditions or resort to violence) and domestic workers' low level of knowledge about their rights (since many lack education). In Mena, almost all domestic work occurs outside the scope of national labour laws and existing anti-trafficking laws in the region designed to protect migrant workers from abuse are not adequately enforced. Enforcement is a global challenge, but Mena's specificities, such as the highly-restrictive kafala sponsorship system, pose even greater difficulties, increasing migrant domestic workers' dependency on their employers or sponsors.
In kafala system, a local citizen – the kafeel - has sweeping powers over migrant domestic workers, including the power to permit entry to the Gulf country, monitor their stay and approve their exit. If sponsorship is withdrawn, the foreigner loses all legal right to remain in the country. That power imbalance can leave employees vulnerable to abuse and violence and in fact many domestic workers have fled their employers' due to violence or imprisonment.
With so many challenges, what's being done about it now?
International organisations, such as IOM, ILO and UN Women, regional entities, local NGOs and, most importantly, governments themselves are uniting in new efforts to improve migrant workers' rights. As the leading agency on migration, IOM recently launched two such projects: Pave in Mena, which focuses on legal reform and 'We are all workers' in Jordan which seeks to raise awareness in order to change behaviours.
Pave stands for 'Protect and assist vulnerable and exploited migrant workers'. The project has a comprehensive vision, a two-year run time, and an eye on concrete results. It will create programmes in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon to build government capacity to apply human rights standards, assist and empower migrant workers, and reduce discrimination and xenophobia against them.
Significant gains have been made in the fight to protect domestic workers since 2000. The ILO's 2011 Domestic Workers Convention No 189, which establishes basic rights for domestic workers, was passed with strong support, including from Arab delegates. Among other positive steps, the Gulf Co-operation Council is poised to consider a draft law on domestic workers that will include human rights provisions. On the anti-trafficking front, Mena countries have ratified the UN protocol to suppress and combat trafficking in persons.
In 2010, the League of Arab States endorsed a strategy to combat trafficking and have since implemented anti-trafficking law. But legal coverage and enforcement remain challenges and much more work needs to be done on this front.
One way Pave is working to ensure the enforcement of legislation is to educate and train key decision-makers, high-ranking government officials and front-line service providers and boost their capacity to apply well-established human rights standards. The goal is to create new ministerial decrees, pass or amend laws and ratify conventions such as No 189.
Improving the scope of legal protection is a must, but so are parallel efforts to empower migrant workers about their rights. Boosting workers' basic knowledge, bargaining power, and avenues to seek recourse can help reduce vulnerability and abuse. Outreach to domestic workers is complicated by structural and societal obstacles.
Traditionally, the domestic worker-employer relationship has been founded on a fundamentally unequal paternalistic model rather than a setting in which the worker and employer have discussed and defined their respective rights and duties.
Some practical constraints also remain as many domestic workers are undocumented and out of sight, working behind closed doors, they may not speak the language of the host country and some are heavily restricted in their movements outside the household.
Stepped-up efforts to fight trafficking can pose a dilemma for undocumented migrant domestic workers who may be reluctant to complain or vulnerable to criminal groups and unscrupulous employers. Bearing that in mind, in Jordan, the IOM and local and international partners worked in tandem to launch the 'We are all Workers' awareness campaign to fight human trafficking and protect domestic workers.
The campaign, started in April, is designed to encourage empathy among Jordanians for the situation of many domestic workers, and reduce cross-cultural misunderstanding, discrimination and xenophobia. Outreach relies on radio, TV, posters, brochures and booklets, and a website, combined with training for key stakeholders. Pave similarly unites stakeholders for public awareness-raising programmes and to provide a variety of direct assistance to exploited migrant workers, with a focus on female domestic workers.
No solution can unanimously and completely solve the problems faced by migrant domestic workers. This area of work is deeply political but progress is being made thanks to the diverse and committed organisations who make up the global domestic workers movement.
Local organisations such as Tamkeen in Jordan, Caritas in Lebanon, Helpers in Egypt and many others have been instrumental. But real and lasting change depends on building a safety net for migrant domestic workers through a broad and enduring coalition of governments, non-state actors, and international organisations, as well as empowering migrant domestic workers themselves. Mena is a prime place to showcase that a coalition can make a difference.