“I Was Sold”
Abuse and Exploitation of Migrant Domestic Workers in Oman
I would start working at 4:30 a.m. and finish at 1 a.m. For the entire day they wouldn’t let me sit. I used to be exhausted. There were 20 rooms and over 2 floors. He wouldn’t give me food. When I said I want to leave, he said, “I bought you for 1,560 rials (US$4,052) from Dubai. Give it back to me and then you can go.”
—Asma K., a Bangladeshi domestic worker, in Oman, May 2015
Many families in Oman, like other Gulf states, rely on migrant domestic workers to care for their children, cook their meals, and clean their homes. At least 130,000 female migrant domestic workers—and possibly many more—are employed in the country.
Many workers leave families in Asia and Africa—including the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Ethiopia—after recruiters promise them decent salaries and good working conditions. For some workers, these promises are realized.
But for others, the reality is bleak. After they arrive, many find themselves trapped with abusive employers and forced to work in exploitative conditions, their plight hidden behind closed doors.
Based primarily on interviews with 59 female domestic workers in Oman in May 2015, this report documents the abuse and exploitation some migrant domestic workers experience during their recruitment and employment, and the lack of redress for such abuse. It also examines the ways in which Oman’s legal framework facilitates these conditions. In some cases, workers described abuses that amounted to forced labor or trafficking, including across Oman’s porous border with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). While this report does not purport to quantify the precise scale of these abuses, it is clear that abuses are widespread and that they are generally carried out with impunity.
Most of the workers we interviewed said their employers confiscated their passports, a practice that appears to be commonplace even though Oman’s government prohibits it. Many said their employers did not pay them their full salaries, forced them to work excessively long hours without breaks or days off, or denied them adequate food and living conditions. Some said their employers physically abused them; a few described sexual abuse.
Instead of protecting domestic workers from these abuses, Oman’s laws and policies make them more vulnerable. In fact, Oman’s legal framework is often more effective in allowing employers to retaliate against workers who flee abusive situations than in securing domestic workers’ rights or ensuring their physical safety. The country’s immigration system prohibits migrant workers from leaving their employers or working for new employers without their initial employers’ consent and punishes them if they do. Oman’s labor law excludes domestic workers from its protections, and those who flee abuse have little avenue for redress.
Oman also at times bans domestic workers coming from some countries. According to a news report, in 2016 the authorities banned workers from Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal, Guinea, and Cameroon, on the dubious grounds of preventing “the spread of diseases from these African countries to Oman”and because it said workers from these countries “get involved in certain crimes.”
Female migrant domestic workers face multiple forms of discrimination and arbitrary government policies: as domestic workers, they are excluded from equal labor law protections guaranteed to other workers; as women, regulations provide that they can be paid less than male domestic workers; and as migrants, their salaries are based on their national origin rather than their skills and experience. These policies and practices violate Oman’s obligations under human rights treaties it has ratified, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Oman has made a number of reforms to its labor law in recent years and is reportedly considering further revisions, possibly including the extension of its protections to domestic workers.
Abuses against Domestic Workers
Oman criminalizes slavery and trafficking, but enforcement is weak. Forced labor is punished under the country’s labor law, but domestic workers are excluded from that law’s protections. Omani authorities have prosecuted a few individuals for forced labor, but it is unclear whether any of those cases involved domestic workers.
Some domestic workers told Human Rights Watch that employers and agents trafficked them into Oman from the UAE which has a border with Oman. According to embassy officials of several countries of origin, many domestic workers in Oman are brought across the border, eluding regulations or tracking by home embassies. Considering the high number of reports of women trafficked into forced labor situations from the UAE to Oman, the number of prosecutions and convictions for such crimes is strikingly low—there were only five sex trafficking prosecutions in 2015, and none on forced labor.
Recruitment agents promise domestic workers decent working conditions in Oman, and many sign contracts stipulating good salaries before leaving their home countries. But upon arrival, many find that they have to work for less pay than promised and under worse conditions.
Several workers described conditions that amount to forced labor under international law. Many described employers beating them, withholding their salaries, threatening to kill them, falsely accusing them of crimes when they sought to leave, or retaliating against them by beating them for trying to escape abuse. Several workers said that their employers behaved as though they owned them—claiming that the recruitment fees they paid to secure workers’ services were in fact a price paid to acquire them as property. Oman’s legal framework facilitates abuse of domestic workers to such a degree that it could leave some trapped in situations that amount to slavery under international law.
Roughly one-quarter of the domestic workers Human Rights Watch interviewed said that their employers physically or sexually abused them, including a Bangladeshi domestic worker who said that her employer cut her hair and burned her feet, and another who said that her employer’s son raped her. Most said their employers verbally abused them by shouting at them, threatening to kill them, or calling them insulting names like “bitch.”Marisa L., a Filipina domestic worker, recounted: “Madam would say all the time that I don’t have a brain. That I’m dirty.”
Many domestic workers said that their employers delayed paying their salaries or paid less than was owed. Some did not pay their wages at all. One worker said she did not receive wages for a year. Almost all domestic workers complained of working long periods of up to 15 hours per day and, in extreme cases, up to 21 hours per day with no rest and no day off, even if they were sick or injured. For example, Babli H., a 28-year-old Bangladeshi domestic worker, said her employer made her work 21 hours a day with no rest and no day off. She said that her employer also physically and verbally abused her, and withheld two months of her salary. She said when she asked to leave, her employer said, “If the agent doesn’t give me back my money, I won’t let you go.”
In some cases, women worked for large, extended families or in multiple houses. Parveen A., a Bangladeshi domestic worker, said she worked for a family of 15 in 4 houses in their compound in Sohar, a port city in northern Oman. She said she worked for 16 months from 4 a.m. until midnight with no day off. She said her employer only paid her 50 Omani rials a month ($130), 20 rials less than she was owed, and withheld 4 months’ salary entirely.
Domestic workers described common employer practices that kept them isolated from sources of support, namely passport confiscation, tight restrictions on communication, and confinement in the household. While Oman prohibits employers from confiscating workers’ passports, it is not clear whether the law actually allows for criminal sanctions or whether any have ever been imposed.
Under contractual terms mandated by Oman’s government, employers are required to provide domestic workers with adequate room and board; these provisions are particularly important given that many domestic workers are not free to leave their employers’ homes, are not paid in full and on time, and, in many cases, do not earn enough to provide their own food and lodging. Yet some domestic workers said their employers gave theminsufficient or spoiled food, and berated or beat them if they requested more. Mamata B., a Bangladeshi domestic worker, said her employer punished her after she fled to the police for help but they returned her. “My madam beat me up and locked me in the room for eight days with only dates to eat and water to drink,” she said.
Some domestic workers described inappropriate and inadequate sleeping conditions in their employers’ homes, including in kitchens, living rooms, or with small children. Anisa M., a Tanzanian domestic worker, said, “I sleep in the kitchen. I don’t have a room.”
Punishing Escape and Barriers to Redress
Domestic workers who flee their employers due to abuse have very few options for physical or legal protection. While the government provides some limited shelter services for women subjected to trafficking, very few victims are referred by the government for shelter services, with only five victims provided shelter in 2015. Moreover, the authorities have not established any official emergency shelter specifically for domestic workers exposed to abuse. Some embassies provide shelter and assistance to their nationals, but many do not. Even those that do lack sufficient capacity and adequate conditions. Some workers said when they reported abuse to their recruitment agencies, agents confined them, beat them, and forced them to work for new families against their will.
Domestic workers seeking assistance or justice following abuse are given little help—and may even be punished. Some domestic workers who turned to the police for help said officers simply returned them, against their will, to their employers or recruitment agencies. They said the police did not follow up, and in several cases, domestic workers said their employers beat them after the police sent them back.
Some domestic workers avoided the police altogether, stating that they feared prosecution. This is an entirely reasonable fear, because employers can report domestic workers who flee abusive situations as having “absconded,” an administrative offense under Oman’s abusive kafala system that can result in deportation and a ban on future employment. For instance, Aditya F., an Indonesian domestic worker,fled her employer following physical and verbal abuse, but her employer reported her as “absconding.” The police caught her and returned her to her employer, who beat her and broke her teeth. Some workers said their employers filed, or threatened to file, trumped-up theft charges against them when they asked for their salaries or fled abuse.
Oman’s labor dispute settlement procedures are inadequate and the courts are not a practical avenue for redress for domestic workers. Some country-of-origin embassy officials told Human Rights Watch that they discouraged domestic workers from using these mechanisms because the process is lengthy, unlikely to succeed, and because the women are not legally allowed to work in the meantime. Many workers simply give up and return home unpaid and without justice.
Oman, like its Gulf neighbors and across the Middle East to varying degrees, implements the notorious kafala (visa-sponsorship) system. Under this system, all migrant workers—who make up almost half of Oman’s population of 4.4 million people—are dependent on their employers to enter, live, and work legally in Oman as they act as their visa sponsors.
Employers have an inordinate amount of control over these workers. Migrant workers cannot work for a new employer without the permission of their current employer, even if they complete their contract and even when their employer is abusive. Moreover, employers can have a worker’s visa canceled at any time. Workers who leave their jobs without the consent of their employer can be punished with fines, deportation, and reentry bans.
In 2011, Oman told the UN Human Rights Council that it “is researching an alternative to the sponsorship system, but this process is not yet complete.” As far as Human Rights Watch is aware, however, the government has not put forward any concrete proposals in the intervening years.
Oman is also reportedly considering revisions to its labor law. In May 2015, the Times of Oman quoted a Ministry of Manpower official stating that Oman is considering extending the law’s protections to include domestic workers. At present, Oman’s labor law explicitly excludes domestic workers from important protections enjoyed by workers in other sectors, such as limits on working hours and provisions for overtime pay. Instead, domestic workers only enjoy a much narrower range of basic protections under regulations issued in 2004 that specifically pertain to domestic workers.
Omani authorities issued a standard employment contract for domestic workers in 2011, which mandates one day off per week and thirty days of paid leave every two years. However, these provisions fall far short of the protections offered by Oman’s labor law and in any case, domestic workers have little ability to enforce employers’ contractual obligations. The contract also provides less than many workers are promised when recruited in their home countries, and falls far short of international standards.
Labor inspectors have no mandate to check on domestic workers, and as such, there are no inspections for working conditions of domestic workers in private homes.
Where Oman has failed to provide adequate protection to migrant domestic workers, some countries of origin—such as India and the Philippines—have attempted to help address this gap by securing some basic protections for their nationals. For instance, some have set minimum salaries for their nationals working in Oman, and have taken steps to blacklist abusive recruitment agencies and employers. However, these are no substitute for strong government action by Oman and in any event, some country-of-origin governments make no efforts to protect their nationals at all. Some recruiters seek out “cheaper” workers from countries with less regulation.
Oman’s International Obligations
The Omani government is obligated under international human rights and labor treaties to address and remedy abuses against migrant domestic workers. However, in breach of these standards, Oman has, like other Gulf states, failed to adequately protect domestic workers against exploitation and abuse. Indeed, in some respects the country’s legal framework facilitates abuse.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) and many United Nations human rights experts and bodies have called on Gulf countries, including Oman, to end the kafala system and grant domestic workers full labor law protections.
Oman should act now to reform its labor law to provide equal protections to domestic workers. It should also reform the kafala system to fully and effectively protect all migrant domestic workers in the country in line with international standards. Oman should cooperate with countries of origin to prevent abuse and exploitation of domestic workers, and should thoroughly investigate abuses and prosecute those responsible. It should ratify key international treaties, including the ILO Domestic Workers Convention, and bring its laws into compliance with their provisions.
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