Legal void leaves Bangladesh female migrants vulnerable

Dhaka,  Monday,   2016-09-21
Published : 21 Sep 2016, 21:58:42

Legal void leaves Bangladesh female migrants vulnerable

Middle-Eastern job market
Arafat Ara


Female domestic workers serving in the Middle-Eastern countries are not covered by labour law, thus leaving them vulnerable, according to officials and experts.

Though they contribute a lot to household work, the domestic helps are viewed as women, not as workers, they said.

In the absence of legal instrument, domestic workers cannot go to the court when they are confronted with issues of non-payment of salaries, deprivation of benefits and job loss, according to the rights activists.

Even in the countries, where there exist separate rules or domestic workers' protection laws, they are not properly enforced.

As a result, the workers do not enjoy their due benefits-such as working hours, wage structure, weekly holiday, annual paid leave, sick leave, compensation, and healthcare facilities.

Some of the countries, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are planning to formulate separate law for the protection of domestic workers and check irregularities in the overseas employment sector.

Saudi Arabia passed domestic workers protection law in 2013, under which the maids should get a nine-hour free time daily, a weekly day-off, one month paid vacation after every two years and medical leave.

Domestic workers are not covered by the Bahraini Labour Law 2012, but their protection is addressed by some clauses within the legal framework.

Among the ME countries, only Jordan ratified the ILO Convention 189, but it does not follow local or other international labour standards in giving facilities to the domestic migrant workers.

Still, Lubna Yasmin, first secretary (labour) at the Bangladesh embassy in Jordan, said the country has formed an anti human trafficking unit under the interior ministry and labour ministry, which is especially designed for domestic workers.

"The unit is very active in solving cases like physical abuse and torture. We have also good communication with the unit," she said.

When contacted, Sarwar Alam, labour counselor at Bangladesh embassy in Saudi Arabia, said the kingdom has a separate law for domestic workers.

He said many Arab countries are yet to sign the ILO convention.

Mr Alam, however, said not all employers are bad; some employers abide by law and provide benefits to the workers.

Moksed Ali, first secretary (labour) at Bangladesh embassy in Abu Dhabi, the UAE, said the country has no special law or rules for protecting interest of domestic workers. "We can go to civil court if domestic workers face physical torture and sexual abuse at workplaces."

But domestic workers get benefits in accordance with the employment contract signed between employers and workers. In most cases, the employers breach the job contract, he said.

The labour wing official also said Bangladeshi women migrant domestic workers often skirt legal action against the employers as they consider the process to be time-consuming and ineffective.

Some women do not feel comfortable in speak out their personal affairs, Mr Ali said.

He, however, said the UAE government has planned to enact a separate law for domestic workers.

There is one positive step, however. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Jordan, and the UAE, have anti-trafficking laws with provisions of punishment for the culprits.

Meanwhile, migrant rights activists said that labour wings of the missions do not cooperate with the workers in getting legal support and they are reluctant to take the responsibility of the victims.

Labour wings officials have to be "proactive" to handle the cases of women domestic migrant workers, said Shakirul Islam, chairman of Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Programme (OKUP), a local advocacy group.

He alleged that most of the time, officials are reluctant to give due services to the women.

The absence of required number of shelters in job destination countries compounds the woes of victim Bangladeshi workers.

In most cases, the victims are forced to come back home without any legal procedures, Mr Islam said.

Usually, he added, Bangladeshi workers go for settlement of their cases in cooperation with respective recruiting agencies.

The rights organisations also demanded ratification of the ILO convention on international labour law.  

Sumaiya Islam, director of Bangladesh Ovibashi Mohila Sramik Association (BOMSA), said employers of the Arab countries deprive domestic helps and do not respect their rights because no legal action can be taken against them.

The coverage of labour law is "very necessary" for women domestic workers as it will help to reduce workplace exploitation, she added.

The Middle-East is the major job destination for Bangladeshi women migrant workers. Nearly 95 per cent women get employment in the Arab region.

Between 1991 and July 2016, a total of 121,131 women went to the UAE, followed by 101,831 in Lebanon, 101,047 in Jordan, 96,827 in Saudi Arabia, 51,010 in Oman and 21,187 in Qatar, according to statistics available with Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training. Most of the migrants are serving as domestic helps.

Bangladesh runs only three safe homes for the women domestic migrant workers in Saudi Arabia and in Oman.

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