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Opinion & Analysis
POSTED | 10:56 AM | 22-03-2014

Plight of migrant workers

-- By Farah Atyyat

Letter form Jordan

By Farah Atyyat

Daivi was only 14 years old when she was attacked by her employer. Her only crime was to admit that she preferred singing to cleaning.

The underaged migrant maid from Indonesia was so badly beaten that she had to flee her employer’s house and seek refuge at the Indonesian Embassy in the Jordanian capital of Amman in March 2012. And to add insult to injury, she was only paid three months’ salary for more than a year’s work.

Daivi’s case is far from unique. In fact there are so many stories of violence against domestic workers, particularly in the Middle East, that it becomes difficult to disassociate one from the other.

However, as the world marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25, the situation facing domestic workers will, once again, come under the spotlight.

As many as 100 million people around the world work in someone else’s home.

The vast majority – 83 percent according to ILO figures – are women, many of whom are unprotected by labour laws or any form of social security.

Unable to join trade unions, these women are left vulnerable to exploitation, racist and sexist abuse, beatings, food and sleep deprivation, forced labour, trafficking, rape and even murder.

Many are underpaid or unpaid in circumstances that are little more than modern-day slavery. Abuse is rarely reported and when it is, it usually goes unpunished.


Take the case of Alem Dechasa-Desisa, a 33-year-old Ethiopian maid who hanged herself in hospital after being viciously beaten in a Beirut street by a recruitment agent.

The shocking episode, filmed by an anonymous passer-by, went viral worldwide, drawing much-needed attention to the desperate situation facing many domestic workers in the country.

A Human Rights Watch report found that at least one domestic worker in Lebanon has died from unnatural causes, such as suicide or falling from a multi-storey building, every week.

Then there was the horrifying case of L.P. Ariyawathie, a 49-year-old Sri Lankan domestic worker who had 19 heated nails hammered into her body as a form of punishment by her Saudi employer.

Or Genafe, a Filipino domestic worker in Qatar who ran away from her sponsor after he tried to rape her.

She found herself  stranded in Qatar without her passport (which her employer kept) or the right to stay in the country (as the validity of a work visa is linked to the employment contract with one’s sponsor), leaving her – like so many other domestic workers in similar circumstances – in a precarious situation with very few options.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg, but a campaign by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) to get governments around the world to impose legislation to protect the rights of domestic workers is underway. “12 by 12” aims to get at least 12 governments to ratify ILO Convention 189 concerning decent work for domestic workers by December 12, 2012. The campaign  is still ongoing, with 81 countries already ratifying the convention. 

Double bind

But Daivi’s case, in particular, highlights the trend of domestic workers who suffer a multitude of violations.

Not only is she unprotected, but she is also underaged. Legally, people can only start working in Jordan from the age of 16 – or a minimum of 18 in the case of housemaids – but in reality this is rarely enforced.

In addition, a number of countries such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Kenya have actually banned domestic worker agencies from sending workers to Jordan because of widespread abuse and labour violations.

But that doesn’t stop migrant workers from finding their own way into Jordan, which is home to about 80,000 foreign female domestic workers.

This situation also applies to a group of maids aged between 14-16 who were part of the 300-odd domestic workers who sought refuge at the Indonesian Embassy in 2013.

These young girls entered Jordan with fake passports which said they were above 20 years old to conform to the agreements signed between Jordan and Indonesia prohibiting the employment of minors as housemaids.

According to Linda Kalash, director of the Tamkeen Centre for Legal Aid and Human Rights in Amman, recruitment offices in Jordan and Indonesia disregard the ban by issuing tourist visas for domestic workers who then go to a third country like Malaysia or UAE before coming to work in Jordan.

Kalash confirms that this practice is considered as human trafficking by Jordanian law.

She blames the situation on various actors: the recruitment offices in Indonesia who provide forged passports; the border officials who fail to spot the fact that someone who is supposed to be 20 often looks much younger; and also the doctors who issue health certificates for maids upon arrival.

But until laws are implemented and enforced to protect these vulnerable women, their exploitation is likely to continue.

Farah Atyyat is a Jordanian journalist.


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