Manama, Sat, 25 Feb 2006
Embassies and volunteer rights workers are making ground in their fight to bring housemaids under the protection of the law, but there is still a long way to go. SARA HORTON reports.
Foreign domestic workers form one of the foundation stones for Bahrain’s economy and society. They can be found in households of all sizes and incomes, doing everything from the cleaning to looking after the children, while their parents go out to work.
Although the majority are well treated, a worrying number are abused or neglected, violating their human rights, say members of the Migrant Workers Protection Society (MWPS).
Many are given no personal freedom at all, while others do not receive the salary level they were promised, or go without being paid for months on end.
Some are not even fed properly and a small proportion are physically and sexually abused, say MWPS members.
Long working hours are common and few get a day off.
Society members are calling on the government to acknowledge the problem and take practical steps to prevent abuse behind closed doors.
Among the measures they advocate are bringing housemaids under the direct protection of the labour law, making written employment contracts mandatory and setting up an official body to deal with domestic workers’ complaints.
They are also appealing for reform of the judicial system, to ensure that maids who have encountered problems have a realistic opportunity to seek legal redress.
The society already does all it can to help those in distress, offering a shelter for maids and practical and emotional support to those in need.
"When it comes to the maids we are seeing, the major problem is non-payment of salary for months on end, followed by physical and sexual abuse," said society action committee head Marietta Dias.
"There are also more and more complaints that they are not being fed properly.
"I want to stress that this is not the majority of employers we’re talking about.
"We are against people who abuse maids, not those who look after them."
Problems can begin when a maid arrives, because neither side gets what they are looking for.
The maids often come from remote areas and arrive in Bahrain with little or no knowledge of how to use cleaning appliances and unable to speak the same language as their new employers.
The result is mutual frustration and disappointment.
"People from urban areas know that it’s not worth coming here, so the foreign recruitment agents bring them from the interior of countries like India and they don’t know what to do," said Ms Dias.
"They are told they are going to work for people who come from the same area as them and there is often a clash when they find they are in an Arab house."
This can lead to abuse when employers get frustrated, added society vice-chairman Alfredo D’Souza.
"The employer expects a superstar but when there are language and communication problems and the domestic worker has no training to operate the equipment and is unable to cope with the amount of work, one of the frustrated members of the family can get into a rage and get violent," he said.
The situation worsens over time, as the maid becomes increasingly overworked.
"If a maid is working from early in the morning until late at night and isn’t getting enough to eat, her productivity is bound to decline," remarked Ms Dias.
"They are often like zombies because they have only had four hours sleep.
"But if they don’t deliver, then there is abuse."
Recruitment agents in the maids’ countries are often guilty of misrepresentation and give would-be maids an idealised view of working conditions here, said Mr D’Souza.
"The recruitment agent in their country will tell them that they will have fixed working hours and earn sufficient to save and send some home to their own family," he noted.
"Often the amount of salary they are told they will receive is much more than they ultimately get."
The maids soon discover that the reality is very different.
"They often work from 5am to midnight, they work in different houses for extended families and there is no defined work," he continued.
"They may have to do the household chores, the gardening, clean the car, look after the children – and one person is expected to do all this."
All too many maids are given no personal freedom at all and this in itself is a form of abuse.
"In most Arab households they are not allowed to go out on their own," said Ms Dias.
"The employers will say that they are safeguarding the maids so they won’t meet men, get into bad habits and mix with other maids but they are human beings, how can their employers have this much control over them?
"It is normal with Bahraini families for these girls never to get a day off."
Some are unable to practice their own religion because of household restrictions.
"We have a girl in our shelter now who had not been allowed to go to church for four years," she added.
Some maids are cut off from any kind of contact outside their employers’ home.
"It’s very depressing for them and emotionally shattering not to have friends here or be able to contact their own families at home," said Mr D’Souza.
"Often they have no access to the outside world by phone or by letters.
"We have been asked to help parents who haven’t heard from their daughters for months.
"Even those who have the so-called luxury of their own quarters are not allowed to have visitors or even go to their own room, unless it’s to sleep."
Returning home is simply not an option for many disappointed maids and even those who have been abused will think twice before abandoning their jobs.
Often they have paid recruitment agents in their own country up to BD600 for the opportunity to come here and the money must be repaid.
"They borrow the money, spend all their life savings and sell their jewellery to come," said Mr D’Souza.
"They have to pay back the money at high interest rates.
"At the same time their employer says they must stay for at least two years, because the employer has paid the recruitment agent here too."
Social pressures also deter maids from leaving Bahrain earlier than planned.
"There is a stigma and an embarrassment about going back," added Ms Dias.
"People will think they must have done something wrong."
"They are caught in a web."
If they threaten to complain they can be sent home by their sponsors and if they run away they can be deported by authorities.
"It’s so easy for the sponsors to take them to the airport and send them back at the drop of a hat," said Ms Dias.
"The girl is helpless, she cannot reclaim her money and she goes back in utter disgrace."
If she runs away, her employer can report her to the authorities.
"If this happens she can be detained and deported without any detailed investigation into the reasons," said Mr D’Souza.
The legal status of maids makes it virtually impossible for the abused to get justice and the system means that they are reluctant to speak up.
The society believes there is an urgent need for a shake-up of the law, to ensure that maids have the same rights as other employees.
Domestic workers’ nebulous status leaves
them powerless and open to abuse at the hands of the unscrupulous.
"The government says they should be treated as part of the household and this is why they are not under the labour law," said Ms Dias.
"They are here to work, they are employees, so how can they be part of the family?"
Wages must be improved and steps should be taken to ensure that they are paid.
"Most are on just BD35 to BD40 a month, but still some maids are going six or even seven months without any salary," she said.
"I presume cash flow is the problem, but people have to factor this into their budget.
"Maids come low on the list of priorities."
Mr D’Souza lauded the Philippine Embassy’s attempts to enforce a minimum wage of BD75 a month.
However, manpower agencies have said that families earning just BD150 a month would not be able to afford to pay BD75 and would ignore it.
This is simply unacceptable, said Mr D’Souza.
"It used to be a luxury to have a maid, people used to do their own housework," he pointed out.
"People earning just BD150 shouldn’t keep a maid."
Contracts should be made mandatory for all maids, he added.
"I believe that the Labour Ministry is actually moving forward in the direction of getting maids under the labour law with contracts," noted Mr D’Souza.
"The contracts should include a minimum wage, defined working hours, days off, rest periods during the day and freedom during their day off to visit friends, rather than being under house arrest.
"Ideally they should have their own place to live.
"Some people say that if domestic workers are allowed to go out in their free time they will disappear.
"We believe that helpers who are well looked after wouldn’t want to disappear.
"These contracts are very important and should be endorsed by their respective embassies."
The contracts would have to be enforced by the government.
"The Labour Ministry should have an office where domestic workers can go to make complaints," he continued.
"This should have the authority to take action.
"It’s possible that some employers might not follow the contract, but if they didn’t they would be breaking the law and they should suffer for it."
Any maid who left her employer because of abuse or non-payment of wages should not be considered as a ‘run-away’ in the eyes of the law, he said.
As wages are such an issue, Mr D’Souza suggests that bank accounts be opened for maids on arrival and all wages should be paid directly into the accounts so there is a record of payment.
Society members feel that the judicial system should be reviewed to ensure that maids are able to seek justice without fear of it backfiring on them.
"The system stops people asking for their rights," observed Ms Dias.
"We have taken three or four cases of rape through the normal channels and they have all come to a dead end.
"We will not be taking any case to court unless we are forced to because it’s no use.
"It drags on too long.
"The girls can’t take another job until their sponsor releases them and she’s frustrated and her family are frustrated because there’s no income.
"If you have a case in court you can’t even leave the country, even if your mother dies.
"People want to take cases to court, but I beg them not to."
The society does what it can, but members find the situation very frustrating.
"In our shelter we keep people as long as they want, give them food, medicine and clothes and ticket home," said Mr D’Souza.
"At least they go back with a smile on their face, but without justice being done."
Embassies play a key role in ensuring the well-being of maids, said Ms Dias.
Their increased involvement in welfare issues is gradually improving the situation for everyone.
"The government should be discouraging domestic workers from countries which do not have embassies here to represent them," she noted.
"We have a real problem when there is no embassy to back up a maid and deal with her case. There is just no support.
"Gradually most embassies are beginning to keep track of rogue employers and agencies so they will think again before they break contracts."
Last year the society offered shelter to 100 maids, but members feel that there are many more who have not been able to appeal for help.
"Out of every 10 girls, only one has the opportunity to get someone to listen to their case," said Ms Dias.
"The people we hear from may have seen our numbers in the paper or been helped by a well-wisher.
"The abused come here when they have been beaten and have nowhere to go.
"There could be a large number who are being abused or harassed."
Information is the key and Ms Dias said that she hoped that people would be informed of their rights on arrival at the airport and given numbers to call should they run into any difficulty.