By Iminza Keboge
Published July 13, 2016
Aditya F, a 30-year-old domestic worker in Oman, fled her employer following physical and verbal abuse, and her employer reported her as having ‘absconded’. The police caught Aditya and returned her to the employer who then beat her and broke her teeth.
When Mamata B, another domestic worker, told the police that her employer had beaten her and refused to pay her for two months and begged not to be sent back, the police called her employer; the employer not only took her back and beat her ‘mercilessly,’ but also locked her in a room for eight days with only dates and water as sustenance.
Such is the plight of many migrant domestic workers from Africa and Asia who are trapped in abusive employment in the Gulf state of Oman.
On June 30, 2016 the United States government downgraded Oman’s rating to “Tier 2 Watch List” in its annual Trafficking in Persons report, saying the Omani government had not demonstrated “evidence of overall increasing efforts to address human trafficking during the previous reporting period.”
Now, almost a fortnight later, Human Rights Watch, a US-based rights body, is in a 68-page report documenting how Oman’s kafala (sponsorship) immigrant labour system and lack of labour law protection leaves migrant domestic workers exposed to abuse–beating, sexual abuse–and exploitation–unpaid wages, excessive working hours–by employers.
The report, titled ‘I Was Sold’: Abuse and Exploitation of Migrant Domestic Workers in Oman, says at least 130000 female migrant domestic workers care for children, clean homes and prepare meals in the Middle Eastern sultanate.
“Migrant domestic workers in Oman are bound to their employers and left to their mercy,” says Rothna Begum, Middle East women’s rights researcher at HRW. “Employers can force domestic workers to work without rest, pay, or food, knowing they can be punished if they escape, while the employers rarely face penalties for abuse.”
A worker called Asma K told HRW that a recruitment agent in Dubai “sold” her to a man who confiscated her passport and took her to Oman where he forced her to work 21 hours a day for a family of 15 with no rest or day off; deprived her of food; verbally abused and sexually harassed her; and refused to pay her.
“I would start working at 4:30 a.m. and finish at 1 a.m.,” she said. “For the entire day they wouldn’t let me sit. When I said I want to leave, he said, ‘I bought you for 1560 rials (US$4,052) from Dubai. Give it back to me and then you can go.’”
Most of the workers who spoke to HRW said their employers either confiscated their passports, refused to pay them, forced them to work excessively long hours without breaks or days off, or denied them adequate food and living conditions, or physically and sexually abused them.
Oman’s kafala system, also used in neighboring Gulf countries, ties migrant domestic workers’ visas to their employers. They cannot work for a new employer without the current employer’s permission, even if they complete their contract or their employer is abusive.
Oman’s labour law explicitly excludes domestic workers. Domestic workers who said they escaped abusive situations have few options.
Domestic workers who leave their employer’s homes also risk their employers reporting them as ‘absconded’, an administrative offense that can result in deportation and a ban on future employment, or even a criminal complaint against them.
Several Omani lawyers and country-of-origin officials said they have no confidence in Oman’s labour dispute settlement procedure or courts for redress for domestic workers. Some embassy officials discourage domestic workers from pursuing such avenues because the process is lengthy and likely to fail, and the workers cannot work in the meantime. Many workers return home unpaid and without justice.