Domestic work: Raising Families, Not Buildings

The UAE has a comprehensive and multifaceted Labor Law specifying, among other entitlements, that all employees work a maximum of eight hours per day ...

Mar 15, 2014

The UAE has a comprehensive and multifaceted Labor Law specifying, among other entitlements, that all employees work a maximum of eight hours per day and receive annual leave proportionate to the length of their employment.
However, this law excludes certain groups of workers. One constitutes staff employed by the federal government; a second, members of national armed forces; and a third, domestic servants.
Human Rights Watch is openly critical of the Middle East — and the GCC countries in particular — with respect to their policies concerning domestic workers. In a recent report HRW chastised the UAE for its failure to address serious shortcomings in its labor laws, including lack of bargaining power, centralized passport confiscation and a poor draft law that fails to meet International Labour Organization standards.
“Despite years of criticism, the UAE has not addressed shortcomings in its legal and regulatory framework that facilitate the exploitation and forced labour of these [domestic] workers,” the article stated.
The National has reported multiple cases of kidnap, rape and murder of maids and domestic workers in the UAE. Multiple appeals have been made via The National for better treatment of domestic workers, with one author citing the conservatism of UAE society as a factor in the strong and highly respected distinction between the public and private spheres. This distinction keeps law enforcers out of homes, often leaving workers’ rights to the discretion of their employers.
Assistant Professor of Arab Crossroads Studies Nathalie Peutz explained that the process for hiring domestic workers uses an intermediary agency as a way of matching employees with potential employers who then, under the controversial Kafala system, become their official sponsors.
“Conventionally, domestic laborers are hired through agencies, and this usually starts through their home countries … so the individual [employer] goes to the agency. The agency sets [the employer] up with the domestic worker and helps with the visa process,” Peutz said.
She also noted the implications of the Kafala system regarding the way the labor market functions in the UAE, explaining that the need for employer sponsorship renders part-time work almost impossible.
“Because of the way that labor is structured in the Emirates … it is not so easy to hire part-time labor,” she said. “In some other countries, people who [need] childcare might hire a student or a graduate student or someone to help with childcare a couple hours a day.”
Dean of Social Sciences Ivan Szelenyi hypothesized that maids and domestic workers have very good reasons to emigrate, despite the conditions they may be subjected to.
“For many of them, it’s because they have to keep the family alive … Like other working-class people, they send most of their money back home,” he said.
Szelenyi believes that the storm of controversy around workers’ pay and rights is valid, but must be kept in perspective. In his experience, workers tended to self-identify as belonging to a higher social class when they had worked abroad, even in miserable conditions. Szelenyi said that it was important to draw a comparison between conditions at home and in the Gulf rather than looking at the issue in isolation.
“The most positive feature of being a migrant laborer in the Gulf is that these people, especially the blue collar working class … experience their stay here as upward social mobility,” Szelenyi explained. “The question is how much higher [their wage] is than what they could get back home,” he added.
Szelenyi also cautioned against jumping to negative conclusions based on sub-standard evidence.
 “We don’t have data on [this issue] … we just have journalistic gossip,” he said.
 In response to the generic nature of doomsday news sources and condemning op-eds, Peutz expressed personal gratitude for her nanny, who gives Peutz the ability to work her career around three young children.
 “It is especially [the] domestic workers in our homes, taking care of our children, who allow me to be at work now … and so I’m very indebted to them, and I know many employers who feel the same way,” Peutz said. “So one of the things that several people here are interested in is trying to do things like create programming for them … whether it’s English classes or computer classes or other kinds of skill enhancement classes [to progress their careers].”
Tessa Ayson is the features editor. Email her at
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