shopify stats
Human Trafficking Center

The Forgotten Plight of Migrant Domestic Workers in the Gulf States


Feb 2017



By Jocelyn Iverson, Director of Communications and Social Media

The rights of migrant workers in the construction sector of the Gulf States have recently been placed under scrutiny by the international community.  Particularly in countries such as Qatar, which will be hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the government has felt pressure to adjust their policies to be more in line with international labor standards.  While this is a positive development, a large population of migrant domestic workers have been entirely left out of the conversation.  By allowing policies to focus solely on construction or other formal sector workers, the rights of those working in many private Gulf homes are being disregarded.

Cultural Considerations

Migrant domestic workers in the Gulf States are in a unique and particularly vulnerable position.  They are subject to the same restrictions as other workers under the kafala, or sponsorship system, which is standard throughout the GCC countries.*  However, many labor laws put in place to protect workers do not extend to those performing domestic work, and there are no regulatory systems currently in place.  Traditionally, domestic work is seen as a private family matter to be handled within the home, and not by the state.  But when the vast majority of domestic workers are migrants who already have few rights, vulnerability to abuse is only exasperated by failing to provide any government oversight.

The use of domestic workers to tend to the home and look after the children of Gulf residents is commonplace.  Most female migrants who travel to the Gulf looking for employment opportunities end up in domestic work.  The vast majority of these women are from South and Southeast Asian countries, particularly Sri Lanka and Indonesia, which has led some to fear “Asianization” effects on Gulf culture.  This fear is usually countered by relegating these women to the lowest levels of society and degrading them by presuming they are ignorant and uneducated and thus treating them as such.

Lack of Legal Protection

It has been found that domestic worker abuse in the Gulf goes far beyond simply degrading the women’s social status. Human Rights Watch recently issued a report focusing on Oman, which has parallels throughout the GCC states. HRW found that passport confiscation, although it is illegal in Oman, was commonplace and that the legal system was in fact completely ineffective for the protection of migrant domestic workers.  Many of the workers interviewed suffered verbal and physical abuse, lack of payment, excessively long working hours with no days off, restricted communication, and confinement to the households in which they worked.  To make matters worse, if the women went to the police and tried to report the abuse, they were often simply returned to their abusive employers or their original recruitment agencies.

Some domestic workers are so desperate to escape their abusive employers that they will run away, sometimes even risking their lives to do so.  When this happens the employer can choose to report that their employee has “absconded,” in which case they are subject to arrest and deportation, or even criminal charges.  Even if the original kafeel (sponsor) chooses not to report the worker as absconded, the worker is still unable to transfer to a new employer because that would require the permission of the very person they have risked their lives to run away from. Women who find themselves in this situation are sometimes forced into prostitution, since they are no longer eligible for legal employment, and become extremely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Where Does the Responsibility Lie?

Countries of origin face a dilemma in that they wish to protect their citizens, but for many their economy relies heavily upon remittances sent home by migrant workers.  Some efforts have been made to protect migrant domestic workers, either by banning women from traveling to certain Gulf States or by demanding stricter regulations for their nationals, but these efforts have been largely ineffective.  Travel bans generally lead to an increase in smuggling or trafficking, because women who need the work are forced into illegal channels, only increasing their vulnerability.  The attempt by origin countries to demand stricter regulation from the destination country before allowing women to travel has some potential, but often leads to increased recruitment in alternative countries where there is no such regulation to worry about.

The burden of protecting migrant domestic workers cannot fall solely upon their countries of origin.  There must be internal efforts to shift the perception of these women as lowly, uneducated “servants” as well as external pressures to include domestic workers within local labor laws.  Recently some of the GCC countries, such as Kuwait, have expanded their labor laws to include domestic workers.  This is certainly one positive step forward and should be used as an example by other governments and decision makers.  

Recommendations and Complications

From a broad purview regulation will be important for protecting the rights of migrant domestic workers, but there are other factors which need to be addressed first.  All of the GCC countries need to ensure that domestic workers are covered under their labor laws, and that the coverage is just as robust as it is for other occupations.  There have been some promising steps made in this regard, but there is still much work to be done.  Even Qatar, which responded to international outcry by pronouncing the abolition of the kafala system in late 2016, failed to adequately protect domestic workers in its new labor law.

A significant problem which must be addressed is that domestic worker rights are entrenched within a much greater and more controversial issue regarding the rule of law and democratization in the Middle East.  The very structures which keep the monarchies and ruling elite in power within the Gulf begin to be threatened when the conversation on worker rights is opened.  This means that progress will likely be small and incremental, but it is the responsibility of the international community to keep up the pressure for change and not to become complacent.

Photo via Pixabay

*The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is comprised of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates


For more information on Qatar’s recent reforms to their kafala system, see the Center on Human Rights Education’s recent blog.


About the Human Trafficking Center

The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.

Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.


Print This Post Print This Post

2 Responses to “The Forgotten Plight of Migrant Domestic Workers in the Gulf States”

  1. Shirlee Reding

    I am interested in your two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. Could you please send me information on the program. I looked at your website and didn’t
    see any reference to it. Thank you in advance.

Leave a comment