A report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Tuesday has painted a grim picture on tough working conditions for Tanzanian domestic workers in Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The 100-page report titled ‘Working Like a Robot: Abuse of Tanzanian Domestic Workers in Oman and the United Arab Emirates’ has outlined how the domestic workers face excessive working hours, unpaid salaries, physical, and sexual abuse. It also highlights how the Tanzanian, Omani, and UAE governments have failed to protect Tanzanian migrant domestic workers.
“Many Tanzanian domestic workers in Oman and the UAE are overworked, underpaid, and abused behind closed doors,” said Rothna Begum, Middle East women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
She said “workers who fled abusive employers or agents told us the police or their own embassy officials forced them to go back, or they had to relinquish their salaries and spend months raising money for tickets home.”
According to the report, gaps in Tanzania’s laws and policies on recruitment and migration have left Tanzanian women exposed at the outset to abuse and fail to provide adequate assistance for exploited workers.
The kafala, an Oman and UAE’s visa sponsorship system has been largely blamed in the report. Its rules tie workers to their employers and this coupled with the lack of labour law protection leaves workers exposed to a wide range of abuse.
Looking to East Africa
Most of the domestic labour force in the Gulf is made up of workers from Asia, Indonesia and the Phillipines. These countries have however increased protections and minimum salary requirements to protect their domestic workers, in some cases banned recruitment to the Gulf entirely. The Gulf has now been forced to look to East Africa for cheap labour.
There are thousands of Tanzanians employed in the Gulf and while some have decent working conditions, many others face abuse.
The Human Rights Watch says it spoke to 87 people, including Tanzanian officials, trade unionists, recruitment agents, and 50 Tanzanian female domestic workers who worked in Oman or the UAE.
The general answer from almost all of them was that their employers and agents confiscated their passports upon arriving in these countries. They had to work long hours, up to 21 hours a day without rest or a day off.
They said they were paid less than promised or not at all, were forced to eat spoiled or left-over food, shouted at and insulted daily, and physically and sexually abused.
Basma N. a 21-year-old from Dar es Salaam recalls how her employers forced her to work 21 hours a day and abused her physically. Her employer’s brother attempted to rape her twice. She fled and, facing arrest for not paying back her employer’s recruitment costs, she had to relinquish three months of salary.
Basma had to borrow money for her tickets back home.
28-year-old Atiya Z. from Kondowa in Tanzania traveled to Oman in June 2015. Her employer confiscated her passport and phone, forced her to work 21 hours a day with no rest or day off, did not allow her to eat without permission, and beat her every day. She attempted to flee after three weeks, but her employer brought her back and demanded that she repay recruitment costs of 2 million TZS (US$880).
Her employer then confined her to the house. She recalls how she was physically abused by her employer’s wife and sister when she was sick and later on raped anally by the husband. After the ordeal she was flown back to Tanzania with no pay, just her passport.
The report gives ordeals of many others who were not properly treated by their employers.
Labour laws in Oman and the UAE
Domestic workers in Oman and the UAE have been excluded from their labour laws.
Oman’s 2004 domestic worker regulations are weak, with no penalties for employer breaches, and it is the last country in the Gulf region not to provide labour rights in law.
The UAE in September 2017 issued a law providing domestic workers with labour rights for the first time, but lesser protections than for workers under the general labour law.
The HRW has recommended that the kafala system be ended since it is the largest impediment to domestic workers’ rights in Oman and the UAE. Some workers said their employers or agents forced them to forego their salaries as a condition for their “release,” work for a new employer who repaid recruitment costs to the initial employer, or work unpaid for months in return for flight tickets home or to recoup recruitment fees.
Tanzania labour regulations
In 2016, leaders from East African domestic worker unions assembled in Tanzania to demand their governments do more to safeguard the rights of migrant domestic workers going to the Gulf.
Embassies in the Gulf were heavily criticized for failing to address cases of their citizens’ abuses.
“There are several reasons for their ineffectiveness, including an unwillingness to antagonize their hosts, and political correctness,” said Vicky Kanyoka, the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF)’s Regional Coordinator for Africa.
The HRW report noted that gaps in Tanzania’s recruitment and migration policies place workers at heightened risk and provide little opportunity for redress.
“Tanzanian embassies lack adequate protection systems, and have no real power to help workers force employers to return unpaid salaries, provide compensation, or pay return flight tickets home,” it noted.
Tanzania should adopt key strategies to prevent and respond to abuse, including stringent regulation and oversight of recruitment, rights-based training programs, and adequate consular assistance including paying for flight tickets home, Human Rights Watch said.
There has not been any reaction yet by the Tanzanian government on this report.