Philippine economy

Migrant domestic workers in UAE treated like ‘animals’

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'The UAE should reform its kafala system so domestic workers can change employers without their consent and without losing valid immigration status,' says Human Rights Watch

MANILA, Philippines – Sexual violence, isolation and forced confinement, unpaid wages, long working hours with limited food, and regular beating are just some of the conditions migrant domestic workers in oil-rich United Arab Emirates (UAE) endure in the hands of their employers.

This “seemingly entrenched pattern” of abuses was detailed in a 79-page report by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) released Thursday, October 23, urging the UAE government to enact reforms to put an end to it.

“Many said their employers had treated them like animals or as if they were dirty and physical contact with them would be contaminating,” the report said. 

Quezon City resident Marelie Brua returned home to the Philippines after suffering maltreatment and a meager 800-dirham ($217 or P9,712) monthly pay under the employ of an Arab family.

A mere animal “bought” at a price is how domestic workers to the UAE are regarded, Brua shared in an HRW clip.

He [the sponsor] slapped me and banged my head on the wall, then spit on me. He beat me with a cable on my back and put a knife to my face.

– Indonesian domestic worker


A total of 99 UAE-based helpers from November to December 2013 who came all the way from the Philippines, Indonesia, Uganda, and other labor-sending countries were interviewed by HRW staff and reported even worse experiences of exploitation.

One of those interviewed, 22-year-old Indonesian Arti L.* shared: “He [the sponsor] slapped me and banged my head on the wall, then spit on me. He beat me with a cable on my back and put a knife to my face.” 

Of the 99, at least 22 complained of physical violence and 6 of sexual assault/harassment. 

Arti L.*, the 22-year-old Indonesian beaten and slapped by her boss, was also raped. “I ran away with blood on my panties. I was bleeding badly,” she told HRW.

Most of them reported having to work long hours with low wages, and have experienced psychological and verbal abuse.

The women shared how they were verbally abused by their employers.

Farah S.* from Indonesia said not once was she addressed by her name, while Sadiyah A.* from the Philippines said she was always called an idiot in public.

Filipina Holly C*, 26, quoted her former employer as saying: “If you do anything wrong I will kill you and cut you up into pieces and put you into the desert and no one will know.”

The HRW brought the matter to the UAE authorities, but said it received no response.

Kafala system

At the heart of the report is a controversial system that unduly limits migrant workers’ rights and cripples their ability to redress their grievances.

Under the kafala sponsorship system, a migrant worker’s visa status is dependent on his or her employer. The threat of deportation looms and is dependent on his or her boss.

The system of having employer-sponsors as a prerequisite for migrant workers to stay in UAE and acquire a work permit enables employers to exploit them and gain “inordinate control” over them, the HRW report explained.

“The relationship between domestic worker and employer is mistakenly perceived as status-based, with a superior master commanding an inferior servant, rather than a contractual arrangement between parties with mutual rights and obligations,” it read.

Azfar Khan, a senior migration specialist for the International Labor Organization (ILO), said the system has been regarded as “slave-like.” 

It is common practice among the employers of those interviewed by HRW to confiscate passports of their helpers. This prevents workers from running away from an abusive employer.

“The UAE should reform its kafala system so domestic workers can change employers without their consent and without losing valid immigration status,” the HRW urged.

(Watch the HRW clip below)

‘Flawed’ laws, need for reform

Likewise, protection granted under the UAE labor law explicitly excludes “domestic servants working in private residences and the like.”

An 8-hour working day, a rest/day-off requirement, and overtime pay are among the legally enforceable rights protected under the law. 

While the standard domestic labor contract revised last June 2014 now requires a weekly rest day and an 8-hour rest every 24 hours of work, its practice and employer compliance remain to be unseen.

Domestic workers’ withheld salaries would also have been prevented by the UAE’s digital monitoring dubbed “wage protection system” if not for their exclusion under the law, which makes wage issues they encounter not under the jurisdiction of the ministry of labor.

Those who are already disadvantaged by virtue of their social standing in life are rendered even more powerless by problematic laws.


Provisions under the UAE Federal Law 6 of 1973 on the Entry and Residence of Foreigners also prohibit domestic workers from “absconding” or leaving their sponsor without consent and ahead of the end of their contract.

Absconding under UAE law is an administrative offense punishable by deportation, penalties, and a one-year entry ban into the federal nation.

The revised domestic labor contract also makes “null and void” the rights of a worker who absconds.

A draft law addressing domestic workers’ issues, which has yet to be made public, reportedly still lacks the necessary cloak of protection for this vulnerable sector.

The HRW said addressing gaps in the UAE’s labor and labor-related laws, passing its draft law but in line with the ILO Domestic Workers convention, and raising awareness on the revised domestic labor contract are needed if only to justify its place in the ILO governing board.

The UAE was elected to the board last June. 

“As it takes its seat on the ILO’s governing body, the UAE needs to make labor rights a reality at home, including for migrant domestic workers,” said HRW women’s rights researcher Rothna Begum, who penned the report. 

Systematic, entrenched?

The HRW report makes no statistical claims and admits that 99 is not an accurate sample of the hundreds in thousands of domestic workers in the UAE.

“There were some 236,500 domestic workers in the UAE in 2008, of whom 146,100 were female,” the report read.

There are the isolated abuses, usually happening as a result of the perverted mindsets of a select few. The peculiarity of these abuses does not make the acts less wrong.

But the worse abuses are the more systematic ones, institutionalized by the lack of protection guaranteed under the law.

Those who are already disadvantaged by virtue of their social standing in life are rendered even more powerless by problematic systems that fuel the oppression.

While the report does not present an accurate statistical representation on the prevalence of abuse among UAE domestic workers, it pointed out that the problem “may well be fairly widespread.”

“The interviews took place in a range of settings and involved interviewees of various nationalities, who spoke different languages, and who had never met or had contact with one another, and yet reported similar experiences and types of abuse by employers, recruitment agents, and others,” the report read further. –  

*Aliases were used in the HRW report to protect the domestic workers interviewed


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