E.g., 12/03/2023
E.g., 12/03/2023
Domestic Workers: Little Protection for the Underpaid

Domestic Workers: Little Protection for the Underpaid

Domestic workers, the majority of whom are women, constitute a large portion of today's migrant worker population. In Latin America, for example, they constitute as many as 60 percent of all internal and international migration. The feminization of migration, a trend that began in the early 1980s, has resulted in an increased number of women who migrate alone.

Prior to that time, women generally accompanied their spouses to destination countries or joined them later. Unemployment and household poverty, which have significantly affected countries of origin since the beginning of the 1980s, pressured these women to find jobs abroad. In wealthy countries, heightened demands in certain employment sectors, especially in the household or domestic sphere, also made migration an attractive alternative.

Domestic Workers in the Middle East

Domestic work is the single most important category of employment among women migrants to the gulf states, Lebanon, and Jordan. As much as 81 percent of all women migrant workers from Sri Lanka and 39 percent from the Philippines are attracted to this large "domestic work" market. Most middle-income Arab countries in the Middle East region receive thousands of women migrants, some of them well-educated, as domestic workers each year.

In recent years, female migrant workers have composed larger percentages of migrant workers in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, which include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. Women migrants represented almost 30 percent of all inflows in 2000 compared to eight percent in the early 1980s. In Lebanon, the proportion of women migrant workers among all migrant workers has more than doubled between 1965 and 2000.

The majority of female migrants come from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Data from these countries show they have been sending larger numbers of women than men to work in the Middle East.

More than 90 percent of Indonesian workers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates consisted of women workers in 1997-1998. In 2001, between 85 and 94 percent of Sri Lankan workers in Jordan, Kuwait, and Lebanon were women.

A variety of reasons can explain the demand for foreign, female domestic workers across the region. Since the oil boom of the 1970s, living standards have increased, and more young families, who tend to live far away from their relatives, have the money to hire a domestic worker; their low wages also make them affordable.

In addition, with more women in countries like Lebanon and Bahrain working, domestic workers have taken over native women's household responsibilities, giving them more time for social activities. Indeed, employing a domestic worker from abroad gives a family a certain amount of social status and prestige.

Migrant workers in Arab states who send remittances provide significant sources of national income to many labor-exporting countries in South and Southeast Asia.

Bangladesh received almost US$2 billion in remittances in 2000, almost all of which came from Arab states, especially the GCC countries. Only 15.4 percent of remittances to Bangladesh were received from countries other than GCC countries.

However, women migrant domestic workers face poor working and living conditions that need to be considered.

Challenging Issues

To identify critical issues concerning female migrant domestic workers and to determine the extent of their vulnerability, the International Labor Organization (ILO) analyzed their working and living conditions in several countries of the region. Studies of four Arab states — Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — reveal practices and patterns that make women domestic migrant workers vulnerable.

Regarding remuneration, the average wages per month in U.S. dollars of domestic workers in Lebanon represented between $100 to $300 on average, and $150 to $200 for those in the UAE. However, not all domestic workers in the same country earn the same pay as salaries depend on the workers' origin country, language skills, and education. For instance, most Filipina domestic workers, who tend to speak English and be relatively educated, reported receiving higher wages than Sri Lankan and Ethiopian nationals.

Non-remunerated overtime work was an issue in all four countries studied, with non-payment of wages a significant concern among female domestic workers in Lebanon and Bahrain.

A large number of female domestic workers mentioned they are vulnerable to sexual abuse by their male employers, who are often also their visa sponsors.

Domestic workers' average number of working hours per week — 101 to 108 hours — in the four studies was high by international standards. Domestic workers' monthly time-off averaged between zero and two days off per month. All women interviewed working in households in the UAE reported not having a single day off in a given month. In Lebanon, Kuwait, and Bahrain, women migrant domestic workers reported having one to two days off a month on average.

On work-related problems, domestic workers most frequently cited the presence of physical (including sexual), psychological and verbal abuse; over 50 percent of those surveyed in Kuwait reported this concern. Most workers mentioned vulnerability to sexual abuse by their male employers, who are often also their visa sponsors, as well as by the sponsors' sons or other men visiting the home where they work. The situation in Bahrain and the UAE was also similar.

Domestic workers also reported frequent irregularities in the recruitment system concerning the intermediaries, namely the recruiters and agents in sending and receiving countries who facilitate the migration process. The intermediaries exploited women migrant workers by overcharging for costs such as passports and other government fees.

Domestic workers and their families often incurred huge debts (in many instances unjustified) with the intermediaries and had to work for long periods of time without a salary to cover these costs and fees. Some domestic workers, if deported in cases where the employer withheld wages, came back home indebted for long periods of time. There were also numerous cases of recruitment agents sexually abusing runaway domestic workers.

Although domestic workers should sign their sponsor contracts at the recruitment agency in the country of origin, most domestic workers arrived at their destination country without having one.

In Bahrain, only 44.1 percent of all migrant women interviewed had signed contracts prior to their arrival. Other women had signed contracts in Arabic, a language many could not read or understand.

Even a signed contract was no guarantee of effective protection. For example, some employers or "sponsors" withheld workers' wages for several months or years, while other employers refused to respect the salaries stipulated in the contract or never paid.

In addition, the system for addressing foreign workers' complaints is inadequate or nonexistent. Domestic workers often need some reliable and effective institutions to turn to, other than the sponsor or the recruitment agent, who are frequently the source of their problems.

Running away from the employer's household is illegal and punishable in all four countries studied. Only Lebanon provides domestic workers with the option of finding a new sponsor. In Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE, the police will search for the worker, and the local newspaper will publish her photograph. Any person who hides or protects a runaway domestic worker is also considered a criminal.

When found, the worker is imprisoned and then deported, though she may need to pay her employer in order to retrieve her passport, and she will likely never receive salaries covering the period worked in those cases where the employers withhold wages; without her passport, she cannot be sent or travel home. Once in the custody of police or other authorities, some runaway domestic workers have reported being subjected to inhumane treatment.

This problem is not limited to the countries in this study. In 2000, 19,000 domestic workers in Saudi Arabia fled from their employers citing mistreatment, non-payment of wages, and other grievances; the number of complaints received per year has increased since then.

In 1996, the Sri Lankan Bureau for Foreign Employment reported 8,087 complaints from domestic workers, more than half of them from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries such as Jordan and Oman. Reporting to such a bureau helps keep records of these abuses and raises awareness among potential migrants of the dangers they could face.

Labor Laws

In most Arab states, labor laws generally do not cover female domestic workers because they are not considered employees.

They work in households, which are not considered workplaces, and they work for private persons, who are not considered employers. In addition, private homes are not usually supervised by labor inspectors since labor inspectors are forbidden from visiting private households.

The employment relationship between a domestic worker and the head of a household is not addressed in national legislation in any Arab country, denying them the status of “real workers” entitled to labor protection.

Domestic workers are also excluded from labor protection under any other national law.

Good Practices

Not all the news is negative, however. For example, Bahrain and Jordan are among the countries with good practices that could be replicated elsewhere.

In 2003, Bahrain announced a national plan to assist abused foreign workers that includes temporary shelters and a help hotline. New domestic workers in Bahrain will also have access to a guide to rights and duties, which will be available in embassies, recruitment offices, and points of entry. The government is also looking at ways to organize work permit procedures for domestic workers.

Jordan has amended a law concerning registration of recruitment agencies. The new law allows the Ministry of Labor to monitor these agencies and to take serious actions if they violate the regulations protecting migrant workers.

In 2003, the Minister of Labor endorsed a "Special Working Contract for Non-Jordanian Domestic Workers" that aims to limit the number of fake contracts or contracts not recognized or approved by the competent authorities. This special working contract guarantees migrant workers' rights to life insurance, medical care, a designated day off a week, rest days, and repatriation when their contracts expire.

The contract includes the provision of a minimum wage, ameliorating the problem of wage discrimination by requiring that domestic workers be paid the same salaries as Jordanians performing domestic work. This provision reverses the discrimination in present contracts that allowed tiered salaries for specific nationalities.


In order to provide greater protection to female migrant workers, there are a number of key areas where labor legislation and social protection could be improved in destination countries, as well as in countries of origin. However, there are also obstacles to implementing such protections, outlined here.

Countries of Destination

Ideally, the first step would be for destination countries to pass legislation giving domestic workers the status of "real workers." They would be entitled to the same labor protection as native workers: a specified amount of time off, a minimum wage, and other working conditions.

National legislation could also better regulate recruiting agencies, limit recruiting fees, make employers accountable for violating contracts, and set fines or punishments for employers who abuse domestic workers.

Such major changes, however, are not likely to happen right away. Despite the poor treatment of domestic workers, Arab states have been slow to adopt human rights generally, let alone for foreign workers, and most of these countries are having difficulty considering domestic work as a type of labor that should be regulated and protected against abuses. In addition, human rights institutions and groups, where they exist, still have limited power when it comes to influencing legislation.

Another solution would be to make it easier for domestic workers and other migrant workers to change sponsors. This would reduce the ability of employers/sponsors to hold complete power over the lives of their migrant employees, and enable workers who experience abuse to find new employment without having to run away from their employers or return home.

Although this flexibility could improve the lives of domestic workers, they may not know they have the option to change sponsors. Therefore, such information would need to be consistently provided to them.

Also, domestic workers may face threats from their employers or be blacklisted if they wish to change employers. For this reason, reliable and effective institutions to which domestic workers can turn to could be established. These institutions would address foreign workers' complaints and ensure that abusive recruitment agents and employers receive the proper punishment. Bahrain, which has set up shelters and a 24-hour hotline, could be a model for other countries.

Countries of Origin

Before a domestic worker or other migrant worker leaves home, the country of origin could require the worker to have signed a recognized, legitimate contract. This would help ensure the worker will receive wages and not be subject to harmful working conditions. In countries such as the Philippines, a system like this is in place and has been effective in protecting workers abroad.

The origin country could also keep a database composed of the worker's contract, the full address of the recruitment agency, the agent's name, and the employer's address. If abused, a worker could report the abuse to the home-country government, and the abuse would be noted to help protect other workers who might be working for the same agency or employer.

The main problem with this type of solution, however, is the cost and administrative burden to the home country since this database would need to be linked to the country's embassies and consulates abroad. Also, there are no guarantees that all abused workers would report their abuse since the worker needs to have the freedom to leave the house and file the report. Most domestic workers in the Arab states do not have freedom of movement even on weekends.

Labor attachés based at their embassies abroad could deal with complaints and urgent needs of national workers, taking appropriate action when necessary. Support services provided by Philippine labor attachés have proven to be important in cases of grievances since they provide the proper legal counseling and protection.

But the power of labor attachés can be limited due to the destination country's laws and practices. For example, it could be difficult for a labor attaché to present a formal complaint or to prove the harm suffered by a given migrant worker if national legislation does not consider the issue a grievance.

What may be useful to migrant women in particular would be predeparture information on legal rights, who to contact in case of abuse, information on cultural differences, etc. If the domestic worker plans to go to a country where changing employers is allowed, she should know about that option. More migrant women who have received predeparture information have safely escaped abuse situations than those who have not.


The number of women working in the Middle East as domestic workers is likely to remain high since labor market demand for domestic workers is increasing. However, it is not certain these female migrants will see an improvement in their working conditions or improved protection of their rights.

Targeted political and institutional support at the national, regional, and international levels can help change the situation. For domestic work and other occupations where women migrants are concentrated, Arab governments could join efforts to provide social protection to migrant workers and especially to female migrant domestic workers.

Following the examples of Bahrain and Jordan, which have already instituted significant measures to improve domestic workers' protection, would be the first step in this direction.

This article is based on the ILO report "Gender and Migration in Arab States: The Case of Domestic Workers," published in 2004. The full report can be downloaded here.