Trafficking in women forced labour and domestic work in the context of the Middle East and Gulf region

Trafficking in women forced labour and domestic work in the context of the Middle East and Gulf region

Trafficking in women forced labour and domestic work in the context of the Middle East and Gulf region

Chapter 1

1.1 Introduction

1.1.1 Why migrant domestic workers?

Globally, for more than 40 years, female migrants have been almost as numerous as male migrants. In 1960, there were 35 million female migrants and 40 million male migrants. By 2000, although the total number of migrants had more than doubled, the gap between female and male migrants remained about the same with 85 million female migrants and 90 million male migrants. This number covers women who migrate for a variety of reasons and for various purposes, including those who migrate for employment.

Female migrant workers often find employment in informal areas of work, which are unprotected by labour legislation such as domestic work, child care, care for the elderly and so on. This report focuses on the situation of female domestic workers, who despite working and generating income, are not considered ‘real’ or ‘formal’ workers. Most often they are referred to as workers in the informal sector.

There is a serious debate on how to define informality and clarify the terms ‘informal sector’, ‘informal labour’ and ‘informal economy’. We use those terms in the report in the knowledge that each of them has its advantages and limitations. However, whether we talk about the informal sector, informal labour or informal economy, from the perspective of individual workers – in our case migrant domestic workers – the situation has several key characteristics:

  • Workers are not protected or recognised under the legal and regulatory frameworks.
  • They receive little or no legal or social protection.
  • They are unable to enforce contracts or have security of property rights.
  • They are rarely able to organise for effective representation and have little or no voice to have their work recognised and protected.
  • They are excluded from or have limited access to public infrastructure and benefits.
  • They have to rely as best as they can on informal, often exploitative institutional arrangements, whether for information, markets, credit, training or social security.
  • They are highly dependent on the attitudes of public authorities.

All the above mentioned characteristics make domestic workers vulnerable to serious abuses. In particular, the lack of recognition, protection and access to public services are reportedly contributing factors in trafficking for forced labour. However, there are wider-reaching issue. The concern and emerging issues as reported by migrant domestic workers are numerous, interlinked and complex. The Programme Consultation Meeting on the Protection of Domestic Workers Against the Threat of Forced Labour and Trafficking held in Hong Kong, identified the following areas of concerns in relation to migrant domestic workers in situations of forced labour and trafficking:

  • Law and its application: Lack of legislative protection for local and migrant domestic workers. If there is a legal framework as in many countries in Asia, it is difficult to implement because of bureaucratic ‘red tape’ combined with an inability of local authorities to apply the law.
  • Organisation and representation: There is a continuing lack of organisation, representation and voice for domestic workers, and there are significant barriers to enable them to organise themselves.
  • Lack of services, especially for those trapped in conditions of severely exploitative work: The nature of the domestic sphere makes it difficult to identify and act on situations of forced labour and exploitation, and to reach out to domestic workers.
  • Continued persistence of unacceptable recruitment and employment practices: Both sending and receiving governments are unable or unwilling to address the unscrupulous activities of recruitment agencies and workers’ dependency on them. Domestic workers remain in exploitative situations due to fear of retaliation by employers, agencies and government. They frequently find themselves in situations of debt bondage, to recruitment agencies or employers.

These problems are not new. In 1965, the International Labour Conference resolution concerning the conditions of employment of domestic workers recognised the “urgent need” to establish minimum living standards, “compatible with the self-respect and human dignity which are essential to social justice”. But to date, there are no specific provisions under international law dealing with domestic work. The NGOs, particularly in Europe and Asia, are campaigning for recognition of the problem both on a national and international level. In 2003, for example, Kalayaan, a UK based organisation working with domestic workers, published a report highlighting abuses of migrant domestic workers in the UK. On the European level, the RESPECT network is campaigning for recognition of domestic work and ensuring labour standards for those employed in private households.

Given the lack of specific recognition of (and therefore standards on) domestic work in international law, this paper uses the ‘fundamental principles and rights’ (and lack of thereof) of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work as a basis for assessing the situation of migrant domestic workers:

  • Freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining
  • The elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labour
  • The effective abolition of child labour
  • The elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation

These principles apply to all ILO member states, regardless of their levels of economic development, cultural values and history, and should be ensured in all areas of work. Yet as already mentioned, the fundamental rights as human beings and as workers are not recognised and guaranteed to migrant domestic workers.

1.1.2 Why migrant domestic workers in the Middle East?

Not all migrant workers end up in forced labour situations and out of those who do, not all of them have been trafficked into it. But increasingly, frequent reports and mounting anecdotal evidence of abuses reported to AntiSlavery International by partners, focused our attention on the situation of migrant domestic workers from the Horn of Africa in the Middle East and Gulf countries. Evidence suggested that many women migrating for employment as domestic workers ended up being trafficked into forced labour and trapped in a complex net of exploitation facing legal, social, financial and cultural obstacles.

Progress has been made on international level in terms of creating international instruments to combat trafficking in persons, and most of the states have taken steps to address trafficking in persons, particularly in areas of criminal law. However, much remains to be done to address the problem of prevention of forced labour outcomes of trafficking and access to justice for exploited people. In order to address these issues, the state parties need to acknowledge the forced labour outcomes of trafficking. They also need to focus in particular on preventing exploitation in areas of employment which women mostly find themselves in. Yet, as already mentioned, neither states nor international instruments tend to recognise areas of women’s work as real.

One of the major questions in drafting this paper was how to gain a better understanding of these problems and their context the Middle East region: What are the experiences of migrant domestic workers in the region? What are the dynamics and workings of the migration process? How does migration (if at all) contribute to trafficking? Are gender and the fact that the domestic work is predominantly done by women playing a role in exploitation in this particular region and if so, how? What is the role of labour law in making migrant domestic workers vulnerable, if any? What has been done, what can be done and who are the stakeholders? This paper is the result of a pilot research project looking into these issues in the Middle East and Gulf states. The main focus of this initiative was to assess what information was available on the topic and, in particular, what information was available on the situation in several selected sending, receiving and transit countries (Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Lebanon, Sudan and Yemen).

Clearly, the paper and its recommendations are indicative. The in-depth research, the interpretation and above all the solutions should come from within the region and should engage a wide range of actors, including governments, civil society and academics. Assessing and monitoring the situation and developing measures to address forced labour as such as well as the exploitation of migrant domestic workers in particular represent a challenge for all countries concerned. Nonetheless, finding solutions to the interlinked problems of trafficking, forced labour and exploitation should be of interest to both sending and receiving countries. Both Horn of Africa and Middle East countries will need to recognise the migrant labour and trafficking in persons as human rights, labour rights, and as development and economic issues. For sending countries, migrant workers contribute significantly to national economies. Labour migration is often not only a a way of coping with crises but also a way for migrants to build up a social insurance for themselves and their families, which the country of origin is often not able to guarantee. According to most of the available literature, remittance flows are increasing rapidly worldwide (with a projected $90 billion for 2003) and constitute the “largest source of financial flows to developing countries after Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and in many countries exceed FDI flows”.

For receiving countries, migrant workers represent an economic interest and sought after labour, particularly in employment areas which the national workforce is not interested in occupying. The World Bank states that the developing South is the primary destination for poor rural migrants and also the major source of workers’ remittances. So-called South-South linkages among developing countries – and especially between larger middleincome countries and poor countries – are a growing source of trade, FDI, remittances and development assistance. An example of a more advanced developing country is this observation from the United Arab Emirates: “Foreign female domestic workers sometimes outnumber the household members. During the day, in the street, the most commonly seen people are foreign female domestic workers.”

1.2 Methodology

1.2.1 Aims of the study

The general aim of the study was to broaden our knowledge on the phenomenon and identifying strategies to protect women from being trafficked into exploitative working conditions. The particular focus was on:

  • Recruitment process
  • Abuse in countries of destination
  • Situation of women who return back to countries of origin

1.2.2 Definition framework

As far as definitions are concerned, we are using the following international instruments:

Trafficking in persons:According to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (2000):

“Trafficking in persons shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”

Since the report looks at domestic work as a purpose of trafficking, the terms “forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery”, used in the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, are of a particular relevance and the following definitions of those terms are used:

Forced labour:

The use of forced labour has been condemned by the international community as a practice similar to but distinct from slavery. The League of Nations and the United Nations have made a distinction between slavery and forced or compulsory labour. The International Labour Organization (ILO) was given principal responsibility for the abolition of the latter.

The Forced Labour Convention (No. 29), 1930, defines forced labour as: “…all work or services, which is extracted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily….”

Unlike the two conventions on slavery, above definition does not incorporate the concept of ownership. “Yet the practice imposes a similar degree of restriction of an individual’s freedom – often achieved through violent means.”

The following list of indicators can be used to identify forced labour:

  • Threats or actual physical harm to the worker
  • Restriction of movement and confinement to the workplace or to a limited area
  • Debt bondage: the worker works to pay off a debt or loan, and is not paid for his or her services. The employer may provide food and accommodation at such inflated prices that the worker cannot escape the debt
  • Withholding wages or reducing wages excessively which contradicts previously made agreements
  • Retaining passports and identity documents so that the worker cannot leave or prove his/her identity and status
  • Threat of denunciation to the authorities, where the worker is in an irregular immigration status

Slavery and slavery-like practices:

The League of Nations Slavery Convention (1926) defines slavery as “…the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised…” (Art.1 (1)).

The Supplementary Convention on Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (1956) also includes in its definition debt bondage, serfdom, certain institution and practices related to marriages of women without their right to refuse them, any exploitation of child labour by others than their parents etc, which are collectively referred to as the “servile status”.

In the Updated review of the implementation of and follow-up to the conventions on slavery, D. Weissbrodt and AntiSlavery International suggest that next to the above definitions “[t]he circumstances of the enslaved person are crucial to identify what practices constitute slavery, including:

  • the degree of restriction of the individual’s inherent right to freedom of movement;
  • the degree of control of the individual’s personal belongings; and
  • the existence of informed consent and a full understanding of the nature of the relationship between the parties “

1.2.3 Methods used

Desk research

The data collection involved a review of more than 70 reports and documents. The materials used are, where possible, from the period of 2000 to 2005.


More than 50 field interviews were conducted and 26 case were studies collected. Also used were several legal complaints by domestic workers, 10 medical reports, 5 prison testimonies, 14 work contracts and 10 newspaper articles covering the issue. The methodology for the data and information collection during the field visits developed during the reporting period covers three specific topics:

  • The situation of migrant domestic workers generally and the way it is interpreted by local actors and the workers themselves
  • The way in which local actors apply the trafficking theory in practice, the people and method by which people are defined as being trafficked as well as the criteria for decision
  • The assistance and protection available for people identified, with particular emphasis on assistance and protection of those who escaped abusive conditions

The sample strategy used was a judgement sampling: Interviewees were selected according to a number of set criteria (such as being a female domestic worker from the Horn of Africa, being involved in human rights issues) etc. Then a snowball method was used with one contact leading to another. Interviewees included workers of governmental, inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations, academia involved addressing the issue, and migrant domestic workers themselves.

Type of interview: Semi-structured interviews were carried out. This type of interview employs a set of themes and topics to form questions in the course of investigation. We can consider this type of interview as a ‘conversation with a purpose’. Most of the interviews were carried out by Anti-Slavery International’s Trafficking Programme Officer, who has been working for seven years on the issues of trafficking and has extensive experience in working with trafficked women. Seven interviews in Lebanon were arranged and conducted by a field researcher trained by Anti-Slavery International staff.

Reporting: The report uses information which could be cross-checked from a minimum of two different sources. Where a case study or information from a field trip interview is directly used, this is stated in the footnote.

1.2.4 Dilemmas, limitations and lessons learned

Establishing contacts

This area of work was new to Anti-Slavery International and most of the contacts in the region had to be set up from scratch. In general, this proved rather demanding, particularly since the time for field visits was very limited (approximately 10 days per country, which already extended the original plan of 35 working days to be spent on the study in total).

Building up communication and trust with possible partners is a long-term process and it was strongly felt that this would be difficult to achieve just through e-mail communication and short visits. Although most organisations were welcoming, they often operated in difficult circumstances. For them, maintaining confidentiality and ´doing no harm’ to both their employees and their clients was a priority. Secondly, it was rather difficult to win the trust of the domestic workers themselves, especially if they had run away from their employers and had illegal status in the country. The only possibility to reach the migrant domestic workers was through the snowball method with one person recommending another. It was possible, however, to establish those contacts in most countries and to visit the domestic workers in private at night, after they finished work or when they were having informal (tea) meetings in private flats. In the countries of origin, the supporting organisations were extremely helpful in getting in contact with women who had been trafficked and returned back home. However, the issue of confidentiality and trust was persistent throughout the entire process as many women do not wish to be labelled as trafficked victims. Moreover, avoiding victimisation, retraumatisation and stigmatisation were key priorities for both the assistance providing organisations and Anti-Slavery International’s Trafficking Programme Officer.

Accuracy: The data available and estimates on most of the issues covered by this study varied widely, and it was not possible to obtain reliable data on several aspects of the study, such as up-to-date data on migration for example. The number of interviews is limited. These two facts allowed us to prepare an indicative paper rather than an in-depth study. It would therefore be recommendable to initiate in-depth regional consultation and research.

Security: The field trips and the information collection presented a security issue for the researcher, those interviewed and interpreters, and that of data translations and storage. These were addressed by the project officer during the implementation period, but it is recommendable that safety and security policies for the researcher and clearly defined safety procedures for data collection and storage are in place before a field assessment takes place.

Confidentiality: Many of those interviewed were willing to share their experiences and information, but asked for protection of their identity. Their statements could therefore not quoted directly.

Time: 35 working days were allocated to complete the desk research, implement the field trips and draft the technical and narrative reports. The original idea was to involve local researchers, but since the contacts had only just been established during the research project itself and since the time- frame was tight, the entire research was carried out by Anti-Slavery Internationals Trafficking Programme Officer who was aiming to identify those suitable as research partners for future co-operation. In general, the time-frame proved not to be a realistic estimate of the time needed to complete the task, and it is recommendable to allocate at least double the amount of time for similar projects, or preferably even more.

Geography: Being based in London, UK, proved not to be ideal for the researcher because it made it impossible to organise follow-up interviews. Secondly, keeping up electronic communication and contacts over a long distance is generally demanding and it proved particularly complicated in areas where Anti-Slavery International does not have already long established working partnerships. Building up communication in this way was also beset with technical difficulties, which made it more difficult. The Trafficking Programme Officer believes that the field worker should ideally be based in one of the countries of the region for an extended period of time.

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