UAE and Ethiopia close to bilateral agreement to protect domestic workers

The new Ethiopian ambassador to the UAE will work on labour rights, trade and cultural exchange

Abu Dhabi, U.A.E., May 31, 2018.  Tebege Berhe, Ambassador to the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.  Shot at the Ethiopian Embassy, Al Bateen, Abu Dhabi.
Victor Besa / The National
Reporter:  Anna Zacharias
Section:  National
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An agreement between the UAE and Ethiopia to protect the rights of domestic workers will be formalised by the year's end, Ethiopia's new ambassador announced.

The accord is one of several that Ethiopia has made with other Middle Eastern countries after a series of high-profile cases in the region of abuse of domestic workers.

“It’s very important for the rights of domestic workers and at the same time for employers,” said the incoming ambassador Tebege Berhe.

“You know it’s always good to have a legal framework to work with.”

The process is under final review. “A lot of it has to do with making sure that both legal systems are compatible,” Mr Berhe said. “With everything we sign up to, we have to make sure every article is consistent.

“Whether they sign it there or here, it has to be consistent with the laws in both countries and this is something that lawyers and experts in those areas are discussing to see how we can get a common understanding on all the issues,” he said. “We don’t have major issues in terms of the majority of the content of the agreements because we’ve been discussing it, so everything is OK. We just have maybe one or two final points.”

The new agreement will be legally applicable in the UAE and Ethiopia. Currently, domestic workers sign set contracts issued by the government in Ethiopia but the laws have no force once they travel overseas.

In the UAE, President Sheikh Khalifa signed a law in September that guarantees domestic workers a day off, holiday pay and limited working hours.

The framework will ensure that workers rights are protected in both countries and that women are aware of these rights.

“There’s no other legal contracts or legal agreements between the two countries to say what is a right and what is an obligation,” Mr Berhe said.

“There are good legal systems in the UAE to take care of their rights but if something happens, she doesn’t know who to report to, she doesn’t know who to talk to, she doesn’t even know she has a right to do that,” he said. “She does not know, so she’s completely in the dark.”

The majority of Ethiopian women travel through informal channels in search of employment, travelling to the UAE on tourists visas and changing their visas upon arrival when they secure work, often with the help of placement agencies.

The new agreement will provide a stronger, safer passage.

“It will give them better protection. If you go through the back door you’re taking risks,” Mr Berhe said. “Of course whenever you take risks there is a possibility that you will succeed. There’s also a quite large possibility that something wrong will happen. That’s what risk is.

“Sometimes, brokers or agencies bringing in domestic workers might not be telling them everything so they come here and they can find themselves in a situation that they’re not prepared for. Coming through this legal framework we want to make sure that they know what employment they’re coming for, what their working hours will be and what their rights will be.

“A lot of them don’t know. They’ll just do what they’re told by the agent that brought them, so it takes away this darkness. If you have a clear transparent hiring process it’s better for the protection of rights.”

The Ethiopian government had banned its citizens from employment as domestic workers in the UAE in July 2012 to protect them from abusive employers. As migration continued, the ban was lifted and negotiations for a formal agreement began.

Under the new arrangement, domestic staff will be required to undergo training in Ethiopia before travelling to the UAE.

According to a 2017 study published in the journal Globalisation and Health, many domestic workers were not only unfamiliar with the Arabic language and culture of the Gulf but also the safe use of household appliances and cleaning detergents.

Domestic worker safety in the Gulf came under international attention this year when the body of Filipina Joanna Demafelis, 29, was found in a freezer at a home in Kuwait. Local media reported that there was evidence she had been tortured by her Lebanese and Syrian employers who were eventually found in Syria by Interpol.

The Philippines subsequently announced a ban on women working as domestic workers in Kuwait, to which the government announced that it would recruit more domestic staff from Ethiopia, reported Agence France-Presse. Ethiopia had only recently lifted a five-year ban on its citizens working in the Gulf state.

Last year, an employer in Kuwait filmed her Ethiopian maid falling from a seven-storey building.

The proposed UAE-Ethiopia agreement is one of several under negotiation this year.

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Labour and Social Development and the Ethiopian government agreed on a unified contract for domestic workers  in April that stipulated compulsory training before travel and evidence of a bank account for salary deposit, the Saudi media reported. A similar draft agreement is under review in Kuwait.


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Mr Berhe is the incoming ambassador for Ethiopia. He presented his credentials to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, at the end of January.

He has more than 20 years experience with Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His first posting was to Stockholm, Sweden in the late 1990s, followed by postings in Ottawa, Canada and then in Washing DC as the deputy chief of mission. From 2015 he served as Director General for American Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Addis Ababa. 

This is his first posting in the Middle East.

His focus will be trade between the two countries, which are just a four hours flight apart.

The UAE is Ethiopia's largest trade partner in the Middle East, behind Saudi Arabia. "It's quite substantial and we want to grow that because the potential is much bigger than what we actually have," Mr Berhe said.

There is opportunity for UAE businesses to invest in Ethiopia’s agriculture, agro-processing, garment and textile industry and its growing renewable energy sector. The country aims to be carbon neutral by 2025.

UAE companies have already shown an interest in investing in wind and solar energy, he said. “That hasn’t actually started yet but there’s quite a big interest and we hope in the coming year or so we will see something concrete.”

The country is focused on developing labour intensive industries such as textile, garment and leather production. Industrial parks are opening, with at least three already operational and another dozen under construction and expected to be ready later this year.

Finally, he wants to develop greater cultural exchange.

“Ethiopia enjoys a very long history of interaction with the Middle East, especially with the Gulf countries, including shared religious histories,” Mr Berhe said.

“You know, Ethiopia was the first country that accepted and gave refuge to the followers of Prophet Mohammed and since then we’ve had in Ethiopia a multireligious country, both Christians and Muslims living together as Ethiopians. So that link going back in history is one important aspect of our relations with the Arab world in general.”