UAE votes for new charter of rights for domestic workers

The UAE has voted for a new international convention that guarantees a lengthy list of rights to domestic staff, including having at least one day off a week.

ABU DHABI // The UAE has voted for a new international convention that guarantees a lengthy list of rights to domestic staff.

They include clearly defined conditions of employment before work begins, agency fees paid by employers and not deducted from staff's wages, salary payment in cash at least once a month, at least one day off a week, and rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

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The convention also governs payments in kind: they must be the same as those received by other workers, and agreed with each domestic employee.

The International Labour Organisation's Convention 189 and Recommendation 201 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers was approved by delegates from ILO member states at a conference in Geneva.

The convention requires migrant domestic workers recruited in one country for domestic work in another to receive a written job offer or contract of employment before they start work, although this will not apply in countries recruiting from within regional organisations such as the Gulf Co-operation Council.

The UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia delegates were among the 396 who voted in favour of the convention. There were 16 votes against, including India.

The ILO is a United Nations body responsible for international labour standards. It is the only tripartite UN agency, including representatives of governments, employers and workers.

Before the convention comes into force, a two-stage ratification process must be completed.

First, governments must verify to what extent their existing laws meet the convention's requirements. If necessary, "they must then work to align themselves with the convention", said Manuela Tomei, director of the ILO's conditions of work and employment programme. This may involve new legislation or amendments to existing law.

Some countries, such as Brazil, have already said they will ratify.

It was unclear last night how advanced the UAE's plans for ratification and legal alignment were. "It is easy to discuss legal texts and conventions," said Humaid Rashid bin Demas, undersecretary at the Ministry of Labour and part of the UAE delegation. "We may even amend national legislation and ratify conventions, but the real challenge is how to make these principles a reality.

"In discussing and adopting this convention, we have accepted an international and national obligation. We hope that our commitment to domestic workers will be both a legal and a moral one."

Yesterday he said the Government would issue a statement on the matter shortly.

The Interior Ministry is drawing up new laws and regulations covering the rights of housemaids, but no further details have been issued.

There may be hurdles before the convention becomes law in the UAE. For examples, signatories must ensure that "domestic workers enjoy minimum wage coverage, where such coverage exists".

The UAE minimum-wage rules apply only to employees with at least a secondary school education, a requirement for many nannies, and whose emploment is regulated by the Ministry of Labour. However, domestic staff are the remit of the Ministry of Interior.

In addition, the requirement that signatories to the convention grant domestic workers the right to collective bargaining may contradict existing laws, which do not allow for trades unions.

About a third of the Gulf's 22 million migrant workers are engaged in domestic work, nine out of 10 of them women, and it is among the lowest paid work in the world.

In a statement last Thursday, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) singled out Gulf states for criticism. Sharan Burrow, its general secretary, said: "The international union movement will continue to shed light on the working conditions of migrant domestic workers in the Gulf countries, in particular Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain."