Since the oil boom in 1973, Oman has become a major destination for migrants from many parts of the world, especially South Asia. There are at least 130,000 female migrant domestic workers in Oman.
Some of these women come to the Gulf countries to support their families and sometimes are their families’ sole earners. Human Rights Watch interviewed fifty-nine migrant domestic workers in Oman, who described forced labor, trafficking, and slavery. Many of theses women had their passports confiscated, did not receive a full salary, were forced to work excessively long hours without breaks or days off, were denied adequate food and living conditions, and were even physically and sexually abused. It can be hard for women to escape these working conditions because Oman uses a restrictive kafala system, which ties workers’ visas to their employers.
The kafala system, or sponsorship system, is a set of laws that governs migrant workers’ immigration and legal residence in Gulf countries, including Oman. The system is a way for the government to delegate oversight and control of migrants to their employers, including private citizens or companies. Workers under this system cannot change employers, quit their jobs, or leave the country without permission. This system makes it almost impossible for workers to challenge any breach of contract when their legal rights are violated or when they face abuse. Complaining can sometimes make matters worse, because their employers can have them deported. Many do not think it is worth it to complain, because although the Ministry of Interior can allow workers permission to change jobs, the process is long and expensive. Some domestic workers who have escaped abusive situations said they sought help from recruitment agents who instead beat them and forced them to work for new families. Some domestic workers turned to the police for help; however, police dismissed their claims and sent them back to their employers. Several workers claim that employers beat them severely after the police returned them.
In addition to the restrictive kafala system, migrant workers are also not protected by Oman’s domestic law. Oman has criminalized slavery and trafficking, but enforcement is weak. Forced labor has also been criminalized, but Article 2(3) of Oman’s labor law explicitly excludes domestic workers. Oman’s laws make domestic workers highly vulnerable and encourage employers to retaliate against workers who flee abusive situations. The moment a worker is reported as absent from work, they can be considered “illegal,” and in violation of residency laws. When caught by law enforcement, workers who have fled their employers may be imprisoned, deported, or in other cases, left without work and banned from traveling.
Language and mobility are also huge barriers that can exacerbate abuse of migrant workers. Many first-time migrant workers do not speak Arabic, so they cannot ask for help in government offices, use official government help hotlines, read legal documents, or use online services. Additionally, Gulf countries have poor public transportation, making it difficult to reach labor complaint departments, hospitals, embassies, or courts.
Another issue is that Oman has not ratified the International Labour Organization (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention even though it voted in favor of its creation. Article Five of the Convention requires that Members “take measures to ensure that domestic workers enjoy effective protection against all forms of abuse, harassment and violence.” Article Six requires that workers are ensured decent working conditions. Article Sixteen of the Convention requires that Members “take measures to ensure… that all domestic workers, either by themselves or through a representative, have effective access to courts, tribunals or other dispute resolution mechanisms under conditions that are not less favourable than those available to workers generally.” Oman has been called on by the ILO and the UN to ratify the convention. Regardless if Oman ratifies the convention, it is not unanswerable to international law.
Although Oman has not ratified the Domestic Workers Convention, it has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). The CEDAW requires the elimination of discrimination against women in all areas, including employment. Article 11 of the CEDAW, states that women should be given “The right to free choice of profession and employment, the right to promotion, job security and all benefits and conditions of service” in addition to “The right to protection of health and to safety in working conditions.” Article Five of the CERD also requires Oman to combat racial discrimination by allowing the right to free employment with favorable work conditions and equal pay.
Oman has made promises to cease the use of its kafala system and to protect migrant domestic workers under its labor laws. In April 2016, the Times of Oman quoted Salem Al Saadi, an advisor to the Ministry of Manpower, stating that Oman has “plans to legalize their rights and provide better protection to domestic workers,” which will be “either in the new labor law or as a separate chapter.” If true, this would be a great step for Oman. Additionally, ratification of the ILO Domestic Workers Convention and implementation by police and employers would be a considerable start.