Sunday, March 7, 2010

Human Trafficking, Human Rights, and the thin line: A cautionary tale for wannabe maids.

We all know the shock and embarrassment felt when the annual US State Dept. Report on Human Trafficking demoted Oman to Tier 3 (the lowest level). After a serious tantrum by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, supported by the Oman Press and the Official News Agency, the US retrospectively adjusted the rating to Tier 2 Watch List, while the Ministry then finally got around to actually passing a law against human trafficking, arrested some pimps, and held yet more awareness workshops. Now we've even got a Human Rights Commission!

It has often been stated in the press by representatives of His Majesty's Government and their media apologists supporters (like Essa Al Zedjali, Editor in Chief of the hard-hitting Times of Oman), that Oman is a country where fair and equal treatment under the law is the right of all residents, Omani and local alike. And in theory, that's supposedly true.

Only, its not.

So, where is the line between employing a foreign national on terms few of us would ever put up with, vs 'normal for Oman' exploitation, vs effective modern-day slavery?

Photo: The life of a housemaid in Oman can be sometimes brutal. Who's responsible? Image ripped from

Take this story I recently received from a concerned relative of a Filipino housemaid who just arrived in Oman.

Dear Mr. Dragon,
My cousin is a female filipino, 35 years old, single, and has 8 family members here for her to support. She is working there in Oman as a domestic helper.

The Filipino agency here does not allow her to photocopy her signed contract here, they only gave it to her before she boards the plane for Oman. Her contract with her Filipino agency is $400 a month(*) and a day off a week, but when she got to Oman she is made by the Oman agency counterpart to sign another contract stating she is not permitted any day off and her monthly wage is reduced to $200. Her employer works at a bank.

She is not allowed to have a cellphone, use the phone or use the mail.

Her employer's wife seized her passport. Her employer told her that Omani law said that without a passport any foreign worker will be put to jail if she goes to the embassy.

She said her employer is good to her but her daily work hours are 5am to 11pm, 7 days a week. She is being paid 85 rials per month.

1. Should a person sign a foreign agency contract in Oman even is he/she has already made a contract in his/her home country agency?

2. Should the contract stated that he/she must have a salary 50% lower than written on his/her original home country agency contract?

3. Should his/her passport be seized by his/her employer?

4. Should he/she be deprived of communication the outside world and a dayoff?

5. In Oman are the above question is legal? If illegal what should he/she do and what Omani agency can help his/her problem?

Thanks for your kind consideration.

[name withheld]

This situation is, I'm afraid to say, not uncommon in Oman, and I blogged about this just last year.

Note: The labour Law (in English) can be found abridged here at the Kerala Monitor or in full here from the Ministry of Manpower. (A hint though, there's a great catch!)

Lets first look at the issues point by point.
1/ Salary.
While it is a recent Filipino law that their citizens must earn at least US$400 a month, this foreign law is not recognised in the Sultanate of Oman (or any other GCC nation). **This is why her employment contract in the Philippines stated the magic minimum of $400 bucks. An MOU between the Omani and Indian Governments last year agreed minimum wages for Indian Maids to be 75 rials (~US$180) a month. This has not been done with the Filipinos as far as I am aware. She shouldn't have signed the new contract, but I can understand why she did. Even the UAE has agreed minimum rules for Filipino domestic staff, agreed back in 2006. There minimum wage is $200 a month with mandatory 1 day off a week that cannot be overtimed.

2/ Confiscating of passport.
Technically, this is now supposed to be illegal in Oman. However, it is both common practice and accepted as totally reasonable by pretty much every Omani I've spoken to, including the Police and the Ministries ("But they might run away!"), and as there is no actual penalty described in the legislation for breaking this particular law, it makes it a rather pointless law, to say the least. (Oh, wait, except for the Foreign Ministry being able to absolutely & honestly state to the US State Dept and the ILO that passport confiscation is illegal in Oman! Silly Dragon!).

3/ 7 days a week, 18hrs a day...
This is also illegal under Omani law, and yet alas, is also not an uncommon practice. The difficult part is - who enforces this law? Statutory minimum is 1 day off per week, but I'm not sure how this is interpreted (with respect to shifts in the interior for example). So it may be that law interprets this as some kind of yearly average requirement, so if you get 40 days off in one lump + overtime, that counts. Legal eagles out there - any guidance?

4/ No passport + show up at Embassy = jail.
I would have seriously doubted this is true. But... in the Muscat Daily just today was a story (page 2) where it was stated that for 40 'illegal' Indian migrants who didn't have identification "As of now, all of them are under detention." Detention sounds a lot like a nice way of saying 'in jail'.

5/ Parasitic Lying Exploitative 'Agents'
This is a sad reality across the undeveloped world and the Gulf. Fellow locals of people in say India or the Philippines dupe desperate people into believing that a land of high wages and easy living awaits them in the Gulf. These are often illiterate and rather naive people. These agents proceed to charge them sometimes thousands of dollars, which they usually have to borrow from relatives or even loan sharks. Omanis are also charged by the local counterparts of these agents to get a maid, who site recruitment expenses and of course, airfares and visa charges. Both parties - expat and Omani - are getting totally ripped off by these unscrupulous parasites and their Omani sponsors. I have no idea why comprehensive laws to control these 'agencies' have not been implemented. And these are just the ones who actually do put them into jobs as domestic workers. The super nasty ones of course sell them straight on to pimps and brothels.

OK, so what does the law say? 'One law to rule them all' and all that good stuff.

Well, for a start, lets look at that nasty sounding 7 days a week, 18 hrs a day stuff.

Omani labour law, issued as per Royal Decree No. 35/2003
Working hours
Workers should not be asked to work for more than nine hours per day or 48 hours per week. Rest interval should be given during working hours, provided that work cannot be continuous for six hours.

If a worker is asked to work more than the working hours, the employer should give him/her extra pay equivalent to his/her wage for the extra period plus 25 per cent or give a permission to be absent for the number of hours he/she worked, provided that the worker agrees to this arrangement.

Employer should give worker not less than 24 hours rest after six days of work. ...

Hey, excellent! So that seems pretty clear. Just the sort of thing one would expect for law designed "to control Exploitation of Expatriate Workers" (I'm not making this up).

But wait readers.

Oh oh. The law also states:

General rules
This law is not applicable to the armed forces, security and government departments and domestic servants such as cook or childminder.

So that's alright then.

It seems to me the ultimate Orwellian irony that a law named as being to prevent the exploitation of expatriats explicitly denies coverage to perhaps the most vulnerable expat workers in the entire country.

The crime here is that it is so difficult for these women to get access to information, to assistance, to a fair deal. That the law was expressly denied them. That there is no effective Government monitoring of them; in fact, the Government agencies generally reinforce their defacto imprisionment. The fact that we continue to allow unscrupulous agents to exploit these people.

I could rant on, but to what avail?

So readers, what should this woman do?

If she somehow manages to escape, she'll be an absconder. Her salary is after all just above accepted minimum for a 48hr week. How could she prove she's working 126hrs a week? Even if she gets to the embassy, what will happen? At best, deportation, back to a place where she still has dependents plus loans paid to an agent? At worst, a period of incarceration then being sent back to her "employer". And how would that work out I wonder?

Where are the NGOs who could help? Does anyone know?

What should she do?

What would YOU do?

But, obviously, this is not 'Human Trafficking' Mr Dragon. After all, she's being paid AND she apparently isn't even being beaten and molested! What responsibility would the Government of Oman possibly have in this? Why shouldn't we be Tier 2?

It's just a housemaid. And her employers no doubt paid good money for her.

Telephone Numbers for the Philipino embassy:
24605140; 24605143, 24805335; or 24605176.

(968) 99233596 (Mobile)


  1. In Oman the pyramid goes as:

    1. The untouchables (Royal family, Rich thieving Ministers, Foreign C.E.O, High ranked police and army)

    2. The near untouchables (Omanis whose in good terms and knows one of the untouchables, Expat Indians who buy their degrees in India and come to Oman to work in high posts as engineers, doctors, etc while trying their best to get Omanis in similar posts out and bring more of their relatives from India, White expats from Western Europe, North America, Australia)

    3. Near Bottom dwellers (Omanis who don’t know anyone in the untouchables or anyone who knows someone in the untouchables. Does not matter what qualification they got as it is known in Oman things go by who you know not what you know, Arab and Turkish expats)

    4. Bottom Dwellers (Expats from South Asia, Southeast Asia and recently East Asia. They work in what is considered in Oman demeaning jobs such as housemaid, road cleaner, construction worker etc. They have very limited rights if any and more often than not they are exploited as Omanis and Higher classed Indians view them as sub human and that they should be thankful for what little they get)

    So unfortunately for your Pilipino friend the only thing she can do is complain to her agency or any Pilipino in the agency who would understand. Sometimes they listen and try to change the sponsorship.

    I said it before and I will say it again I hate this country and I never thought a day would come where I say this. I used to love Oman and I had great hopes for it and its potential to move forward and be an example country for the rest of the countries in the area but it seems in my four years out Oman has been moving backwards instead of forward and things only seem to be getting worse. This is no longer my country anymore I no longer walk around saying I am an Omani. This is the country for the big shots, the big wigs the people you see building houses the size of an American football field. The people who drive top of the line cars, who steal and then act like they earned the money they have. The people who create new laws everyday for their own benefit and the victim of those laws are people like this poor house maid.

  2. I think you will be blogging about this next year and many years to come as I can't see it changing.

    Slavery is part of the Arabic culture (hang on I'm just gonna put my flack jacket on), of course Omanis will go into denial and the usual predictible comments will follow but I have witnessed many things in Arabic countries that belong over a thousand years ago. I have met and spoke with Filipna maids, who although mature, are childlike in their naivity! Many now accept and see as normal the degrading behaviour, treatment and of course low pay.

    I have to say the the Filipna Embassy is of little help and seek only to get them back home without any fuss. More must be done to brief them before they even consider coming to an Arabic country. Sadly, poverty claims the naive and ignorant and Filipna agents have to be investigated; they are Government approved yet clearly exploit those who only seek to work hard for their families - parasites!

  3. Much of what the relative of the Philipino said is down to the recruitment agents, the one who conned her about the US$400 and the one who got her to sign up for US$200 (probably the one in the Philipines also charges her an extortionate amount to be recruited and the one in Oman charged her employer recruitment fees - which happened to my company in Saudi on a mass scale) . The employer might have agreed with the local recruitment agent US$200 .
    Here is a thread about Housemaids on Omanforum

    which covers all points of view and alludes to possible reasons for withholding mobile phones (illicit sex etc ). Its also obvious that she is able to contact relatives in the Philippines by some means so appears to be able to use ‘a cellphone, use the phone or use the mail´ or some other method of communication.

    Much of what is of concern could also be said about innumerable other workers in Oman’s other ‘fields’ (Agricultural, Animal , Fishing etc) who might be unable to stand up for their legal rights and so are exploited .

    Soooooo, perhaps it’s the sponsorship situation as a whole that needs attention as it puts Omanis at an employment disadvantage when trying to compete with immobile , exploitable , low waged foreigners who as an added advantage can also be charged for the privilege every two years ; quite apart from the employment situation of the foreign workers .

  4. This law is not applicable to the armed forces, security and government departments and domestic servants such as cook or childminder.

    Wtf ??
    Dragon.... that was a real eye opener.

  5. Pessimiticaly OptimisticMarch 8, 2010 at 7:48 AM

    Welcome back UD

    If the current labour law excludes a particular class or group of workers without detailing alternative specific acceptable terms and conditions for them, or without making reference to a seperate regulation or guideline, can we safely assume that in fact the government, by it's ommissions, tacitly encourages and supports "slave labour"?
    Tier 3 probably sounds more realistic IMHO

  6. He's baaaack!!!

    Great post Dragon. I wish I knew what she can do. Is there really no law to protect her???


  7. Reading Montel's post "but it seems in my four years out Oman"
    perhaps if Montel has been out of Oman for 4 years it wasnt Oman that changed - but Montels own life experience during those 4 years has now given him/her a different perspective about life and Oman (I'm not saying he/she is wrong just that 4 years in another country allows comparison )

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. A few comments, appreciate UD for raising this issue.
    1)The Phil govt is being stupid, how many people can /will employ maids at $400/month ? This rule effectively forces everyone into "underground" deals. Phil maids will be jobless if the govt tries to implement this law in earnest. 75 R.O is reasonable, obviously the Indian govt has been more practical.
    2) Yes, most maids are underpaid and overworked. Some are even sexually exploited. Apparently, complaining will make things only more difficult for them, even their embassies prefer to look the other way.
    3)Some maids used to do part time job in other houses and earn more money, this apparently is not tolerated anymore. Maids found working elsewhere will be jailed /deported.
    4)Omanis ( Arabs in general) have become too dependent on these maids (or other labourers). Some of my Omani friends do complain that they ladies do not know even to make tea.

  10. i'll be honest. i don't see the point of this post apart from discussion.
    that said, there's is massive media drive in India now for unskilled labour to register with a government approved agency before they apply for visas to come to this part of the world. i've even noticed conscientious immigration officials stop those who don't meet any expected criteria from boarding the flight. it will take a while but it will change, i have hope. it just breaks my heart to see how helpless these men and women are. that photo, dragon, is a particularly pain-inducing one.

  11. Dear Dragon ! In all the above I think you missed very important which is that they are not even paid on time, I know many casses where there 3 months salary is kept as security in case they intend to leave early before completing thier two years contract period

  12. i am terribly sorry for her.. she has to suffer because of a bunch of omani hypocrites.. am i wrong if i said many omanis in positions of power are just ignorant and greedy? father is one of them.. the last time he read a book was back in 1995.. never tried to improve himself.... i cant believe he still has control over some kind of important things..... hate it.

  13. This problem is probably less in Oman than in Saudi. Saudi's are now attracting Indians from Qatar and taking them home to work as slaves. Only yesterday one malayali walked through the desert back to Qatar and took the help of Embassy to escape.
    As you correctly pointed out unless the laws become strong and give severe punishment to offenders and give rights for the expatriates to approach the court and talk in their language, these things will continue.
    Biggest impediment here is whether you go to ROP, labour court, ministries or municipalities unless you talk arabic fluently no body will listen to us, even if they know english and hindi, they will pretend not. The guy talking in Arabic will have upper hand everywhere and we will not understand what he is telling the ROP people who are always more inclined towards them.

    When South Africa was finally taken over by blacks, many whites went and settled in Australia. All of them had huge allergy problem, since for so many years they were using blacks for doing all the work for them which they were forced to do when they came and settled in Australia. Similarly a day will come for these people and they will pay the price for this atrocities.

  14. So it is racism in the first place, isn't it?

    I know a psychologically sick woman who treats her old mum very very very badly, just because she is Indian! Let me not talk about how the housemaids there are treated.

  15. Has anyone ever seen these pitiful domestic helpers (I won't call them servants) languishing in an Omani police station jail. Go to any police station and you will see twenty or so of them piled into a 10 feet x 3 feet room. No basic needs taken care of not even a drink of water when they are thirsty.
    My daughter goes to the police station womens jail regularly and takes them shampoo, water, snacks, soap etc.
    It is utterly heartbreaking, and these people have committed no crime

  16. I know of friends who also bring food, soap and magazines to them as they are as described, kept in a pittiful state and in some cases subject to varying types of abuse in the police stations; easy targets that cannot fight back!

    But we shouldn't be talking about this to Omanis, we should be talking about how nice the country is, how beautiful it is, there is no crime and everyone is happy. If we did see any pigs they would be flying!

  17. What a great post. I've been looking into the topic myself. I have come across some crazy situations and I am torn between two sides of the story. Thanks for the post, it really leaves one to think!

  18. UD - that is not the case in all omani households.

    Its not fair to generalise.

    Plus, we can all talk about the working 12 hours a day..but in fact theyre not. its more like 2 hours in the morning - nothing to do - then another 2 hours - then the afternoon nap where theres nothing to do - then preparing for dinner then clearing it up. Theyre housed, theyre fed, theyre clothed, theyre granted clothes and gifts on their occasions 'bdays/xmas/eid' in addition to a yearly incremment. Theyre all allowed to use the phone, when maids abuse usuage they bring themselves the trouble. But when maids respect themselves and show theyre trustworthy, theyre all granted their own personal phone and line in a year. Days off are usually a no-no again for the obvious reasons, but omani families are super social. so they get plenty opportunity to go out, do her own shopping, meeting up with friends she makes from other families..etc etc.

    when the work is obviously too much, then a second maid is also brought in to help with the load. so although theyre around the household all day, the actual working-time is 8 hours and less. The rest of the time is chit chat, chilling out, watching tv, nothing to do.

  19. Thanks for all the great comments.

    Previous Anon (and do pick a nickname...) - Its NOT a generalisation. It's specific. That's the point. Where is the effective legal protection? The Omani system is designed in such a way as to to create and support such exploitation.

    Of course such treatment is justifiable in the logic of the employer. They don't work that hard because of course no-one can do hard work 18 hrs a day, 7 days a week. But I guarantee you wouldn't put up with such conditions or restrictions.

  20. Nah, life as a maid is not that bad. In fact, it's an easy, lazy life. Sort of holiday really. That's why so many Omani girls opt for this job. Right?

  21. I think you should be careful when you discuss this issue of maids in gulf because most of time and due to comments which are added later as part of discussion tends always paint a picture that the whole issue is simply local people who are ruthless and selfish and are exploiting those poor maids where in fact the issue is much larger and complicated. Where is the responsibility of following who are involved or can affect this type of trade:

    1. Foreign ministries of countries that these maids come from?
    2. Recruiting agencies which are located in maids own country?
    3. Labor agencies in gulf that are mostly run by maid's countrymen?
    4. Laws at both maid's origin country and gulf? Remember that locals themselves sometimes don’t have rights in their own country let alone expats!!!
    5. The education system and local governments where maids come from which can help in educate people of what to expect and how to react before they make choice to come over here to work.
    6. Embassies of maid country in gulf ?

    I also think that discussion sometimes makes too much generalizations from one abuse incident and make it fact that happens to every one!! If it happens to everyone then the sole responsibility of this whole issue is the maid herself. I will never move to a known racist neighborhood in typical western country even if I have to live a poor life here at home.

  22. Lazy to sign on again.

    It's not fair to generalize.. don't generalize.. generalizations..

    I'm not generalizing but as a kind of linguist interested in human language and discourse I'd like to say that I find Arabs use such words/expressions so much in discussions! Don't want to be mean but I think an educated Westerner is the last one on earth who will make generalizations about any kind of issue. S/he just knows it!!

    Not very off-topic, UD. Just read between the lines, hehe.

    Anyway, even though it's Muslim, I don't expect much good from this greedy consuming society. If only we were more independent with some changes in our stupid lifestyles! I've seen a housemaid fainting on a wedding day when I was 10.. it's brutal, as UD said. It's unfair.

  23. This has been a problem in this part of the world for God knows how many years, and what is interesting about it, is that not much has changed. Unfortunately the labourers and housekeepers still live an inhumane life here. When will Oman implement a minimum wage that they will actually ADHERE TO? We talk about how our countries have progressed, how we have more access to education, how we have more exposure. And what has that given us really? Bigger houses? More prosperous businesses? Fancier cars?? We deny people their basic human rights, and these are the people our lives depend on. Literally. Progression and development should start from the foundation which is a persons conscience.

    What is even more ironic, is that people preach Islam, pray 5 times a day, perform all the rituals. They should practice what they preach, because I’m pretty sure treating people like slaves goes against the religion or religions that they follow.

  24. interesting statistics on Human Trafficking - and shelter in Sumail - not so close to the Prison one hopes


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