Tuesday, November 25, 2008

RIGHTS: Domestic Workers Often Prisoners in a Gilded Cage

By Zainab Mineeia | Inter Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov 24 (IPS) - On the eve of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, a New York-based human rights watchdog group called on the governments of the world to protect domestic workers.

In its statement Monday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said migrant and domestic workers continue to face abuse, particularly in Middle Eastern and Asian countries, because authorities have lagged in adopting the measures needed to protect them.

Only small numbers of domestic workers have access to the justice system in the countries they work in. Those who can gain access and provide physical evidence of rape or abuse rarely get justice, HRW said.

“There are countless cases of employers threatening, humiliating, beating, raping, and sometimes killing domestic workers,” said Nisha Varia, deputy director of the women’s rights division of HRW. “Governments need to punish abusive employers through the justice system, and prevent violence by reforming labour and immigration policies that leave these workers at their employers’ mercy.”

A large number of female domestic workers are from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Nepal, and most work in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and other countries throughout the Middle East. These countries exclude their domestic workers from the legal shelter of labour laws, leaving them little recourse against exploitative work conditions.

The workers are also at more risk of abuse because of the restrictive immigration-sponsorship policies that link their visas to their employers. The employer can control the worker’s immigration status and the ability to switch jobs, or the worker’s ability to return home. Many employers take advantage of the authority that they have to imprison workers in the house, withhold pay, or mistreat them in a variety of ways.

Officials in these countries receive thousands of complaints from domestic workers each year. Most involve unpaid wages, food deprivation, long working hours and lack of rest. A significant number also allege verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.

Many of these cases are never officially reported due to domestic workers’ confinement in private homes, lack of information about their rights, and employers’ ability to deport them before they can seek help.

A small number of law enforcement authorities have started to prosecute and punish abusive employers, albeit by varying degrees. In Singapore this year, many employers were convicted of beating domestic workers, receiving sentences ranging from three weeks to 16 years in prison.

In Malaysia this month, a man was sentenced to 32 years in prison for raping a domestic worker. His wife received six years for abetting the crime.

However, many criminal justice systems continue to expose abused domestic workers to further victimisation and give them no — or severely delayed — redress, said HRW.

In May, a Riyadh court dropped charges against a Saudi employer who abused Nour Miyati, an Indonesian domestic worker, ignoring both the employer’s confession and compelling physical evidence.

Nour Miyati suffered daily beatings and was abused so badly that her toes and fingers were amputated after developing gangrene. During the three years of legal proceedings, she remained stuck in an overcrowded embassy shelter unable to work or return to her family in Indonesia. At one point, she also was sentenced 79 lashes for changing her testimony, though the sentence was later reversed. On Thursday, a Malaysian judge is to announce the verdict in the four-year case against Yim Pek Ha, the employer of Indonesian domestic worker Nirmala Bonat. In 2004, images of Bonat’s badly burned and injured body shocked Malaysians. Bonat also had to stay in an overcrowded embassy shelter for years without being allowed to work and had to defend herself from charges of inflicting the abuse herself. “2008 marked a year of missed opportunities,” Varia said. “While most governments have started to think about some level of reform, many of these discussions have stalled. Providing comprehensive support services to victims of violence, prosecuting abusers, and providing civil remedies are reforms that just can’t wait.” HRW recommends that governments abolish or reform immigration-sponsorship policies so that domestic workers’ visas are no longer tied to their employer; develop protocols and train law enforcement officials on how to respond to domestic workers’ complaints appropriately, and how to investigate and collect evidence in such cases; and prosecute perpetrators of psychological, physical, and sexual violence. The statement was released ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, on Tuesday, which was decreed by a U.N. General Assembly resolution in 1999.

Nov. 25 is the 48th anniversary of the brutal rapes and murders of the three Maribal sisters in the Dominican Republic by order of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. The date has been marked by women’s activists since 1981 as a day against violence.

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