Mainly from Asia and Africa, they comprise nearly 1.5 million of the workforce in Saudi Arabia, 660,000 in Kuwait and more than 200,000 in Lebanon. With hopes of escaping poverty or conflict in their home countries, many travel under false pretense and find themselves hungry, subjected to poor working conditions, unpaid salaries, abuse and conditions akin to slavery.
In response to widespread abuse and mounting reports of withheld salaries, several labour sending countries issued bans restricting female migrants from seeking employment abroad due to the alarming rise in the number of suicides. However, this has only made them more susceptible to traffickers and employment agencies working the black market.
According to the International Labour Union, there are more than 22 million migrant workers--a third of whom are women--currently in the Middle East. Currently the ILO is advocating the drafting of specific labour legislation for domestic workers that extends legal protection in a systematic and comprehensive manner.
Originally from Madagascar, Dima 19, escaped from her employer after being sexually abused several times. She tells her story to Her Blueprint:
"I come from a poor family in Madagascar and before leaving I was told that I would find good employment in Lebanon, and that my situation and that of my family would improve. I wasn’t happy to leave my country and my family but I needed to change our situation so I agreed to take the employment.
The male employer picked me up from the airport and when we arrived to the home he told me to take a bath. He insisted that I leave the door slightly open but I felt uncomfortable about it and pleaded that I close the door but he kept insisting that it was for my own safety just in case something were to happen. So finally I agreed and while I was in the bath he entered and raped me.
While it was happening he kept saying how he had never been with a Black woman and wanted to have a taste. For me, it was humiliating, and I felt empty inside. Afterwards, I was told to get dressed and take care of my household duties, as if nothing had happened. I felt trapped and had no one to help me. When I was able to speak with my family I had to tell them that everything was okay because it would kill them to know that I was suffering.
Some time passed and nothing happened but then one day the Madame said that she was going out and that I should stay but I insisted on not being left in the house with him. Always I tried to make sure I was never left alone with him but she gave me no choice and it happened again. Except this time, he spread my legs apart and tied my hands and legs to the bed and repeatedly raped me. Then he invited two male friends over and they also took turns raping me.
Afterward, I was destroyed and could only think about how I could get away because I couldn’t bear living like this anymore. Luckily I had met another Madagascan woman in the street and she told me the number of the community leader and that if I had any problems, she would help me. So almost a month later, while the family was getting into the car I started running as fast as I could so that they didn’t catch me. Eventually I managed to get far enough that I stopped and went to a pay phone and called the number and the woman told me to take a taxi to the consulate and that they would pay for it once I arrived.
I was told at the consulate that they could help me find new employment but all I wanted to do was leave because maybe I would have the same problems with a new employer and I didn’t want to take the chance. I just wanted to be with my family. I would prefer to live in poverty than to continue suffering in this way."
Cases like Dima are all too common in a labour sector where abuses remain invisible because these women suffer in places that are hidden to the public's eye such as in private homes.
Passport confiscation and the Kafala or sponsorship system, which binds migrant domestic workers to a specific employer excludes them from protection and left in the hands of individuals who have complete control over their lives.
Recently, the ILO set up a website with the aim of promoting decent work for domestic workers and supporting initiatives worldwide by sharing information related to working and living conditions of domestic workers, policy issues and challenges in domestic work, country experiences and knowledge, and practical tools on how decent work may be advanced in domestic work.