Picture for illustrative purposes only. Image Credit: AP

Dubai: Suppressing some giggles, Mabbani* covered her mouth, stifling a soft sound as if produced by a broken whistle. It came from her throat that was cut open by a tube, secured by medical tape.

“What to do, yani?” she gestured using her hands, moving her head from side to side. The 25-year-old Ethiopian could not utter a word. She has not done so for the past two and a half years after losing her vocal cord, oesophagus, stomach, and parts of her intestines to a poisonous substance.

Mabbani* worked as housemaid in Dubai when she was 22. It was her first time to leave home, armed with a promise of a better future for her family and seven siblings.

Instead of a good life, her sponsors allegedly abused her physically to the point that it eventually pushed her to commit suicide. She drank bleach thinking it would end all her struggles. Little did the tiny-framed woman know that could spell a life-long suffering for her.

Like Mabbani*, Bouzari, 23, has scars too. Also an Ethiopian, Bouzari was cleaning the flour on the floor her Moroccan employer had earlier spilled before she felt boiling oil burn her forehead in February.

She suffered first- and second-degree burns to her head and back without getting medical attention for three days. When she finally did, she revealed that it was not the first time that her sponsor had deliberately burned her.

Almost two months and numerous surgeries later, Bouzari was locked in jail on April 14 for having worked illegally in the country. The abuse case is still pending investigation.

There are no solid data that could show the extent of abuse housemaids face in the UAE. Mabbani and Bouzari’s cases could be anecdotal in a sense, but maids running away from their sponsors on allegations of abuse, non-payment of wages, overwork, lack of food and sleep, and others are not uncommon in the country.

The usual perpetrators of abuse are sponsors or members of his household. They happen behind closed doors and some maids are often too afraid to seek help outside until the bruises speak for themselves.

“Some employers have always perceived their housemaids as slaves. They do not treat them as human beings but as “appliances that they own,” Nhel Morona, a representative from Migrante-UAE, a migrants rights group that assists maids in need, told Gulf News.

This mentality of treating people as objects, many would say, is a very old practice. But counseling psychologist Dr. Lavina Ahuja said it is not.

“It’s not really an ancient practice. It is something that we have hard-wired a little bit into our brains so that we can go on with life,” Dr Ahuja, who also volunteers as a counselor to blue-collar workers, told Gulf News.

Dr. Ahuja said that although society has changed, human psychology has not changed that much. And abuse actually boils down to control.

“It happens as a form of exerting power and control. There’s massive push and pull between professional distance and using this person as to what that person was meant for. Unfortunately, I think in this situation, that line between use and abuse is actually a little bit narrow,” Dr. Ahuja said.

The restricted working environment inside the sponsor’s house presupposes housemaids’ vulnerability compared to workers who don’t live with their employers.

“They are confined in their sponsor’s house and most of them do not have access to mobile phones so nobody can know their working condition or see how they are being treated by their sponsors,” Philippine Labour Attache Delmer Cruz told Gulf News.

Lack of skills sets for the job sometimes comes at a price for some maids. Others get verbally, sometimes, physically ‘punished’ if they commit a mistake.

“It [abuse] cannot be a justification. Anyone can make a mistake. If you are a sponsor, you have to train them, they should be considered as a human being. They have human rights. If they [sponsors] are not agreeable to this, they have to send them [maids] back home, without beating them, without harassing, without mistreating them,” Ethiopian Consul-General to the UAE Mesganu Arga Moach told Gulf News.

Last year, the Ethiopian government issued a temporary deployment ban on its citizens looking for work as domestic and blue-collar staff in the UAE. The Ethiopian government was alarmed by the increase in people illegally recruited and trafficked to the country.

Moach said prior to the ban, around 300 arrive daily in the UAE to work as domestic staff, of which, only around 10 per cent go through legal channels and have proper contracts. During this time, his office used to receive as many as 10 complaints a day.

Moach stressed the menace of human trafficking provides an environment conducive to abuse, as there is no way of tracking abusive sponsors and illegal recruiters.

But the deployment ban could be lifted “very soon” once the labour agreement between the UAE and Ethiopia are finalised, Moach said. The agreement will include the scope of work, limitations, protection of maids, among others. Legal frameworks will also be in place to close all illegal channels through airports, immigration and all networks, and to bring violators to justice.

“There is readiness at the political level, at both sides. Both the UAE government and the Ethiopian government, we are trying to fight illegal recruitment and human trafficking. So we are making a concerted effort and the UAE government is making a huge effort especially fighting human trafficking,” Moach said.

In the UAE, the Federal National Council last year passed a new draft law that aims to regulate the domestic worker industry in line with international standards. President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s signature is needed before it can be implemented.

The draft law ensures protection for domestic staff as it pegs the minimum age requirement for maids to 18, requires a written contract between the sponsor and maid and guarantees end-of-service gratuity for maids. It also states that sponsors should shoulder recruitment agency fees, monthly payment of salaries in cash, and a weekly day off.

Checks and balances

Moach believes that while a maid’s preparedness for overseas work has to be assessed, sponsors should be checked as well. And he aims to implement this once the labour agreement with the UAE is finalised.

“There has to be a mechanism to check these kinds of behaviour, even the sponsors, even their characters, their financial history, their behavioural history, and all these things are very important,” Moach said.

A similar screening process is currently being implemented by the Philippine labour office in Dubai. An average of 100 housemaids request for assistance from the labour office per month for labour-related complaints and the stricter screening process is aimed at reducing this number. At present, Filipino housemaids are estimated to be about 50,000 all over the UAE.

Cruz said agencies and abusive employers risk being banned from employing Filipino housemaids if they do not follow the minimum salary requirement of US$400 a month and other requirements set by the Philippine government.

Cruz stressed that more agencies and employers have been disqualified on the fourth quarter of 2012 and first quarter of 2013, compared to previous records since the implementation of stricter measures in last year.

The Indian Consulate-General likewise said that having a system that monitors all deployment of domestic staff helps. Indian maids, for example, have become hard to get by since the Indian government implemented strict requirements for sponsors in 2009. These include minimum age requirement of 30, nine-hour working day, a cell phone, annual return ticket, and minimum salary of Dh1,100.

But there are still workers who go around the system. An estimated 7,000 Indian housemaids are working in Dubai and the northern emirates, with only around 3,000 registered with the consulate. The rest came to the UAE on a visit visa and bypassed the system, which is where the problem lies, Indian Consul-General Sanjay Verma told Gulf News.

The Indian consulate has noted 33 maid-related complaints for the past four years, which came from non-registered maids. They have blacklisted around 15 sponsors for non-payment of wages.

“After the system was introduced, the number of complaints has actually dried up. You only have one or two complaints in a month, which is negligible,” Verma said.

Verma explained that the profile of the Indian community in the UAE is changing and he is seeing a significant reduction in Indians finding jobs as maids in the UAE in the next 10 years. The same trend is evident in Ethiopia and the Philippines where labour preference is now on the semi-skilled sector.

“The plan actually involves a shift in deployment from housemaid sector to semi-skilled sector like workers in hotels, restaurants and wellness centers,” Cruz said.

*Mabbani's name was changed to protect her identity.

- With additional inputs from Aghaddir Ali, Staff Reporter