Domestic workers in Yemen [Archives:2008/1165/Reportage]

June 19 2008
According to the ILO study, most domestic workers arent Yemenis, with the large majority coming from the Horn of Africa.
According to the ILO study, most domestic workers arent Yemenis, with the large majority coming from the Horn of Africa.
By: Alia Ishaq
Decades ago, most extended Yemeni families lived together, with domestic tasks typically divided among the many female relatives living in the same house. However, due to urbanization, the structure of the Yemeni family has changed. Rarely do large clans live together anymore, so domestic tasks fall on the shoulders of one or two women in the home.

This has led to the rise of paid domestic help working in the home.

Another reason for the increased demand for domestic workers is that more girls in urban areas are receiving education, which means that daughters aren't automatically available to help with chores around the home.

Upper and middle class families in Yemen now are bridging this gap by employing domestic workers, according to a 2005 study by the International Labor Organization, or ILO, assisted by the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

Although Yemen has relatively smaller numbers of domestic workers as compared to other Arab countries, over the past decade, the number of domestic workers in Yemen has increased dramatically. What was once only common among the upper class is now somewhat widespread in urban areas, which poses new challenges for Yemeni immigration authorities.

Where do they come from?

According to the ILO study, most domestic workers aren't Yemenis, with the large majority coming from the Horn of Africa. Most are from Ethiopia and Somalia, with a few coming from Asian countries like the Philippines, Indonesia and India.

The study estimates that there are roughly 8,000 Ethiopian domestic workers in Yemen. Reliable figures are unavailable since most of these immigrant workers aren't registered with their embassies or with the Yemeni authorities.

Domestic workers in Yemen vary in their nationalities, type of employment arrangements (live-in or independent), contract workers or freelancers, the way in which they arrived in Yemen, their legal status and their religious background.

Live-in domestic workers usually are contracted, meaning that they come to Yemen via private employment agencies, an individual employer or an embassy. This group is typically the most vulnerable to mistreatment since they are dependent upon their employers for nearly everything and don't have much freedom.

Contract workers often work seven days a week with little free time. On the other hand, outside or freelance domestic workers have more control over their lives, as they are responsible for their own residence and work permits. They also may quit their jobs whenever they wish since they retain their passports and aren't dependent upon their employers.

There also are clear differences when it comes to salaries, as live-in domestic workers are paid more than those coming from outside. Also, Asian workers, who are usually hired by the higher classes of society, are paid more than African workers, although these still are more fortunate than Yemeni domestics, who are paid the least, according to the ILO study, and rarely live in the home of their employers.

Abuse and human rights violations

“Almost without exception, the domestic workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch around the world suffered some form of psychological or verbal abuse involving harsh insults, threats and belittlement,” the 2006 human rights watch report states.

According to information provided by embassies in Singapore, at least 147 domestic workers have fallen to their deaths from tall buildings since 1998 due to hazardous workplace conditions or suicide.

Shams Mohammed, a 23-year-old freelance domestic worker in Sana'a, recounted the story of her cousin Aynalem, who worked nearly four years for a family that treated her badly. Even though her contract was for two years, she was forced to stay with them for four with no permission to visit her family.

At some point, Aynalem became ill, supposedly because of the amount of work she had to do. “She got really sick to the point that we believed she might be paralyzed,” Mohammed recalled.

Aynalem called her cousin and other friends to help her get to the hospital since the family she was working for wouldn't permit her to go. “At the hospital, the doctor asked that she remain on bed rest, but her employer wouldn't accept that,” Mohammed continued.

She claims that her cousin's employer didn't pay for her medication, nor did they give her a salary while she was sick. Once Aynalem was better, her boss told her to gather up her belongings. Without telling her that she was being deported and only two hours before her flight, her employer gave her a ticket and her passport and told her to go home.

According to the ILO, the treatment of domestic workers in Yemen is better than in other Arab countries. However, female domestics still complain of strenuous workloads, low or delayed payment of salaries, isolation, lack of legal rights, physical and mental abuse and even trafficking by illegal agents.

Typical threats against domestic workers include withholding pay, physical violence, reporting the worker to labor agents or reporting them to police and immigration officials, the ILO noted. Another common threat against migrant women is that they will be sent back home, a terrifying prospect for those with massive debts or who fear reprisals from their labor agents.

Child domestic workers

The term child domestic worker refers to those under age 18 who perform domestic tasks in the home of a third party or an employer in a context within which they are exploited. Among the world's 200 million working children, a substantial percentage are domestic workers.

The ILO estimates some 10 million child domestic workers worldwide and that more girls under age 16 work in domestic service than in any other category of child labor.

According to the ILO, thousands of girls as young as age 8 work 15 or more hours every day of the week without a day off for little or no pay. The ILO study also reports that these children sometimes are sexually abused or even forget their own names after simply being called “girl” or “boy” for such a long time.

There are no reliable statistics concerning how many children work as domestic helpers in Yemen. Lack of visibility makes those children working in homes more vulnerable to abuse and increases the potential for exploitation; thus, these exploitative working conditions make domestic labor one of the most perilous forms of labor for underage workers.