"Follow, share and win an Ethiopian maid!” reads a shocking advertisement written by a recruitment agency for domestic workers in Bahrain. The company was eventually sanctioned by authorities for the advert but human rights activists say much more needs to be done to combat the shameless commodification of migrant workers in Bahrain.
Like other Gulf states, Bahrain has a large foreign unskilled labour force, most of whom come from southeast Asia and, to a lesser extent, sub-Saharan Africa. There are an estimated 460,000 migrant workers in Bahrain, which represents a shocking 77% of the country’s labour force. This number includes many women employed as domestic workers. The whole immigration process is overseen by agencies who recruit these women in their home countries (primarily the Philippines, Indonesia and Ethiopia), bring them to Bahrain and place them in the homes of their new employers.
In mid-April, one of these agencies, Al Hazeem Manpower, was widely criticised for this advertisement, which it posted on its Instagram account (which it has now closed down):
The agency was advertising a competition to “win an Ethiopian domestic worker”. The ad asked followers to like the post and mention it in a comment for a chance to win a maid. Labour authorities quickly clamped down, condemning the ad and revoking the agency’s operating licence.
“We treat migrant workers like private property or slaves”
Unfortunately, this kind of ad isn’t unusual we are seeing more and more ‘competitions’ like this advertised on social media. In the past year, several agencies ran similar campaigns. I saw one that mentioned a “special reduction ahead of the month of Ramadan” as well as one that offered a buy-one-get-one-free kind of deal. It’s clearly commercial exploitation of these women!
This recruitment agency is offering a special deal for the month of Ramadan: customers can pay 499 dinars (instead of the usual 600) for an Ethiopian maid.
These agencies launch campaigns like this because there is a well-established culture of objectifying migrant workers. Bahraini society regards these people as if they are slaves or private property, denying them the rights that are supposed to be protected under labour laws. For example, the average monthly salary for a foreign domestic worker is between 60 and 100 Bahraini dinars [Editor’s note: equivalent to 144 and 241 euros], depending on the nationality of said worker, despite the fact that the minimum monthly salary in the private sector is supposed to be 300 dinars [equivalent to 723 euros].
Nineteen-hour work days, without a break
We’ve gathered testimonies from many of these domestic workers. Many of them have told us that they work up to 19 hours a day, often without a break, let alone a day off during the week.
Perhaps the most severe human rights abuse in all of this is the kafala system, which makes the employer the worker’s official guardian [Editor’s note: “kafala” means sponsorship. Under this system used to monitor foreign workers, the employer is given full control of the employee’s visa and legal status. By putting workers at their employer’s mercy, this system creates a perfect environment for exploitation]. All of this means that many employers see these women as property that they can do what they like with. So it’s no surprise that this kind of message appears in ads used by recruitment agencies.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to Hisham Adwan, the executive director of this public body. He said, "The laws exist and we are doing our best to make sure that they are applied. We have an investigation under way into the Al Hazeem agency and the company is facing major sanctions. More generally, as soon as we hear about abuse against a domestic or migrant worker, we immediately take the necessary steps to address this issue."
Yes, there have been some improvements in the overall situation. Now, migrant workers can change their guardian if they want to, if they have found another one at the time that they make the official request. They can also file a complaint with authorities in case of abuse. But, very often, these complaints don’t amount to anything [Editor’s note: According to Human Rights Watch, only 30% of complaints filed by migrant workers are actually processed. And, very often, employers don’t show up when summoned by the court]. However, these measures remain limited. We need strict laws that sanction abuses carried out by employers or agencies [Editor’s note: Migrant workers are not eligible for protections for workers in the private sector established by a 2012 labour law].