COVID-19: Violence against domestic workers amid lockdown in Middle East

COVID-19: Violence against domestic workers amid lockdown in Middle East
Lockdown leads to spike in domestic violence against Punjab women

The global pandemic namely COVID-19, has resulted in lockdown of almost all the economies of the world. However, this lockdown has exposed domestic workers to the risk of violence and abuse, with almost no aid available for rescue, particularly in the Middle East.

In the Gulf Cooperation countries (GCC), where foreign workers make up 90% of the population in United Arab Emirates (UAE), 60% in Kuwait, 50% in Bahrain, and 33% in Saudi Arabia, domestic migrant workers amid lockdown are exposed to innumerable sufferings.  In Lebanon, the 250,000 consists mostly of domestic workers, who usually live in the home of their employers.

The “Kafala System” remains the routine practice in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries of Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates (UAE), along with Arab States of Lebanon and Jordan. Under the Kafala system, a migrant worker’s immigration status is legally bound to an individual employer or sponsor (kafeel) for their contract period[1]. The migrant worker cannot enter the country, transfer employment nor leave the country for any reason without first obtaining explicit permission from the kafeel[2]. Also, in Iran, there are concerns that migrant camps may be dangerous incubators for the virus for they are not adequately checked by authorities and give preference to citizens and expatriate residents[3].

The kafala system has always existed like a prison in the home for domestic migrant workers. These domestic migrant workers have been subjected to abuses over the years, especially when domestic workers work for large families, family events or during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Such extensive workload is the cause for exhaustion, depression, illness and some to commit suicide.

Amid COVID-19 lockdown, domestic workers will be subjected to double household chores because of the presence of entire families at home all day. Also, due to the prevention strategies against COVID-19, they’ll be asked to clean the house multiple times[4]. The employers may even force domestic migrant workers to work during the lockdown[5], even if the government permits them to take leave with a threat of firing them.

What will add more misery to their state is the delay or refusal by employers to pay their salaries because employers are also subjected to job loss and other economic insecurities during the lockdown[6].

The misery of domestic migrant workers doesn’t end here. Migrant domestic workers are not provided with protective equipments while they’re on their duty towards household chores, hence, more prone to catching virus.

Also, a report published by Amnesty International titled “Their House is my Prison[7]” on Exploitation of Migrant workers in Lebanon, published in 2019. It has documented the abuses and exploitative working conditions of domestic migrant workers in Lebanon which includes, long working hours, no breaks, no day off, non-payments, late-payments, salary deductions, passport confiscation, restriction on movement and communication, food deprivation, inadequate accommodation and lack of privacy, verbal, physical and sexual abuse, restrictions on access to healthcare, forced labour, etc. However, the Labour Laws in GCC countries are not much concerned about the plight of domestic migrant workers, hence, they face barriers to justice like fear of arrest, fear of being unable to obtain new employment and fear of false accusations of theft.

New COVID-19 rules could impose additional penalties on domestic workers for fleeing abuse.

Amnesty International took note of the predicaments faced by domestic migrant workers during COVID-19 lockdown in Lebanon and contributed to the consultation for revision of Lebanon’s Standard Unified Contract for the Employment of (Migrant) Domestic Workers[8]. Amnesty International urged governments to announce immediate measures to protect migrant workers during COVID-19[9]. It called for that government should warn employers of prosecution and zero tolerance policy in case of abuse against domestic workers[10]. The Lebanese Authorities must ensure that human rights are at the centre of all prevention, containment and treatment efforts amid COVID-19 lockdown[11]. A helpline number and other means must be setup for domestic migrant workers to complain of abuse and exploitation without letting the employer know about it.

Article Written By- Muskan Sharma
Law Student– Jamia Milia Islimia
(HRDI Work From Home Internship)

[1] “Policy Brief No. 2: Reform of the Kafala (Sponsorship) System”, ILO, available at: (Last visited on 23rd April; 2020)

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Pandemic raises fear over welfare of domestic workers in Lebanon”, The Guardian, available at: (Last visited on 23rd April; 2020)

[4]Rothna Begum, Domestic Workers in Middle East Risk Abuse amid COVID-19 crisis, Human Rights Watch, available at: (Last visited on 23rd April; 2020)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Their House is my Prison: Exploitation of Migrant Workers in Lebanon”, Amnesty International, available at: (Last visited on 23rd April; 2020)

[8] “Lebanon: Migrant Domestic Workers must be protected during COVID-19 pandemic”, Amnesty International, available at: (Last visited on 23rd April; 2020)

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.