Laid off and locked up: virus traps domestic workers in Arab states


The Persian Gulf countries alone had nearly four million domestic workers in 2016, more than half of whom were women, according to a study for the Abu Dhabi Dialogue, which focuses on the work of migrants in the region. Experts say the actual number has increased since then and is probably much higher.

Hundreds of thousands of cleaning women and foreign housekeepers work in other Arab countries, including Lebanon and Jordan, giving the Arab world the largest number of migrant domestic workers of all regions, according to the International Organization for the Job.

Most come to the Middle East through recruitment agencies and are employed under a sponsorship system which links their residency status to their employment, giving their employers considerable power. In many cases, they cannot leave without losing their residence, move to new jobs or leave the country without the permission of an employer.

And in practice, many employers confiscate workers’ passports and deprive them of free time, say advocacy groups. Some prevent them from using mobile phones or the Internet. Physical and sexual abuse is common.

The combination of their gender, the sponsorship system and their isolation makes domestic workers particularly vulnerable, said Vani Saraswathi, deputy editor of, an advocacy group.

“You have this person who controls your every move, and you’re home 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” she said, “so imagine the kind of power that gives them. “

The alarm among these workers was raised when Covid-19, the coronavirus disease, spread across the Middle East and shook the economies on which many migrants depend.


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