Domestic Workers in the Middle East

In the United Arab Emirates, each household has an average of three domestic workers.[i] Domestic workers make up 25 percent of the Lebanese workforce and often face physical abuse in various forms.[ii] These workers are placed in vulnerable situations throughout the Middle East making it easy for their employers to violate their rights.

The system of domestic work in the Middle East is based on the Kafala system, which makes the employer in charge of the residency and employment of the worker.  This gives the employer a sense of entitlement.   Because of this, some employers may take their worker’s passport, or will not allow their workers to change employers.  Ultimately, this puts the workers under their employer’s control.

Workers come to the Middle East believing that they will receive a fair pay in a higher-level job, only to be placed in household work. The workers are mainly from the Philippines, and Sri Lanka.  The recruitment agencies give false information about the type of work or the location; the worker only finds out the truth once they arrive in the country.   Some even come under tourist visa, making it hard for the country to regulate them.

The Kafala system makes it difficult for workers to switch employers.  Most countries require permission from current employers in order to change to another.  This is a conflict when workers have corrupt employers.  Another issue is employers confiscating passports of their workers making it impossible for the worker to leave the country without employer’s consent.  For example in Kuwait “the ministerial decree prohibiting employers from confiscating workers’ passports fails to cover the domestic work sector, leaving this type of worker without legal protection.”[iii]

Some employers even rape their female workers.  In Kuwait, a Filipina domestic worker recounted her experience:

“‘I came to Kuwait on a domestic worker’s visa. I paid my sponsor and he allowed me to work in a mobile shop. One day, his car pulled up in front of the store. He came inside and told me he needed to see me. I followed him and he raped me in the car. I went to the doctors and filed a complaint at the police, and then returned to work the next day. He reported to the authorities that I had run away, and the police arrested me. My employer tells me that if I drop the rape charges, he will make sure that I am not deported'”[iv]

While some countries have little to no laws on the matter, those that do tend to have struggles enforcing the laws.  The only solution would require regulations between the countries who export and those that import domestic workers as well as public awareness of the reality of domestic work in the Middle East.




[i] ( UNFPA,, UNFPA, A Passage to Hope: Women and International Migration, Publication date 2006, AK)

[ii] (, IGO, 2013 Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Slavery Report – Gender, Publication date July 1, 2013)

[iii] ( Helene Harroff-Tavel and Alix Nasri, International Labour Organization, International Labour Organization, Tricked and Trapped Human Trafficking in the Middle East, Publication date (2013))

[iv] ( Helene Harroff-Tavel and Alix Nasri, International Labour Organization, International Labour Organization, Tricked and Trapped Human Trafficking in the Middle East, Publication date (2013))

4 thoughts on “Domestic Workers in the Middle East

  1. LAE says:

    Thank you for writing on such an important topic. I had never heard of the Kafala system before. As someone who has volunteered with human trafficking survivors in the US, I have heard from victims about how the fear of deportation has kept them from contacting the authorities. It was not until somebody else stepped in that many of these women realized that what was happening to them was not legal and certainly not okay. Great post! I would love to learn more about this topic

  2. SJ says:

    Great post! It blows my mind that even though there are so many domestic workers, through the Kafala system, their rights taken away from them so easily. I too would like to learn more about this topic!

  3. Natalie says:

    Thanks for giving us facts about and quotes of victims of domestic worker abuse. I wonder whether in March, at the UN, delegates at the 20th Anniversary of the 4th World Conference on Women will discuss either better laws or better enforcement of laws concerning domestic workers…

  4. Victoria says:

    25% of their workforce! That’s a lot more than I would’ve expected. Definitely need to give these women legal protections—especially vulnerable as foreigners.

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