11/13/2004, 00.00
MIDDLE EAST
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The difficult situation of domestic helpers in the Gulf

They are mostly Asian and Christian, abused, victims of violence and lacking in legal protection. Now their plight is on governments' agenda.

Kuwait City (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The overall population of the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is 33 million people, 11 of which are guest workers and their families. The GCC includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Some two million guest workers are Asian maids who often work without proper legal protection and face various forms of mistreatment, including sexual abuse and non-payment of salary, this according to an official study done by a joint Gulf body on the basis of official data supplied by GCC members.

Recently, ministers from GCC countries approved a proposal to hold a forum to discuss specific measures to deal with problems facing domestic helpers. They also agreed to draft legislation that would serve as a yardstick for member states. Only Kuwait and Bahrain provide some form of legal protection but in both cases legislation has not stopped abuses.

The problem is real. By the end of 2003 in fact, there were 812,000 domestic helpers in Saudi Arabia, 400,000 in Kuwait, 30,000 in Bahrain and 66,000 in Oman. The UAE had 450,000 domestics at the end of 2002, the last available figure, while Qatar did not reveal the number of maids it had. But these numbers are expected to have grown even higher in the past 10 months. In Kuwait, for example, the number of domestic helpers has grown by an additional 50,000.

The figures show that on average there is one domestic helper for every two citizens in the UAE and Kuwait; in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain there is one domestic helper per family.

According to the study, most of them— maids, gardeners, private drivers, and the like —come from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines and Pakistan. More than half are illiterate or semi-literate and their average age is 30.

Two-thirds of the maids are either married or divorced, the study reports.

Christians make up the largest number, followed by Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. Less than 1 per cent is made up of Arabs and the rest Asian.

A number of GCC states proposed that priority in recruitment be given to Arabs and then Muslims to overcome language difficulties and religious barriers, particularly those faced by children interacting with domestic helpers.

The study showed that Gulf families' dependence on foreign maids had increased because of more local women going out to work, insufficient nurseries and kindergartens, low wages and simple recruitment procedures.

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