The new human trafficking hotspot: Oman

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Evening cityscape of Muscat, Oman

Image: Shutterstock/Frantisek Staud

Job ads for domestic workers placed in countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Uganda, Ethiopia, Nepal, the Philippines, India and Indonesia, where recent unemployment rates have spiked, typically receive numerous responses from young people and women desperate for a chance to work and alleviate their own poverty. Currently, more than 130,000 female migrants from such countries work in Oman as domestic workers as a result of these ads and other calls for employment. However, the work conditions and wages they are promised often do not pan out once they arrive in their new hosts’ homes. Verbal, physical and sexual abuse as well as threats of violence, drastically diminished wages, excessive working hours, horrific working conditions, confiscation of passports and even murders have been reported, causing international outrage in regard to Oman’s employment practices.

In a region where even those of modest means are expected to have servants, the outreach for domestic services abroad is strong. While some workers are satisfied with their employment once situated, others of Oman’s migrant worker population, which makes up 88% of their total private sector workforce, have reported abuse. Although contracts are usually signed prior to immigrating, the conditions of agreement are often broken immediately, according to Human Rights Watch. In July 2016 Interpol even issued a warning stating ten women from Uganda had died violently while working in Gulf countries, even though Uganda’s government banned their citizens from such work in January.

Human Rights Watch’s report on the matter, based predominantly on interviews with approximately 60 domestic workers in Oman, explored Oman’s legal obligations to pursue the allegations of abuse as well as existing policies which seem to unfairly favor the employer. For example, Oman’s immigration system “prohibits migrant workers from leaving their employers or working for new employers without their initial employers’ consent and punishes them if they do. Oman’s labor law excludes domestic workers from its protections, and those who flee abuse have little avenue for redress.”

The situation tends to go like this: a domestic worker is promised a job while still in their home country which covers a monthly wage with airfare and visas included. She will often need to come up with a fee in advance to pay the recruitment agency for the arrangement. After this, she is transported to the United Arab Emirates, where the job is supposed to be located. However, she will often be transported across the border to Oman, which is considered the new “hotspot” for human trafficking, often enduring excessive hours with very little food (or very low quality food) provided and frequent abuses of various types due to the sultanate’s kalafa sponsorship program. The kalafa program “binds staff to their employers, even after terms of their contract are met and despite abuses.”

The women are commonly afraid to reach out for help once they find themselves in such situations, and very few opportunities for successful escape exist without money while the employers hold their passports. While some countries have attempted bans on domestic work abroad, they do realize that destitute workers will still find their way through illegal channels. Human Rights Watch hopes to instead educate women and other domestic workers in their native lands by providing information on their rights and Oman’s legalities ahead of the actual immigration. HRW also calls for people to officially report their unjust work situations and corrupt agencies to the proper authorities whenever possible, as well for the international population to assist in a push to reform Oman’s kalafa system and also unite the African countries at greatest risk to come together and protect their citizens.

Kristen lives in the Michiana area, where she enjoys lake-effect weather, apple orchards and occasional South Shore rides into Chicago. She can probably tell you more about apple cider vinegar than you'd ever want to know. You can reach her at:

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