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Rights Group Says Sri Lankan Domestic Workers Abused in Middle East

A leading rights group says Sri Lankan domestic workers in the Middle East are victims of serious abuses. As Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi, Human Rights Watch accuses Persian Gulf countries of failing to give legal protection to tens of thousands of foreign women working as domestic help.

In a new report, Human Rights Watch paints a grim picture of the life that Sri Lankan domestic workers face in several Gulf countries.

An estimated 660,000 women from Sri Lanka work overseas as domestic help - mostly in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.

The report says these women typically work 16 to 21 hours a day, without breaks or days off - often for wages as low as 15 to 30 cents an hour.

It says many are also victims of abuses such as forced confinement, food deprivation, physical and verbal abuse, forced labor, sexual harassment and rape by employers.

The author of the report, Jennifer Turner, says most of the women are helpless in the face of such abuse because Middle Eastern countries do not offer labor protection to domestic workers.

"The labor laws explicitly exclude domestic workers. Therefore, employers can violate their rights with impunity and are not violating any labor laws," she explained. "In all cases, women's employers confiscated their passports, in nearly all cases women's employers were limiting their freedom of movement, limiting their communication with their family, their ability to call home."

The report is based on interviews with almost 100 women who had worked in these countries. Turner explains the problems they often face.

"In these countries it is very difficult for women to bring a case against their employers," she said. "They face counter charge, if they bring a case against their employers, they may be accused of theft, for instance. When women do complain they often are returned to their employers by authorities who just don't even look into the abuses that women are reporting."

The report quotes one woman as saying that she did not receive her salary for nearly a year and a half, but whenever she asked her employers for it, "they would beat me, or cut me with a knife, or burn me."

The Human Rights Watch report also says Sri Lankan authorities do not give adequate consular protection to the women. It calls on the government to improve monitoring of recruitment agents who often charge excessive fees.

The United Arab Emirates, however, says the report does not take note of positive steps in recent months to improve the condition of temporary foreign workers. The UAE says it plans to introduce a law to protect and regulate the domestic labor force.