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Empowering Domestic Workers in the Gulf States: First Steps Toward Organizing 22 22 Executive Summary In 2016 the Gulf States were home to more than 3.77 million migrant domestic workers. Domestic workers in this region are incredibly vulnerable to exploitation due to their lack of legal protections and the repressive kafala system in place in most Gulf countries. Furthermore, physical isolation, largely facilitated by social norms, prevents workers from redressing their exploitation. In spite of the growing global domestic la- bor movement, the unique physical, social, and legal barriers facing domestic workers in the Gulf States have largely pre- vented formal organizing. This paper explores barriers in the Gulf States that disempower domestic workers and articu- lates possible solutions. Additionally, the paper investigates the potential role of technology in decreasing domestic work- ers’ vulnerability. Cell phones and social media can lay the groundwork for labor organizing through informal networks on Facebook and WhatsApp, increase employee access to ho- tlines, and replace recruitment agencies. We recommend that governments abolish the kafala system, ensure that labor hotlines operate efficiently, increase awareness and behav- ioral change programs targeting employers, and strengthen programs protectingmigrant workers in order tomitigate the vulnerability of domestic workers in the Gulf States. These solutions will allow domestic workers to begin informal orga- nizing, potentially facilitated by technology, thereby setting the stage for workers to advocate through more formal orga- nizations and collective bargaining. Issues and Challenges While domesticworkers were largely seen as “unorganizable” only a few decades ago, today the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) has 78 affiliates from 61 countries, representing over 590,000 domestic/household workers. However, domestic workers in the Gulf States remain largely unorganized, as these workers face significant Policy Brief on the Future of Work MARTINDALE CENTER legal and political challenges (IDFW). Among these states, only Bahrain includes domestic workers in labor laws, yet they remain excluded from the majority of provisions (Burrow, 13). While Gulf States embarked on labor reform under domestic and international pressure following the Arab Spring, the prospect of reform for domestic workers remains bleak. There is no pressure on these governments to address the rights of migrant workers because the problem of worker abuse does not impact the vast majority of their citizens (Murray, 483). The path toward domestic workers’ rights is only feasible if domestic workers are able to organize and advocate for themselves. Organization of workers has always been an important tool in ensuring the protection of workers through advancement of their collective needs (Hobden, 1). While formal organization of domestic workers in the Gulf might not be immediately possible, grievance- airing mechanisms and informal organization are important first steps toward worker empowerment. Domestic workers in the Gulf States face significant physical, legal, and social barriers to any form of organization or empowerment. The nature of domestic work in the Gulf makes any organization difficult. Because these workers mostly live where they are employed, it is difficult for them to communicate with other domestic workers. This isolation can become extreme. Workers often are denied their legally required day off, are not allowed to leave the house for any personal business, and in extreme cases may be locked in a room without means to contact the outside world. Isolation and abuse of domestic workers are likely to have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, with lockdowns and a documented increase in domestic partner violence (Begum). Domestic work also takes place in private households in which the homeowner, or in some cases a judge, must grant permission to be inspected (Kagan, 12). Domestic work is These Martindale Center Policy Briefs on the Future of Work were prepared by teams of students and young professionals serving as Research Externs with the Lehigh University / United Nations Partnership working in affiliation with the International Labour Organization. Authors: Hiwot Demelash • SamDenison • Steven Escobar-Mendez • Emma Hartmann • Michael Stevanovich Series Editor: Stephen Cutcliffe, Ph.D. February 2021 Empowering Domestic Workers in the Gulf States: First Steps Toward Organizing