June 16, 2015 Updated: June 16, 2015 05:05 PM
Decorative lights lit across the corniche on the first day of holy month Ramadan in Abu Dhabi. Ravindranath K / The National
Ramadan starts this week and with the holy month comes a new opportunity to reflect on our deeds, to become better people, to help the needy and be good to other people even through the difficult time of fasting.
During this month, it’s always good to see people making more effort to reach out to the poor and needy. Charity initiatives start within homes and extend to community organisations across the country. People donate their time, money and goods to the less fortunate among us.
But amid this, one group is often neglected – and that is our domestic staff. At this time of the year, maids, in particular, are expected to work day and night with little time to rest. They often work extra hours to keep up during a month full of nightly iftars and social gatherings without getting a day off or any extra compensation for their hard work.
Fasting can also make people become short-tempered with their domestic staff, who may not understand them or forget to do their required tasks. This can especially be the case with those staff who also fast during Ramadan.
Researchers say that the number of runaway maids reaches its peak during Ramadan because they are simply overwhelmed by the amount of work they have to do every day. They have to clean the house, do the laundry and prepare iftar food during the day, then clean the dishes and prepare the suhoor meal at night.
Yet domestic staff have no legal protection because they are exempted from UAE labour law. Their work isn’t regulated and their rights aren’t guaranteed. This makes them vulnerable to abuse from those – hopefully few – employers who take advantage of their situation and overwork them.
Runaway maids have nowhere to go except their countries’ embassies. Embassy staff will look into their cases and help them find shelter, but in the absence of a comprehensive law, they can do little to help them in cases of abuse.
The Ministry of Interior’s new standard work contract is only a piece of paper if it isn’t implemented and enforced. Overworked or abused domestic staff generally have just two options: to stay at their employer’s house or to go back to their home country.
It is unfortunate that some people choose to mistreat their domestic staff. We have a moral and religious obligation to treat domestic workers well throughout the year and especially during Ramadan. We should respect their basic rights, including reasonable working hours, rest time and a day off.
It’s important to remember that these women often come from disadvantaged communities in their home countries. They have no choice but to work under difficult conditions simply to feed themselves and, often, provide the basic needs of their families back home.
The spirit of Ramadan should apply to all. This month of solidarity and compassion teaches us to be patient and disciplined.
Fasting is one of the pillars of Islam, because, when we get hungry, we can better understand the conditions and needs of the poor. It’s a way to develop empathy for the hungry and needy, to share their feelings and help them improve their situation.
Our domestic staff are among the people who need our understanding and compassion. They are our helpers. We need them; we depend on them for many things that we cannot do or don’t have the time to do for ourselves. Despite all this, their work continues to be invisible and undervalued.
It’s important to remember that our religion commands us not to overburden and overwhelm workers. They have the right to have both physical and mental rest, and we should not assign them work beyond their capacity.
Let us all remember the Prophet’s saying that “whoever lightens the work of his workers will have the reward on his scales”. When is a better time to do this than the holy month?