Unrest leaves foreign female casual workers high and dry

News and Press Release
Originally published

SANAA, 19 April 2011 (IRIN) - The ongoing political unrest in Yemen has hit one group hard - unskilled foreign female migrant workers such as domestic workers and cleaners whose employers have either left the country or moved away from the capital, Sana'a, sources said.

"In our office, we received more than 50 Somali maids, who were all working in the Sana'a University area, but are now jobless after their employers [families] moved to their original villages," said Mohammed Abdi Adam, chairman of the Somali Refugee Committee (SRC).

"Many others in other areas of Sana'a are now jobless as well," he added. Most were employed by foreign expatriates or upper-class Yemeni families.

One such woman, Ethiopian refugee Marwa Yousef, 33, lives with her 10-year-old daughter Najma in a single room in a gloomy lane in the Safya area of Sana'a.

She used to earn a monthly salary of YR20,000 (US$85) working as a cleaner in a hotel in Sana'a, until she was laid off on 31 March, after the anti-government protests hit businesses.

"How can I feed myself and my daughter?" she said. "How can I pay the rent [YR9,000]? Najma needs medicines, but I don't have money to buy them."

According to the SRC's Adam, the situation has created an "unprecedented blow for widows who are the only breadwinners for their families, [and] their suffering is increasing due to increasing prices of basic commodities".

Since the protests began in mid-January [ ] several international organizations and companies have reduced their foreign staff.

Some of those laid off have not received any severance pay despite working for four or five years, said Ame Abdi Shaboo, chairman of the Oromo Refugee Committee.

To be entitled to severance pay, Yemeni labour law stipulates that there needs to have been a contract of employment signed by employer and employee.

"However, almost all these domestic servants and cleaners in low-profile hotels usually work without contracts," Mohammed al-Ruaini, a lawyer at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour, told IRIN. "This makes it very difficult for us to claim their job-related rights or defend them in court."

Shaboo reckoned hundreds of Ethiopian domestic workers and cleaners had been laid off in Sana'a since mid-February.