DUBAI: A leading international rights group yesterday said that foreigners employed as maids in Oman can face physical and verbal abuse while working entrapped in conditions that near slavery. A new Human Rights Watch report blames in part Oman's system of tying workers' visas to their employers, as well as police failing to enforce laws and returning runaway maids to abusive homes. The report alleges Oman's neighbor, the United Arab Emirates, acts as a gateway for maids to be trafficked into the sultanate, as Emirati employment agencies along the border put women on display "like window shopping".

"Many find themselves trapped with abusive employers and forced to work in exploitative conditions, their plight hidden behind closed doors," the HRW report said. "It is clear that abuses are widespread and that they are generally carried out with impunity." Oman's government-sponsored Human Rights Commission and the Omani Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment from AP.

Many from Asia and Africa come to Gulf Arab countries to work as maids, often as the sole provider for their families back home. While some find success, others can face abuse or find themselves working in conditions far different than those promised by recruiters, trapped without their passports. Oman, a country of 4.4 million people on the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, is home to nearly 2 million foreigners, according to the government's National Center for Statistics and Information.

In the report, Human Rights Watch said its investigators interviewed 59 female migrant workers with some recounting being beaten, verbally abused, denied fair pay and working as much as 20-hour days. The report said employers routinely seized maids' passports in violation of Omani laws and those that fled abusive situations often had police return them to their abusers under laws that consider the workers "absconders".

"Situations like those described below are at the very least dangerously close to situations of slavery," the report said. The report called on Oman to overhaul its "kafala" employee sponsorship system. The system, versions of which are used throughout the oil-rich Gulf states, gives bosses considerable power over workers by effectively binding them to a given employer. It also urged Omani police not to return those who flee violence to abusive homes.

The New York-based group also implicated the UAE for allowing maids to sneak into Oman despite restrictions from some of their home countries and other visa restrictions. It described a series of employment offices in the Emirati border city of Al Ain serving as a point for Omanis to find domestic workers. Several of the women who spoke to Human Rights Watch described the situation as them being "bought" by Omanis. Emirati officials did not respond to a request for comment from the AP. A Bangladeshi maid said she left home to work for an employer in the UAE before a new employer paid cash for her to be transferred to Oman. "I was sold," HRW quoted Asma K as saying. Oman's female domestic servants come mainly from Indonesia, Ethiopia, South Asia and the Philippines. - Agencies