Revolts bypass domestic workers

As protests spread across the Middle East, critics say conditions are not improving for migrant workers.

    Oil producing countries like Libya import thousands of foreign labourers [GALLO/GETTY]

    The uprisings sweeping the Arab world have been provoked by long injustice, low income, police brutality, and lack of social security.

    While the world looks at this, the suffering of up to three million maids across the Arab world remains wrapped in silence.

    Victims of abuse, confinement and rape, migrant domestic workers are often invisible because they suffer in places that remain hidden to the public eye, mostly private homes.

    A freelance Indonesian domestic worker in Jordan says, "If you go to the Indonesian embassy in Jordan you will see hundreds of women who ran away from their employer.

    "I also ran away after mistreatment. I want to go back to Indonesia but the embassy has no money to send us."


    A survey by the Saudi magazine Sayidaty titled ‘Maids Rights’ reveals that more than three million maids in the Arab world are subjected to conditions akin to slavery.

    The survey found that across several countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, an absence of laws regulating the relationship between domestic workers and their employers allows abuse to run rampant.

    "We didn’t sleep day or night, we had to be up whenever the baby cried," said Potri a domestic worker from the Philippines working in Jordan. "We didn’t even have time to shower or eat during the day because we were always rocking him so he doesn’t cry. It was like that for two and a half years."

    From her salary of just $100 dollars a month, Joan, another domestic worker, said she had to giver her Jordanian employer money to buy food for her: "So basically we were working for free."

    Sexual abuse

    Before leaving Madagascar, Dima 19, was told she would find good employment and an opportunity to provide much needed money for her family that was struggling with extreme poverty and unemployment. But within a few hours of arriving at the home of her new employer in Lebanon in early April of last year, she confronted a different reality.

    "The male employer picked me up from the airport and when we arrived to the home he told me to take a bath," said in an interview.

    "He insisted that I leave the door slightly open and while I was in the bath he entered and raped me."

    It became worse some weeks later. She says she was tied up and raped by the employer and two of his friends.

    Within a month Dima escaped. "While the family was getting into the car I started running. I couldn’t bear living like this any more."


    The current financial climate in Africa and Southeast Asia has forced many families to look for desperate ways out of life in extreme poverty.

    "Recruitment agencies from our home countries are tricking new domestic employees by telling them that will have a great job, with a high paying salary and the ability to save money and provide for their families," says Aimee, a community leader and freelance domestic worker from Madagascar.

    "But when they arrive they realise that it was all a lie."

    The demand for migrant domestic workers in Arab countries is fed by an influx of Arab women into the workforce, and by definitions of social status in line with the number of servants under command.

    The increased demand has swollen the expatriate population, at places to outnumber the locals.

    According to a study by the Centre for Women and Gender Studies, nearly 85 per cent of the United Arab Emirates population of four million is migrant workers. In Bahrain and Saudi Arabia 65 per cent of the workforce are expats. In Kuwait it is 82 per cent, and in Qatar almost 90 per cent.

    In Bahrain, granting of citizenship to foreign workers as a means of changing Bahrain’s sectarian balance is a major source of discontent amongst protestors.

    A version of this article first appeared on the Inter Press Service News Agency.




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