The Kuwaiti beauty blogger Sondos Alqattan recently unleashed a storm of criticism after saying that Filipino domestic workers in the Persian Gulf region should not have the right to take a day off or hold on to their own passports. Activists the world over were quick to condemn her remarks, and prominent cosmetic companies have stopped working with her.
But her views are far from extraordinary. From Lebanon to Saudi Arabia, many employers view domestic workers, the vast majority of whom are women, as servants who do not deserve the freedom to leave the house or even the right to rest.
A recent report from the International Labor Organization says that “while many employer-domestic worker relationships are positive” in the Middle East, “continuing and credible allegations of abuse and fraudulent behavior continue to plague the sector.” Human Rights Watch has documented hundreds of incidents of mistreatment.
Sawla was one of them. This Ethiopian woman was repeatedly beaten and forced to work 19 hours a day for a Kuwaiti family, and she could not escape because they had her passport. Another Human Rights Watch report details the case of Atiya, a young Tanzanian woman who migrated to Oman looking for a better life only to find herself being beaten daily. When she fell ill, she told Human Rights Watch, her employer raped her as punishment.
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Stories like these are prevalent, but only the most gruesome make headlines. Earlier this year, the body of a Filipino worker was found inside the freezer of an abandoned apartment that belonged to her employers in Kuwait. Last year, an employer in the United Arab Emirates was found guilty of torturing her female Indonesian domestic worker and causing her permanent deafness.
The international outcry following such incidents has compelled some governments to improve their domestic work regulations. Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have all recently passed legislation aimed at preventing the exploitation of migrants. Alqattan’s now-infamous rant was actually a reaction to Kuwait’s enhanced safety measures for Filipino migrants.
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Better laws can reduce forced labor, but they will not end it. For starters, throughout much of the Arab world, such regulations operate within a much larger, inherently exploitative structure — the “kafala” system. This form of visa sponsorship is believed to have originated in Gulf states to accommodate foreign workers, mostly from South Asian countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Over the years, the scheme has evolved from helping protect migrants to severely limiting domestic workers’ rights. Under today’s kafala, a migrant is not allowed to leave her employer without the employer’s consent. She is also forbidden from changing employers or traveling out of the country. Escaping is a crime, punishable by arrest and deportation. Human Rights Watch has long argued that no secondary regulation can guarantee the safety of domestic workers as long as the kafala keeps them legally handcuffed to their employers.
What’s more, labor rules are often the result of bilateral agreements between countries of origin and destination. This means that working conditions are established by individual states, rather than general labor law. So when a nation like India lobbies to secure better conditions for its migrant workers, recruiters simply start hiring women from a less demanding country. That is why, toward the end of her tirade on Kuwait’s labor regulations, Alqattan said, “I will no longer have a Filipino maid.” In other words, she could just hire someone from a country governed by weaker labor protections. Same abuse, different victim.
Then there is the issue of logistics. Domestic work takes place in private homes, which means even the best law can be difficult to implement. There are about 1.6 million female migrant domestic workers in the Middle East and Gulf region — it would be quite difficult for labor inspectors to investigate each of their homes. Pre-placement visits and randomized inspections could help, but even then, legislation can’t do much for migrants once they are trapped with a potential abuser. At best, it can protect the handful of women who are willing to risk denouncing their employer.
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If we truly want to eradicate forced domestic labor, we must confront the rampant prejudice behind it. What we need are programs that help employers see their homes as workplaces and migrant women as professionals, worthy of fair pay and safe working conditions. A few nongovernmental organizations are already leading such initiatives. Migrant Rights educates families in Qatar about the benefits of respecting the rights of their domestic workers; another group, Amel, goes into Lebanese schools to challenge students’ assumptions about migrant women.
Next, we must overhaul the recruitment system so it promotes trust and understanding between employer and domestic worker. Currently, recruitment agents focus largely on profit, which leads to both employers and migrants paying exorbitant fees in return for virtually no skill-matching or cultural orientation. Ethical recruitment companies, like the Fair Hiring Initiative in the Philippines and FSI Worldwide, are better alternatives, helping to provide migrants and their employers with a better understanding of their rights and duties.
Above all, migrant women should have a leading voice in the fight for their own rights. The few who have access to phones are already using WhatsApp to organize secret support groups in countries like Jordan and Kuwait. Now they need a public platform where they can articulate their demands and leverage their collective bargaining power. In Lebanon, where abuse is rampant, domestic workers have already set up a union — believed to be the first of its type in the region. The government has reacted by denying the organization legal status and deporting its leaders. Any country claiming to support domestic workers would be well served by doing the opposite.
We cannot put an end to the denigration of domestic workers until we first understand how awfully routine it is. Outrage is necessary. But if we think the problem is a single bigoted blogger, we are missing the forest for the tree.