In early March, a shocking video of Ethiopian domestic worker and mother of two Alem Dechasa being beaten in front of her embassy in Beirut by her Lebanese employer began circulating on the web. (*Trigger warning: this video contains very distressing images of physical assault.) Dechasa later committed suicide by hanging herself with her hospital bed sheet. Netizens were outraged: a petition was created to stop the abuse of migrant domestic workers in the Middle East and a crowdsourcing website was set up to map occurrences of such abuse.
Sadly, this is not the first time such blatant abuse has occurred. In 2008, Human Rights Watch found that Lebanon’s domestic workers were dying at a rate of more than one a week, a situation that has prompted the UK magazine The Economist to note that domestic work in the Middle East is “little better than slavery.” Migrant domestic workers have been working in Middle Eastern countries since the oil boom of the 1970’s, doing anything from cleaning, to cooking, to caring for children, the elderly and pets. There are currently an estimated 1.5 million migrant domestic workers (MDWs) in Saudi Arabia, approximately 660,000 in Kuwait and 200,000 in Lebanon. Other Middle Eastern countries with large numbers of MDWs are Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. The remittances that these workers send back to their home countries account for a high share of the GDP of developing countries such as the Philippines and Nepal (11% and 17% respectively).
Despite these important contributions, domestic work has historically been undervalued and often not recognized as legitimate work – a depreciation that has been intimately linked to its gendered nature. But domestic work is crucial to sustaining capitalist and consumerist societies, which rely on its performance to support professionals working outside of the home. In a globalized society, female migration for domestic work is facilitated by the existence of a supply of migrants from poorer countries who are willing to work abroad for low salaries (often between USD 100 and 400 per month) in a profession that is considered gender-appropriate.
There is a level of vulnerability that comes with the forced intimacy of living with one’s employer. But what facilitates the physical, psychological, financial and sexual abuse of MDWs the most is the poor regulation of the sector, which generally provides little protection for its workers. Abuse is often trivialized through reductive narratives about MDWs, which are coupled with general distrust. Close monitoring and control of an MDW through forced confinement and withholding of travel documents, for example, is often rationalized by citing fears of the MDW running away from her employer.
“A perceived sense of victimization often justifies such close monitoring,” explains Rima Kalush, editor of Migrant-Rights.org, a website that aims to raise awareness of the plight of migrant workers in the Middle East. “There’s a lot of suspicion towards domestic workers, whether it’s fear that they’ll steal money, harm your children, or run away…employers often think they’re within their rights to take these ‘preventative’ measures, which gravely trespass on the rights of domestic workers. And they’re able to do so because there’s virtually nothing preventing them from doing so.”
Hayeon Lee, in her research on MDWs in Lebanon, also notes that the perceived sexuality of MDWs, especially Filipinas, is used as a pretext for employers to keep their maids locked indoors, out of fear that their maid will find a boyfriend and get pregnant. There is also a widespread, infantilizing perception among employers that MDWs are not able to safely go out in public alone: Lee notes that many Lebanese “refer to the migrant domestic worker as a binit – or girl, with an undertone of virginity – sometimes even for women well into their forties.”
This distrust, which is often fueled by biased media reporting and the recruitment agencies themselves, has largely contributed to the overall reluctance of employers, recruitment agencies and governments to regulate the sector and enforce basic rights for MDWs.
Mistreatment is so widespread that some countries have taken steps to ban their citizens from working abroad as domestic workers. When an Indonesian maid was executed by beheading in Saudi Arabia in 2011, Indonesia finally put a ban on sending MDWs to the kingdom. Indonesia also temporarily bans its citizens from working as MDWs in Malaysia, and plans to stop sending MDWs abroad altogether by 2017.
But such bans seem to have little positive impact for MDWs, in particular when adequate alternatives for work are not provided in their home countries. Journalist Simba Russeau, who has extensively reported on migration issues, told Gender Across Borders that bans in the Middle East often result in a higher prevalence of traffickers and black market employment agencies, which has the ultimate effect of either encouraging women to enter the country illegally (making them even more vulnerable to abuse) or encouraging women from even poorer countries to fill the vacuum.
Beyond mistreatment at the hands of employers, MDWs also have to deal with the multiple stigma attached to them as women, foreigners, and poor, unskilled migrants. For example, in Lebanon, MDWs have been known to be refused access to leisure spots such as beaches, which seems to be a result of a combination of racism and classism.
Elements of racism also underpin the hiring and treatment of MDWs. Simba Russeau notes that many Lebanese employers prefer Filipina workers (whose salaries are higher and complexions fairer) because they represent a higher class. Others may prefer to hire MDWs that are perceived as obedient: Rima Kamlush told Gender Across Borders that there is “definitely a preference for migrants who are considered ‘malleable’ and this is sometimes attributed to particular nationalities.”
The depreciation of domestic work, meanwhile, seems to reinforce classism. This depreciation is legitimized by labor laws, which often do not recognize the household as a workplace, making domestic work “invisible.”
Much of this has to do with domestic work being performed in the “private” sphere. TIME blogger Emily Rauhala notes that “despite links to slavery, colonialism and globalization, domestic labor is typically treated as a matter of private, not public, concern.”
It then becomes crucial to question the artificial divide between public and private spheres – a divide which has also been instrumental in underprioritizing domestic violence, which is often framed as a “private” or “family” matter.
Linked to this notion of the private sphere is the pressing issue of the gendered construction of domestic work. In their work Illegal Migration and Gender in a Global and Historical Perspective, Marlou Schrover, Joanne van der Leun, Leo Lucassen and Chris Quispel note that: “Women’s work as domestics is not in itself considered problematic […] A particular notion of femininity, which centers on morality, motherhood and sexuality, is at stake here.”
In patriarchal power dynamics, domestic work is typically assigned to a woman of the household. In a society with great income disparities, if this woman is rich, she can delegate her domestic work to another, poorer woman. In a globalized society, this other, poorer woman usually comes from another country, may have been trafficked, is often in debt bondage, has little in the way of a support network and may not always master the language of the country she works in.
But in either case, domestic work is still being performed by women. Thanks to the availability of “affordable” MDWs, men can continue to avoid the ‘second shift’ all the while upholding the illusion of gender equality in their own marriages. But the reality is that the gender inequality is simply being absorbed by less wealthy women – with all the impact that this domestic employment has on MDWs and their families back home.
As long as domestic tasks continue to delegated to women and developing countries do not offer viable alternatives of incoming-generating work to their female citizens, it’s unlikely that the demand for foreign domestic workers will dwindle. And as long as domestic work continues to be feminized, undervalued and paired with a live-in system, it’s unlikely that the exploitation of domestic workers will significantly decrease.