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Maid to Order: Domestic Workers in the GCC


A Indonesian migrant worker heading for Middle East countries holds her passport documents at an immigration office.
A Indonesian migrant worker heading for Middle East countries holds her passport documents at an immigration office.
Every year, millions of young women from South Asia flock to the six nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) in search of a better life. Typically, they work through recruiters in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Philippines and other countries in the region. Some are unlucky and are trafficked into the sex trade. Those who do land jobs as domestic workers in Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries soon discover that they have little access to justice when things go wrong.

Annette Vlieger teaches law at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and holds degrees in International law, cultural anthropology and sociology of the non-Western world. As part of a dissertation on the social and legal conflicts of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Vlieger traveled to South Asia and the Gulf, where she went undercover in an attempt to define the problems faced by domestic workers and offer solutions. The results of her study,
Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates: A Socio-Legal Study on Conflict, has been published in book form.

VOA Senior Reporter Cecily Hilleary spoke with Vlieger by phone to discuss the extent of the problem. NOTE: The problem of the exploitation of domestic and other migrant workers is not endemic to Saudi Arabia and the UAE alone, but prevalent across the globe.

Antoinette Vlieger
Antoinette Vlieger
Hilleary: How many domestic workers are there in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, collectively?

Vlieger: In these two countries together, there are already two million domestic workers.

Hilleary: What’s in it for women from countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, to go to the Gulf to work?

Vlieger: You have to consider the fact that about two billion people worldwide have less than a dollar per day, and domestic workers in countries like the Philippines or Indonesia earn about $20 per month doing the same work. So if they go to the Middle East, where they can earn $200 a month, then that’s ten times the salary.

Hilleary: How do they find these jobs?

Vlieger: There are recruitment agencies, which are located in the countries of origin in larger cities, and there are middle men who travel across the countryside to find women to work in the Middle East.

Hilleary: Well, there are some men who wander across the countryside looking for women to work in less savory professions, too. How do these women know what they are getting into?

Vlieger: Well, the difference between these professions is not perceived as being that large, because actually, people are aware that the sexual abuse of domestic workers in the Middle East is pretty bad. So the difference is not perceived as being that much.

Hilleary: And what about for the women themselves?

Vlieger: The women themselves simply believe in fate. And they say, ‘Well, it is my fate either to find a good employer, or I will be unlucky and there is nothing I can do about it.’ And they think they don’t have any alternative, because at home, there’s not a job available by which they can earn money. Very often they come from the countryside and they can help out their family on the land, but as the families grow, there is simply not enough land available for the whole family. And the land doesn’t make enough money to buy things in the market, so they can’t send siblings to school, they can’t buy medication. For all these things they need money.

So the family, if it wants to have money, will send one young daughter to the Middle East, and it’s sort of like a sacrifice. Very often, girls know that that is their reason for existing, that’s what they’ve been told all their lives, that they have to go abroad to earn money for their brothers and their fathers.

Hilleary: Not all of these recruiters are honest, as you point out in your book. Tell me about some of the problems that can occur.

Vlieger: In the beginning [of my research], it hadn’t occurred to me immediately that the recruiters could be the problem. At first, I was looking at the employers. But after awhile, I started to see that many employers meant well, but the women had been promised other working conditions.

So what I did was I decided to research the recruiters and the agencies in the Middle East to compare the work conditions. So in Manila and Jakarta, I sent somebody into these agencies to pretend to be in search of a job, to see what they would promise her. And basically, they don’t really tell her anything about the work conditions. As soon as she starts to pose questions, they say, ‘Oh, apparently you don’t really want to work.’ And then they start to hesitate over whether to send her to the Middle East. The only thing they say is, ‘Well, if you want a job, you have to stay within the compound now for three months,’ and they just promise her a golden future—very vague and abstract—and they don’t discuss what kind of work, exactly, she’s going to do. They don’t tell her what her salary is going to be. They don’t tell her anything.

Then I went to the Middle East and I pretended to be in search of a domestic worker to see what they would tell the employer. And I was very much in shock—mostly in Saudi Arabia, where they simply told me, ‘She will be your slave for two years.’

Hilleary: The recruiters?

Vlieger: They said, ‘this is what happens: You pick her up at the airport and bring her to your home, you lock the door and after two years, you open the door again. And in the meantime, you can do with her whatever you like.’

Hilleary: What are the kinds of problems that they encounter, these women?

Vlieger: Well, the average workday is 17 hours, which is an average. And some girls have to work 20 hours and they are simply exhausted. I met women who ran away simply because they couldn’t sleep anymore from being too exhausted. Others are abused, either physically or mentally. I met many women who were sexually abused as well. I met women who were never paid.

The largest problem is that they have no place to turn to for help.

Hilleary: That was my next question—are there no resources?

Vlieger: Well, if they are lucky, they find an employer who is nice to them. But if they are not so lucky, they simply have no place to go. And the employer knows that. He knows that he can get away with anything. So if it’s a good guy or a good woman, they will treat the domestic worker well. But nobody’s going to stop them from doing bad if they choose to.

Hilleary: Explain to me a little about the sponsorship program, which allows people to enter these countries, but may also prevent them from leaving.

Vlieger: Well these workers come into these countries on a visa that is tied to one specific employer. So if the employer decides to fire the worker, then immediately, the visa becomes invalid, and then according to the law, immediately, she changes into a criminal. So that means that the employer is extremely powerful because of the visa system, because he can threaten her, he can just say, ‘Well, you have to do what I like because if you don’t, I’ll have you deported tomorrow’—and he can.

So if she has problems at home, if she made debts in order to come to the Middle East, if she has sick family members, anything, any reason why she would need the money, need to stay, then the employer can simply demand whatever he likes.

Hilleary: And who has paid the fees—I assume there are medical tests that are required, airfare—who pays for those things?

Vlieger: Well, according to the law, the employer has to pay all that, but usually domestic workers are not aware of these laws. So it does happen every now and then that the domestic worker pays the fee as well.

Hilleary: To the recruiters?

Vlieger: Yes. That’s not the status of other kinds of workers. Because by now, the knowledge has spread that it’s a very tough job to be a domestic worker in the Middle East. So the only women that will go there are women that are really from the lowest layers of society and they don’t have money for a placement fee and they don’t have anything to sell. So the problem with the placement fee is larger with other migrant workers than with domestic workers.

Hilleary: Now, I understand that there are labor laws in these two countries, but domestic workers are exempt from these laws, is that correct?

Vlieger: Yes, that’s correct. But even if they were included, it wouldn’t make that much of a difference because as I said, the rule of law system in both these countries is extremely weak.

We are used to a system in which there is one rule that is applied to everyone. But in the Middle East, the system basically functions on other systems, because the rule of law is not working. So the systems that people use to defend their position are tribalism, corruption and cronyism. And everybody knows that whoever has the best connections usually wins.

Hilleary: Wasta [connections—or clout].

Vlieger: Wasta, exactly, yes. And in these systems, the domestic worker always loses, because she doesn’t have money, she doesn’t know any princes, and her tribe is back in her home country. She doesn’t have a system to protect her.

Hilleary: Now what recourse does a domestic worker have if she’s in an abusive situation? Where can she go and what can she do?

Vlieger: Well, if she’s either Philippina or Indonesian, for instance, she can turn to her embassy for help. And the embassies are not fantastic either, because the embassies are very corrupt as well, unfortunately. But they do have shelters at the embassies.

But, for instance, if you are from Nepal or Somalia, you really have absolutely nowhere to go.

Hilleary: Are there no NGOs or shelters such as we know in the US or Europe that they can go to?

Vlieger: Well, in Saudi Arabia, they are entirely illegal. NGOs are not allowed to exist. At all.