An Indonesian domestic worker in Saudi Arabia. Steve McCurry for the ILO/Flickr. Creative Commons.
Direct action, a defining feature of political practice in progressive social movements is ‘the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free’. I contend that migrant domestic workers in the Middle East practice direct action when they live and work as freelancers outside the regular system of sponsorship known commonly as the kafala system.
The kafala system of visa sponsorship confers largely unregulated powers on employers to control their migrant employees and restricts the latter’s ability to transfer to another employer without the consent of the initial sponsor. The kafala system applies to many sectors of employment, but in this article I focus on migrant domestic workers. If employment ends, then the migrant domestic worker’s documented residency status also ends. The transfer of state powers to employers is further strengthened by the notion that governments ought not to interfere in the private sphere of the home and family. This is now widely interpreted to include the employment relationships that exist within this sphere. Migrant domestic labour is not regulated by employment law and those laws that nominally protect domestic workers are mainly unenforced.
We now have a reasonable understanding of the kafala system and its consequences for domestic workers. We know much less about the many women working outside of that system as freelancers. Freelancing refers to a situation in which migrant domestic workers leave their regular place of formal employment—violating the terms of their kafala-based visa permit—and subsequently negotiate a contract of employment with another. Working as a freelancer often brings enhanced pay and better conditions of employment, such as agreed working hours and time off: freelancers also frequently live outside of their employer’s home, a luxury rarely afforded to migrant workers in regular domestic employment. The trade-off is that because freelancing usually entails transfer to another employer without the previous employer’s consent, freelancers are subject to arrest and deportation.
Freelancing may be understood as both a product of and enabled by the sponsorship system that creates conditions for labour coercion and abuse. Migrant domestic workers who abscond from employers do so not just because they have been subjected to specific forms of abuse—withholding of wages, excessive workloads and confiscation of travel documents—but also because the situation of employment fundamentally constricts and constrains their choice and freedom of movement. While many would deem migrant domestic workers who escape such abuse as victims of ‘modern-day slavery’ or trafficking, their direct action serves to reject such labels and to re-claim their agency by seizing the initiative and acting precisely as if they were free.
In sociology we call this type of behaviour prefigurative politics, meaning that individuals are choosing to act as if they live in the world they desire rather than in the world they inhabit. Describing freelancing as direct action and as an act of political prefiguration may seem a bit of a stretch. However, if direct action is not about people deciding in advance what qualifies as an act of freedom or about agreeing on the aims of freedom, but rather simply about people reconstructing social relations by acting as if they were free, then it seems reasonable to suggest that freelancers are a type of (non-violent) social movement.
I see freelancers as constituting a social movement despite the fact they rarely coalesce into a more coherent collectivity. A notable exception to this were the camps that sprung up in Saudi Arabia recently to protest government attempts to regularise and/or deport irregular migrants, including freelancers. Such examples are uncommon though, and freelancers most often rely on transnational networks of kin and co-ethnics to enable their practices of freedom. Through these networks they create and experience a sense of solidarity with other freelancers through discursive acts of identification, affirming and asserting alongside one another that they are people who practice freedom.
People’s capacity to act, despite and because of the system of constraints they face, is one reason that using the language of slavery to describe migrant domestic workers is problematic. The historical tendency of European abolitionists to overlook the agency and resistance of people who were enslaved in the past is replayed in contemporary representations of migrant domestic workers as the slaves of today.
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