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Helping the domestic helper

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Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have now agreed to a minimum wage for domestic work.


Sacha Robehmed
8 October 2012

This September, a young Ethiopian housemaid in Dubai was kicked out of the house by her employers and not paid her last three months wages, so she stood in the street attempting to commit suicide. She was then arrested and subsequently fined 1000Dhs as committing suicide is illegal in the UAE. The appalling story has created outcry in the UAE, and sparked a campaign raising funds for the fine.

Since then, there have been further suicide attempts by Ethopian housemaids in Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah. Attention has been turned once again to the treatment of the thousands of women employed as domestic workers in the country, most of whom come from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Ethiopia.

One of the university readings I’ve never forgotten is “Maid to Order”, a book by Nicole Constable about domestic workers in Hong Kong. Although inflected with slight differences and Hong Kong particulars, the ethnography struck a cord as I was reading about the familiar in an unfamiliar way. Academic theories on the commodification of care, globalisation and migratory circuits were juxtaposed with my memories and experiences in the UAE, where domestic help is an integral part of daily life.  

I grew up with a housemaid; pineapple cut expertly by Filipino hands, ramen noodles always kept in stock for lunch, Tagalog gossip when passing other maids in the neighbourhood. On Fridays, she’d rise early to spend the day at church and with friends. Stories of her own children, being cared for by grandparents, the younger sisters she was putting through college. All of my friends and peers also grew up with a housemaid, and some even lived in households with a few domestic staff members.

While it’s very normal in the UAE, I’m well aware how alien the idea of a ‘housemaid’ is in the developed west. People find it uncomfortable, unsurprisingly given the intimacy of working in someone else’s home, the inequitable power dynamics arising from wealth, class and gender politics on a global level, and not-too-distant histories of slavery and colonialism.

Domestic workers are of course not unique to the UAE or even the GCC. Lebanon, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Africa are just a few other places where domestic workers are the norm, not the exception. Thousands of women, each with her own story of kind employers and decent salaries, of homesickness and guilt at being far from their own children - and some of the abuse and nightmarish situations.

While the UAE has signed up to the International Labour Organisation’s convention and recommendations related to domestic workers, current labour law does not cover domestic workers. As a recent editorial noted, dependency on sponsors makes quitting near impossible, and places housemaids in a vulnerable position. Several high profile cases of abuse in recent years led to disputes at national levels. In 2011, after the death penalty was carried out in Saudi Arabia on an Indonesian maid who’d killed her employer, Indonesia banned its citizens from working in the Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia also responded by banning Indonesians - although an agreement has now been reached. A dispute over wages and hiring guidelines saw Saudi Arabia also banning domestic workers from the Philippines last June. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have now agreed to minimum wages.

Indonesia and the Philippines are both heavily reliant economically on remittances from migrant workers. But it’s encouraging to see them taking more of a stand, and attempting to offer greater protection to domestic workers through diplomatic agreements and on-the-ground embassy support.

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