Print Friendly and PDF
only search

“For Madams Only”: Facebook groups and the politics of migrant domestic work in Egypt

Despite endless talk of its ‘democratising’ potential, Facebook does not automatically give “Maids” and “Madams” an equal voice.

Mops getting ready for insurrection. Picture by: paolobarzman / Some rights reserved. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)In July last year, the Facebook user “Princess Doo Woo” copied and pasted a list of  “OUR SIX DEMANDS” under every post in the public group Maids and Nannies in Egypt.  The demands, written by a coalition of middle/upper class housewives, include a limit on migrant domestic workers salaries, the freedom to set any tasks and working hours within that salary, and zero tolerance for “disobedience.” Borrowing from the radical language of social justice movements, these “Madams” outlined their noble battle (which is their “duty as Egyptians”) against the evil “mafia” who continue to exploit them: the Maids.

Since then, the campaign has taken off and a group was established called No Dollars For You!!! that only accepts “Madams” as members. It’s hard to take seriously any movement run by someone who calls herself “Princess Doo Woo” and blaming migrant domestic workers for Egypt’s dollar crash is evidently absurd. But scapegoating minorities at times of instability is all too common, and these social media discourses about domestic work reveal a complex intersection of class, race and gender politics in Egypt.

And by "Maid", they mean women who are working class or foreign

When we commented on one of the posts sharing these demands, we were immediately challenged to “prove” (how is unclear) whether we were “Madams or Maids.” Maids’ opinions do not matter. And by "Maid", they mean women who are working class or foreign. In one post, Nina, an Indonesian domestic worker, suggested that the demands were unreasonable and dehumanised Asian migrants. The Madams were horrified. “Do you realise what you are saying?” demanded one, “Do you know you are speaking to a Madam and not to your friend?”  Another seemed particularly upset: “what the hell is this… I wouldn’t pay these helpers 10 Egyptian pounds a year… no Madam should accept such behaviour.”

Although one of the Madams proudly states that she does “NOT practice slavery” because she is a “good Egyptian”, an alarming number of posters seem to believe that domestic workers should be grateful just to have been “taken off the streets” and given food and somewhere to sleep. A mother from Alexandria called “Chez Lala” writes that it is “really very funny that this woman is putting rules for me and talking about rights when she has no certificates or legal status.”

Facebook’s unusual status as a hybrid public/private space is really crucial to understanding these interactions and campaigns. The opportunity for “Maids” and “Madams” to speak outside traditional one-on-one employment relations is unprecedented and provides a platform for domestic workers to voice their dissent. But despite the endless talk of its ‘democratising’ potential, Facebook does not, in fact, automatically give everyone an equal voice.

The admins of the most popular groups putting employers and employees in contact are all “Madams” who have the power to remove members and delete posts or comments. One of these groups has recently clamped down on racist slurs by the Madams, writing that “you are all human beings so why not treat each other in this way?!” But the expectation is that admins for these groups will only delete inappropriate comments by Maids perceived to be speaking about their status. When Princess Doo Woo and her best friend, Chez Lala, were removed from Maids in Egypt 2, they immediately called on other Madams to boycott the group for bullying and claimed that it was run by foreigners.

The timeworn mantra of bigots – “just go back to your country” – lurks in endless ugly corners and sub-comments

Other groups like No Dollars For You!!! are able to screen potential members who request to join. They identify arbitrary markers of class or race in the profile pictures or public information of those who request to join and in this way classify them as either Madams or Maids. There has also been no censorship of attempts to publicly shame or blacklist maids by posting their photos on these groups with captions such as “very lazy do not trust!”

Xenophobia is clearly at the heart of these views. The timeworn mantra of bigots – “just go back to your country” – lurks in endless ugly corners and sub-comments. But despite this, and despite the fact that they are more expensive, there is still more of a demand for foreign domestic workers than for Egyptians. Feminist scholar Karen Hansen argues that this is a way by which employers establish clearer boundaries between themselves and the woman working in the intimate space of their house. The “threatening closeness” of paid domestic labour is “more easily resolved when employers and workers differ from each other.” But as Mavis Jakpattaa, an Ethiopian domestic worker on one of the groups observes, no one is born a Maid or a Madam: “in our home we are also Madam or Mrs. We Africans travel to countries like Egypt for many reasons. Some of us are studying at university here as well as maid work in order to travel to Europe.”

Another advantage of employing a migrant worker is that many lack citizenship rights and can therefore be exploited with no ramifications. In 2012, the first union for domestic workers was established in Egypt but migrant workers are not allowed to join. The union claims that migrants are protected by their brokers or embassies. However, embassies have rarely been known to intervene and another new demand by almost all the Madams searching for Maids is for “no brokers please.” As Mavis points out, if their contract has not been overseen by a third party broker, domestic workers have literally no one to go to if their payment is withheld or they experience abuse.

Part of the problem on these groups is not just how low the suggested salaries are but that they are divided by nationality: 3000-4000 LE for Africans, 5000-6000 LE for Asians. As one member commented, “it is like you are referring to different breeds of cattle.” But this ethnic stratification has always been a feature of the domestic worker market in Egypt and in other industries globally. One recent post, littered with cutesy heart-eyed and thumbs-up emojis, asks other madams to vote on whether they prefer Kenyans or Ghanaians as Maids by responding with a “like” or a “love.” Another post addressing itself “only for employers” asks whether anyone has had a Kenyan helper who stayed for more than a year.

This is also an issue of deep-seated attitudes towards female labour

Absurd stereotypes emerge: Kenyans are lazy, Ghanaians rude and dishonest, Indonesians likely to run away. But even ostensibly complimentary stereotypes play into toxic, neo-colonial discourses. For example, Filipinos are ideologically framed as docile, hardworking and obedient. Readymade workers for subordinate positions rather than management or more highly skilled roles, they are born to obey orders.

However, this is also an issue of deep-seated attitudes towards female labour that apply as much to Madams as to Maids. As Lina Dencik and others have argued, the development of a (primarily male) transnational capitalist class working longer, more flexible hours has been entirely dependent on the invisible work done by maids or female family members. But the contribution to GDP made by both “Madams” and “Maids” within the private sphere of the home is consistently erased. By undervaluing the tasks performed by their employees, Madams are playing into the same sexist logic that inevitably makes their own lives a lot harder when economic crises put a strain on the entire family.

Much has been made of the potential for Facebook to amplify the voices of marginalised groups such as domestic workers. But as this example shows, the internet does not naturally favour the oppressed over the oppressor. Deep socioeconomic divides still exist in the production of online content and activities such as surveillance and blacklisting provide new mechanisms for employers to exercise power over informal workers. Public and private groups where membership and activity is governed by internal guidelines or rules arbitrarily established by admins also serve to legitimise constructed hierarchies and categories based on class, race and gender.

For serious workers protections, these women must first be recognised as workers

But as with a lot of online call-out cultures, challenging offensive posts by Princess Doo Woo and Chez Lala detracts from our collective responsibility to radically adjust the way we talk about domestic work. ‘Good’ Madams on these groups frequently parade their superior treatment of Maids by describing how they are “a part of the family” or praising their commitment to “helping out” in various capacities. But this kind of language obscures the terms of a professional employment contract. The relations between domestic workers and their employers shouldn’t be based on fear and intimidation but neither are they about generosity or familial duty. For serious workers protections, these women must first be recognised as workers.

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.