• Sunday, November 29, 2015
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    IWD: How the Kafala System is Failing Domestic Workers in the Middle East

    By Simba Shani Kamaria Russeau*

    “For developing countries, female migrants are becoming the main export as the labour market demand for a new form of modern-day slavery – domestic servitude – increases in the Middle East.”

    Libyan domestic worker Hawiyah Awal. Credit: Simba Russeau/IPS

    “In terms of the number of people going hungry today, more than 60 percent are women and girls and the situation of global hunger always has a gender characteristic to it. That means that the most vulnerable people in society are always going to be in the front line,” journalist, activist and former policy analyst with the advocacy group Food First, Raj Patel told me.

    “When there are already burdens of caring for the elderly, kids, the sick, carrying water and finding fuel coupled with the costs of finding food at higher costs with less money to go around and increased demands to find sources of income, women are structurally in a much harder position to make ends meet.”

    Recent statistics indicate that women account for nearly 70 percent of the world’s poor.

    Women – who have less access to food, water, health care, do not own land, have little political voice, lack basic rights and access to education to better their living conditions – are more vulnerable before any global crisis due to their status before disaster hits.

    Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan domestic worker charged with unintentional homicide in Saudi Arabia. Rafeek's case has garnered international headlines.

    As a result, rural women are, at an increasing rate, being forced to migrate.

    In search of greener pastures

    During the 1960s, women accounted for nearly 45 percent of the total migration – mainly for reunification purposes with their spouses who were already employed abroad.

    Today, the global financial crisis has forced millions of people in developing countries into poverty. As a result, the share of women migrating for employment has increased from 35.3 million in 1960 to 94.5 million in 2005.

    For developing countries, female migrants are becoming the main export as the labour market demand for a new form of modern-day slavery – domestic servitude – increases in the Middle East.

    Currently, there are an estimated 25 million migrant domestic workers in the Middle East. Mainly from Africa and Asia, they provide the bulk of household and cleaning services.

    ‘I can’t bear living like this anymore’

    Before leaving Madagascar, Dima, 19, was told that she would find decent employment and a means to provide much needed funds to pull her family out of extreme poverty. However, it was only several hours after arriving to the home of her new employer in Lebanon that she was confronted with a different reality.

    After less than a month of being employed in Lebanon, Dima seized an opportune moment to escape. I met Dima the following day and the story she tells is heartbreaking:

    “The male employer picked me up from the airport and when we arrived to the home he told me to take a bath. He insisted that I leave the door slightly open and while I was in the bath he entered and raped me.

    He started bragging about never having a Black woman before and his excitement at having a taste. Afterwards, I was forced to bury the scars and so that I could carry on with my household chores. Several weeks later it happened again.

    This time he tied my hands to the bed and spread my legs apart and tied each to the bed and raped me repeatedly. Then he invited two male friends over and they also took turns raping me. While the family was getting into the car I started running. I couldn’t bear living like this anymore.”


    Shantimaya Dong Tamang's bid to earn money as a domestic worker in Kuwait ended with her becoming a quadriplegic. Credit:Sudeshna Sarkar/IPS

    The kafala system has cultural and historical roots in the Arab world. It comes from the Bedouin custom of temporarily granting strangers protection and even affiliation into the tribe for specific purposes. For instance, if a stranger were traveling across the desert and happened to wander onto a family’s camp, it would be customary to take him in, feed him and his animals, and allow him to stay as long as he wishes.

    Under the modern-day kafala (sponsorship) system, we see the opposite. It’s commonplace for employers to confiscate passports, which can facilitate abuse, advocates argue.

    In an interesting study by scholar Hayeon Lee, she argues that one of the reasons employers exert tight control over their workers is due to widespread stereotypes about the oversexualisation of Asian and African women:

    “For example, although Cynthia, a Lebanese woman in her thirties working for an international organiaation, is conscientious in terms of the Filipina live-in maid’s treatment and workload, she does not allow the maid to have a day-off outside the house. She tells any Filipina live-in maid who works in her home, ‘The minute you decide that this is not your priority – working and making money for your family – and your priority is finding somebody, you tell me, you [must] leave.’

    It is convenient and economic for recruitment agencies to discourage madames to allow live-in maids to have a day-off outside the house: There is a three-month guarantee period for the customers, and if anything goes wrong, it is the agency that pays. And many madames, who pay up to US$2700 to hire a woman from the Philippines to work in their home, are not willing to risk losing their ‘investment’ after hearing stories of Filipina women sleeping with men, getting pregnant, running away, and bringing disease to their home. Furthermore, the kafala (sponsorship) system, along with domestic workers’ exclusion from the labor law, ties workers to their Lebanese employer, creating a legal dependency of the former on the latter. Such an arrangement delegates near absolute power to the employer to dictate her relationship with the live-in maid (Longva 1997:91-94). The negative sexual stereotypes of Filipina women often legitimiae this control.”

    Creating their own social networks

    Despite the fact that they are left to fend for themselves due to little or no protection from labour laws, their governments or recruitment agencies, these women have created their own informal networks and makeshift community spaces.

    Community leaders not only turn their homes into shelters for younger women but also act as social workers by providing emotional support.

    However, until the proper mechanisms are put in place to ensure that women traveling to the region are guaranteed their rights, a good place to start might be to honour the kafala‘s original cultural tradition of offering the newcomer a real peaceful place of refuge.

    *Simba Shani Kamaria Russeau is a North Africa-based correspondent for IPS. An award-winning multimedia storyteller, documentary photographer, blogger, DJ and spiritual ruckus maker, Simba is also the founder of Taste Culture and the 24/7 campaign.

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