The Foreign Service Journal - December 2013 - page 30

In practice, however, the system favors the powerful. Not only
are the laws governing it routinely disregarded; but also, since
there is no real market competition for employees and they enter
the country with fewmeaningful legal rights or freedoms, they
are without recourse when problems arise. Even if one argues
that kafala is not technically slavery, the institution permits the
development of all kinds of slave-like situations.
Indeed, “running away” from one’s sponsor is often the only
real form of escape from terrible working conditions. And there
are plenty of runaways who then live in legal limbo, lacking
passports and local documentation because their sponsors have
taken the documents from them, a widely practiced contraven-
tion of the laws.
The treatment of domestic workers usually falls far short
of any legal norms issued by their countries of residence. The
acceptable range of pay varies widely, as do normal working
hours. Some employers refuse to let their domestic workers leave
the home without permission, imprisoning them inside; and
many deny their employees use of a phone. It takes little imagina-
tion to appreciate the kinds of abuse women who are so thor-
oughly hidden from society may experience. Domestic work for
a Filipina, or a Sri Lankan or Indonesian woman may resemble
indentured servitude, if not imprisonment.
Domestic workers try to find work in households where there
are stronger cultural expectations for basic human rights, usually
among Western expatriates. Often these arrangements can be
quite beneficial, where remuneration for work is relatively above
market price, with days off, sick-day compensation, and so forth.
But a far larger swath of guest workers toil in homes or factories
where conditions are abusive, unjust, isolating and unrelenting,
and where the employee has no remedy.
My Place in the System
During our tour in Qatar, we employed a Filipina (I’ll call her
“Lola”) to work in our home. I had serious reservations about
sponsoring and employing her, but mostly because I was squea-
mish about losing our family’s privacy and because I felt that
hiring a domestic employee violated my American work ethic.
(I still think cleaning one’s own toilet is good for the soul.)
But with my husband’s long work hours, the long list of house-
keeping tasks in the large house assigned to us, and trying to
care for a toddler and a nursing newborn, an “extra pair of hands
around the house” eventually came to sound like a good idea.
After all, having some kind of household help was part of the
cultural fabric of Doha, as well as within the American embassy
Lola’s original American sponsor/employer had been abruptly
fired by his Qatari company when he was traveling outside of
the country. Because his legal rights in Qatar were nullified
overnight, so were hers. If she did not find a new sponsor or host
quickly, she would face deportation to the Philippines. Worse,
she still owed significant debts to the agency that had arranged
her passage to Qatar, and there were financial pressures back in
the Philippines, too. She contacted us to see if we could help, and
we agreed to hire her.
My husband worked through the process of securing her
“release” from her previous American employer, and we helped
her get settled into the maid’s quarters of our house. A closet at
best, it at least granted her (and us) some real privacy, with a
separate entrance and exit, a private bathroom and a door that
Lola could lock to keep us out.
Shortly after Lola came to work for us as a “live-in,” it dawned
on me that our new arrangement was one with which I had only a
literary acquaintance. Since I had been raised in a typical middle-
class American family—no “help” whatsoever—having a live-in
housekeeper was more the stuff of an evening BBC drama on PBS
than real life for me. Along with “Mommy” and “Daddy,” I was
now called “Madam” and my husband “Sir.” (Even when I insisted
she call me by my name, in a naive attempt to relax the palpable
power dynamics, she could never bring herself to do so.)
And I began to understand that, as Caitlin Flanagan aptly put
it in her 2007 book,
To Hell with All That: Loving and Loath-
ing Our Inner Housewife:
“My relationship with [my domestic
employee] would turn out to be the most legally, morally and
emotionally complicated one of my life.”
Life as ‘Madam’
Lola and I eventually arrived at a workable rhythm to our
shared existence, but I found my role in the home harder to jus-
tify with her able presence. Odd sensations of territoriality welled
up in me at times, even as I was enormously grateful for her help
keeping the miles of tile in our home clean—no small feat in the
Domestic work for a Filipina, or a Sri Lankan or Indonesian
womanmay resemble indentured servitude, if not imprisonment.
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