The Foreign Service Journal - December 2013 - page 33

hard work, Jennie came to Jordan because she wanted to do more
for her family. In Amman, she became active in a local church of
guest workers. Through these relationships, she found friendship,
wisdom and support.
Each pay period, Jennie sent money home, but her older
siblings actually dictated how the funds were dispersed. Jennie
admitted once that she knew her older brothers often squan-
dered the money, and that it did not reach her mother: “The last
time I was in the Philippines, I tried to teach my mother how to
sign her name so she could get the money. But she is illiterate,
Madam. She has worked so hard all her life. But she knows almost
nothing of the money I send home.”
What Now?
Over the years, I became more accustomed to the murky
moral complexity of kafala, as well as to the tired arguments trot-
ted out to support it. The same arguments were once used to jus-
tify the American enslavement of Africans; for example, “Their
lives are so much better off here than where they are from.”
Life is simply hard—cradle to grave—for most of these work-
ers. For the women, the money they earn is often no more theirs
than before they earned it. They face strong pressure from agen-
cies and family members who rely on their remittances, as do the
governments of their home countries, whose economies are not
keeping pace with ever-increasing populations.
The women also may be misled about the life of a domestic
worker in the Middle East, believing that some of the Middle
East’s reportedly gold-paved streets might become a path of
wealth for them, as well. But the migration laws of kafala and the
seething poverty of their countries of origin leave themwith few
good options.
Kafala’s notoriously ignoble margins should be treated as a
front in the battle against global human trafficking, one of the
most pressing international issues of our time. Thinking about it
in those terms may be uncomfortable, perhaps because so many
of us are entangled in it even though we hardly think of ourselves
as being actively involved in human trafficking. I’ve become more
convinced, however, that those margins matter.
After researching and witnessing the fallout from kafala, one
Foreign Service officer I talked to while preparing this essay said
that, as a form of resistance to the entire system, she refuses to
employ any domestic worker. Another officer said that employ-
ing another person to clean your house under sponsorship laws
is “un-American.” I respect these positions, and I wonder how
many others in the Foreign Service have taken that kind of bold
stand against kafala.
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