The Foreign Service Journal - December 2013 - page 34

Beyond the Wilberforce laws, we can be agents of change
to combat the cultural indifference and violence toward
domestic employees in the kafala system.
Yet another person I talked to for this article—a local doctor
who has seen firsthand some of the abuse these women endure—
argued in the opposite direction: “These women will keep com-
ing even if every caring expatriate refused to employ them as
an act of rebellion against the current system. And they would
be much, much worse off. They are driven here by poverty, and
they are trapped here by debt and the prevailing culture. I think
if you have a commitment to human rights and labor rights,
you should embrace the moral burden to sponsor and employ
We have helped each of the women we’ve employed pay off
back debts and secure actual, legal documentation, when their
numerous previous employers had flouted or even manipu-
lated their own countries’ labor laws to extort money from
these domestic employees and keep them in bondage. But
again, that kind of help only seems to enable a culture and a
legal system that beg for fundamental change.
Real Change
The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection
Reauthorization Act of 2008 outlines the many forms of
modern slavery and workplace abuse and the American gov-
ernment’s commitment to combating it. The act governs U.S.
personnel’s involvement in domestic employment abroad,
but its bite stops at the borders of the embassy community’s
In truth, the U.S. government does little to enforce its provi-
sions beyond issuing an annual management notice to warn
employees of consequences. (I would welcome examples of
enforcement, if they exist; we all know FSOs or their family
members who treat their domestic employees like dirt.)
Real change in the region will only take place when those
of us involved in the system work harder to spark the moral
imagination of our friends, our children’s classmates’ families
and wider circles outside the bubble.
When we find ourselves or others talking about domestic
employees like chattel—“I ordered her from the Philippines,”
or, “I was so mad at my idiot nanny that I could have punched
her” (just two of many statements I overheard from otherwise
well-to-do, relatively Western sponsors)—we are not simply
dehumanizing these human beings; we are also dehumanizing
ourselves. It’s shameful—not classy—to talk about or treat a
domestic employee as if she were a dog in the room, unable to
understand what is being said about her.
We need more conversations across the region to pool our
collective moral reasoning for the good. I’d recommend explor-
ing the work of scholars who have delved more deeply into this
subject. For a start, try Andrew Gardner’s
City of Strangers: Gulf
Migration and the Indian Community in Bahrain
(ILR Press,
2010) or “Of Maids and Madams: Sri Lankan Domestic Workers
and Their Employers in Jordan” (
Critical Asian Studies
2008) by Elizabeth Frantz, an anthropologist to whom I’m par-
ticularly indebted for help in thinking through these questions.
Kwame Anthony Appiah’s
The Honor Code: How Moral
Revolutions Happen
(W.W. Norton & Company, 2011) is
another essential resource, and I’d also recommend the work of
Amnesty International on the treatment of migrant workers in
the Persian Gulf region.
Until recently, I was relatively uninformed about and inat-
tentive to migrant labor laws in the United States. But now that
I’ve been a participant in the kafala system, I am more alert to
immigration and “guest worker” issues here, too. I’m coming
to see that the moral task of any decent government is to craft
and enforce laws that permit labor to flow, as it inevitably will,
in a way that also promotes just, livable working contexts for
employers and employees alike.
Beyond the Wilberforce laws, we can be agents of change to
combat the cultural indifference and violence toward domestic
employees in the system. We can watch for signs of abuse and
mistreatment among the maids and nannies we see regularly.
And we can volunteer at domestic employee safe houses
throughout the region, donating clothing, food and legal exper-
tise to the most vulnerable. At the very least, we can be honest
stewards of their stories as witnesses to a wider world.
I want to respectfully employ the women who care for our
children, wash our dishes, fold our clothes and facilitate our
busy lives. I believe that others in the expatriate community
want that, too. Together, perhaps, we could help to create some
meaningful moral and cultural resistance to the soft form of
slavery that kafala embodies.
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