Where Maids Are Treated Like Slaves
Illustration by Eleanor Doughty


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Where Maids Are Treated Like Slaves

Sexual abuse, harassment and 21-hour days—for thousands of domestic workers employed in Arab states, being a maid doesn't just mean mopping the floors.

Last month, a Saudi prince made headlines the world over when he was accused of sexually assaulting a maid and threatening to kill those who refused his advances. When asked to stop, the prince allegedly screamed, "I am a prince and I do what I want."

But Saudi Arabia is not the only country where domestic workers— who tend to be predominantly female—have had to deal with abhorrent conditions. And princes are not the only ones who feel like they can do whatever they want. Cases like this one are emblematic of the exploitative maid industry that thrives in modern day Arab countries, from Lebanon and Kuwait to Qatar.


In 2014, the nonprofit organization Human Rights Watch interviewed 99 domestic workers based in the United Arab Emirates, which is home to an estimated 146,000 domestic workers. Most reported working long hours of unpaid overtime—sometimes up to 21 hours per day—and many said that their wages had been withheld. Others had been confined to their employers' houses, or deprived of food or rest. 24 reported physical or sexual abuse.

Balqesa Maalim, a program officer at the International Organization for Migration, the leading intergovernmental migration organization, tells Broadly of a Kenyan domestic worker who was working in Lebanon. "She had bleach poured over her head as punishment for cleaning the bathroom too slowly by an employer, who threatened to send her home in a box." Another was given a grim choice: "Sex with the boss, or death."

"I was 33 when I started work in Jeddah [a Saudi port city] for the first time," says Norhana Abu, a Filipina woman who left her hometown of Manila to find work abroad. "My husband didn't have a good job, there is job sometimes and sometimes no [sic], and I wanted to have money to send my children to school," she explains.

Downtown Dubai: the United Arab Emirates is home to some 146,000 domestic workers. Photo by Yuanyuan Xie via Stocksy

Had she heard about the kinds of dangers she might face as a domestic worker? "I heard about rape, or that you could get put in prison if you have a boyfriend or go out without covering your hair," she says. "Many of my neighbors went before me, many came back pregnant or with babies. Some boyfriends, some got raped."


Her first employer, a 60-year-old housewife, was "very nice." But Abu's troubles began when her boss' physiotherapist asked if she could borrow Abu, because she was pregnant and needed help around the house.

"The physiotherapist, she lock me in the house [sic]," Abu says. "If I wanted to send money to my children she go with me, I want to cut my hair she go with me, I want to buy something for myself she go with me."

Abu says that she suffered severe eczema as a result of doing household chores, like laundry and dishwashing, around the clock. "Even when I bathed myself, I had to use gloves because there was a lot of blood from my irritated hands," she says. "No rest, no sleep, no day off." After she was returned to her original employer, Abu ran away while on a trip to London with the family and has since been living an independent life.

Many attribute the treatment these workers face to the Kafala system, which exists in rich Arab Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. It ties the worker to their employer in a visa sponsorship system that means that they can only switch jobs with their employer's permission. "This often allows the employers to feel like they have complete control over the maid and will not be reprimanded for however they choose to treat them," explains Maalim.

Unfortunately, the law is not usually on the side of domestic workers. The International Labour Organization (ILO), a specialized agency of the United Nations, found that almost 30 percent) of the world's domestic workers work in countries where they are completely excluded from national labor laws. It means that these women often have no protections like weekly rest days, minimum wage, overtime, and limits on hours of work.


Upon arrival, passports are also often confiscated in an attempt to prevent the workers from running away. While this is often illegal elsewhere, authorities in many Arab countries will barely bat an eyelid at what has become common practice. Indeed, if the workers were to run away they would be liable for arrest and deportation, regardless of whatever atrocities they may be running away from. "We don't have any rights, they can do whatever they want and we cannot do anything, just shut our mouths," Abu says.

"Many employers actually lock their homes so they are literally escaping—climbing out of windows and so on, risking their lives… Some of them get seriously hurt trying to do this but if they manage and they're found on the street, they'll get arrested," explains Rothna Begum, a women's rights researcher for Human Rights Watch. "If they turn up at a police station to complain about abuse, they're likely to get arrested instead [of their employers]. The presumption is always to arrest the domestic worker."

In many cases, even their own embassies can't help them. "The only thing you can really do when you escape is try and get to your embassy as quickly and safely as possible, but only some will shelter you," says Begum. "Many either don't exist as there is no embassy in the country, or often they'll say come back tomorrow, but for many people they literally have nowhere else to go."


Social power comes down to wasta, the Arabic word for "connections" or "clout"—and foreign workers often have very little wasta indeed.

In a survey of United Arab Emirates domestic workers, interviewees said that it was not worth running away or going to the authorities for help, as their employers would be able to bribe the police or embassy. In many Arab countries, patriarchy, sexism, and entitlement make for cultures that resemble an elite men's club. Social power comes down to wasta, the Arabic word for "connections" or "clout"—and foreign workers often have very little wasta indeed.

"I did not receive my salary for nine months but I couldn't say anything. When my visa expired my employer brought me to the police station and accused me of something I didn't do," says Mirasol Zamora, a Filipina who worked as a housekeeper in Kuwait. "I tried to complain about her [my employer] abusing me and not paying my salary but they didn't listen and I was put in jail for six months, after which I was deported. I never received my salary or my justice."

But the root of the issue lies far beyond just the law. Sherifa Zuhur, a visiting scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California argues that "there is a culture of slavery in Saudi Arabia and in many Arab countries… it is a culture of owning people, from one's own children and female family members to employees."


"Culture of slavery" may be strong words to use, but Arab society is one built on patriarchy, obedience, and delegation. As an Egyptian-born and London-raised woman, it's something I have experienced myself. Despite growing up in a very liberal family, I am no stranger to the customs and ideologies that dictate that men reign supreme. The influence men have over women is apparent in the way in which daughters, regardless of their age, often have limited freedoms. Many of my twenty-something-year-old Arab girlfriends still have enforced curfews and are made to report back to their brothers or fathers ahead of every decision. One 28-year-old Saudi-born friend doesn't even have keys to her own family house in London—she has to ring the bell to be let in, alerting her family to her whereabouts at all times.

In turn, wives delegate to the domestic workers like Norhana Abu and Mirasol Zamora, who are everywhere. Indeed, everything is readily available and accessible in the Arab world — even McDonalds, pharmacies and corner shops deliver straight to your door, facilitating the belief that everything can and should be done for you. "To some extent I believe the availability of services creates the idea that everything should be done for us," Maalim agrees. "It's that mentality of 'if someone can do it for me, why should I?' I think that logic makes it easy for many to view maids, cooks, cleaners, drivers and etc as merely a 'service' as opposed to human beings."


It's so difficult to talk to legislators who are willing to talk about domestic workers with rights, to even acknowledge that… their work is valuable work.

But abuse of power is global and universal. Just like how slavery has long been present in societies the world over—lest we forget America's long, bloody history in the slave trade—the same is the case in the Arab world. Indeed, the exploitation of domestic workers is far from unique to Arab countries. In Singapore last year alone the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), a Singapore charity that supports domestic workers, reported 97 cases of physical abuse, 19 cases of sexual harassment and 333 cases of verbal and psychological abuse. In Guinea, tens of thousands of girls work as domestic workers for less than five dollars a month.

"The only reason domestic laborers' circumstances improved at all in the 'first world' was due to the emancipation of slavery and the civil rights movement, the penalties imposed by governments, and lawsuits which made visible the abuses," argues Zuhur. "It wasn't good will which improved their circumstances."

By this argument, the Arab world will soon follow if female domestic workers begin to agitate for their rights. But even in Egypt, which is no Saudi Arabia—a country where women are not allowed to drive or even leave the country without written permission from a male guardian— 99.3 percent of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed, according to a 2013 UN Women report. Debatably, if the men in these societies won't even give equal rights or respect to their wives, sisters, and daughters, how could they even begin to fathom giving any rights to those they likely see as women, migrants and workers—labels that Begum suggests face discrimination on all fronts.


"The exploitation of women generally—and the presence of emotional and psychological abuse—is replayed by women and men on those who work for them," explains Zuhur, noting that much of the abuse on domestic workers is actually carried out by the ladies of the house. "Only recently have a few television ads aired in Lebanon concerning family violence, so while there are activists addressing these issues, one doesn't have the sense that society as a whole thinks it is wrong to mistreat [women or] servants."

"It's so difficult to talk to legislators who are willing to talk about domestic workers with rights, to even acknowledge that they have rights and that their work is valuable work," says Begum. "They don't understand how you can compare a domestic worker to a regular worker, they don't see the work they do as real work, they don't even see it as laborious when really they're outside cleaning the windows, raising the children… The sheer amount of labor required for them to do all of that work, and yet it's not given any kind of appreciation or respect."

Of course, not everyone in the Arab world treats domestic workers as lesser humans, and these are the cases that will never make the news. At my best friend's wedding in Egypt last year, her family maid burst into tears of joy as she joined the bride and groom in a dance. She had worked for the same family for decades, and had wiped away my friend's tears, held her hand on the first day of school, and helped her with homework.

Several years ago, I took part in a Human Rights Watch campaign entitled 'Put Yourself In Her Shoes'. Dressed in a maid's uniform but with the makeup and jewellery associated with your average, middle class Arab girl, I joined other women in a bid to change perceptions and make employers realize: This could well be my daughter.

And things are changing, kind of. In June of this year, Kuwait passed the most progressive law for domestic workers in the region, outlining that workers should have annual leave as well as overtime compensation. There will likely be, Begum explains, some difficulty implementing this, but it's a step in the right direction. She believes that it is likely to do some good. "As soon as you start changing the laws and changing the system, it sends a message to employers that they can't be doing this," she said.

In countries where men reign supreme and women are so often not given any freedom themselves, the notion of hierarchy—and with that, varying levels of respect—only serves to perpetuate abuse. Abu now lives and works as a housekeeper in London, far away from Jeddah and the nightmare of her previous employer. I asked her why she thinks she and so many other domestic workers have been mistreated in this way. "They are rich people," she replies, "and they think you are a slave and you cannot afford rights."