Domestic Workers Find their Own Means of Empowerment

Chandrani speaking at a Taste Culture event
In the Middle East, where widespread abuse of female migrant domestic workers is commonplace, Jordan positioned itself as leader in protecting workers rights when it introduced laws in 2008 that called for regulated hours, a day off and criminalisation of human trafficking.

However, a recent report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch and Jordan's Tamkeen Centre for Legal Aid cites complaints of physical and sexual abuse, house confinement, non-payment of salaries and long working hours.

According to the 110-page report, failure on the part of Jordanian officials to enforce labour laws put in place to protect female migrants are in fact 'facilitating abuse'.

Currently, more than 70,000 female migrant domestic workers from Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines are employed in the kingdom.

Pushed by a need to support their families, female migrant domestic workers leave their countries, children and lives to care for another household.

The issue of migrant domestic work is a personal issue for me. More than fifteen years ago while living on the streets in the United States and without any legal identification, I turned to cleaning houses as a means of supporting myself. When I lived in the home, I usually slept on the sofa and worked all the day without receiving a single pay. For these individuals, providing me with a place to sleep was sufficient enough. At times, I was subjected to verbal abuse and even sometimes molestation. Eventually, I would run away and end up on the streets once more.

Five years ago, when I arrived in the Middle East from New York it was not my intention to highlight the plight of these women. However, my treatment in Lebanon--when I was viewed as a servant whenever I walked the streets, or sleeping on the sofa in the home of three fellow foreigners, cooking and cleaning in exchange for board--triggered something in me.

From across the balcony women started telling me their stories. They also thought I was a housemaid. In time I became accustomed to the sign language that had been established amongst them in order to communicate because they all hailed from a different country.

Disempowerment of female migrant domestic workers starts in their home countries, where unscrupulous recruitment agents deceive them with false promises of work in paradise. These women, who receive little to no support from either their governments or host countries alike, have empowered themselves by creating informal social networks and makeshift underground community spaces for women seeking refuge from an abusive employer.

Many of these brave women I encountered had been living and working as domestic workers for more than ten years. After the contract which initially brought them to the region expired, they chose to live as freelancers, open their homes to other domestic workers, and take on the role of social workers.

Chandrani is one of them. Originally from Sri Lanka, Chandrani arrived to the Middle East twelve years ago, but was lucky to be placed in the home of an employer who treated her well. In fact, when I first met with Chandrani, she introduced me to her employer, who was supportive of the social work Chandrani was engaged in.

As a devout Buddhist, Chandrani established an underground meditation group for Sri Lankans with the same faith.

"Buddhists account for more 70% of Sri Lanka's population but when they come to the region they say that they are Christian for fear of reprisal from both Muslim and Christian employers," Chandrani told Her Blueprint. "I became aware of women being abused, raped and languishing in prison so I started assisting these women by collecting donations for women in the prisons and those living in underground makeshift communal residence. I also started speaking to many newspapers in Sri Lanka about the situation and criticized the government for failing to protect their nationals."

As a result of her public outcry, during one of her visits to the prison she was apprehended. Later she found out that it was her own embassy that ordered her arrest and asked the local authorities to no longer grant her access to visit the prison. Luckily, her employer and a local organization that had been catering to the needs of Asian women were able to secure her release.

"There are not enough shelters for these women, which is why they often look to members of their community for help," explained Joan Lara, a migrant domestic worker from the Philippines, in an interview with Her Blueprint. "Most consulates and embassies lack resources to deal with the amount of cases. If they go to the authorities then they'll be sent back to their employers and if they seek assistance from the recruitment agency they find more abuse."

I spent several months in Amman, Jordan and from the window of the house where I was staying I would get a daily peek into the life of one worker. Luckily I got a split screen view with the living room being on one side and the kitchen on the other. From five in the morning to late at night the kitchen was occupied by a Filipino domestic worker. In the living room sat the lady of the house who be watching television or reading or relaxing with the rest of the family.

Sadly, in a region where women are still fighting for equality, acquiring a domestic worker has become a means in which some women are able to assert their equality to men in the home by having another woman of a lesser statue to command.