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Reversing the blame in Saudi: another case of irresponsible media

On January 24, 2012

Employment agencies, travel brokers, and other middlemen are far from innocent, praying on prospective migrants and employers alike. But the recent piece featured on Arab News seems to victimize employers - Saudis - alone, even suggesting that much of Saudi’s own reputation for human rights violations against migrants is fabricated, a ploy orchestrated by the agencies and the maids they use to execute their “dirty work.”

The article is written from the perspective of a Saudi employer who, after years of consciously avoiding the entanglement of profiteering and corruption that characterizes the foreign domestic service market, finally gives in to temptation and initiates his quest for a foreign maid. The introduction gives the impression that the author is primarily concerned with contributing to an enterprise indifferent to the exploitative conditions it begets. But when speaking of corruption and exploitation, the author almost exclusively refers to the victimization of Saudi employers.

He explains his own encounters as well as those of others. For his part, he claims to have been blackmailed by the employment office. He expresses his outrage that such a crime could happen under the watchful eye of the relevant embassies - the embassies that largely fail to regulate these same agencies even with the well-being of their own citizens at risk. He continues with anecdotes from his acquaintances, from news articles (we must assume), and hearsay from the grapevine; this includes nefarious scheming on the part of maids, who cooperate with agencies in pretending to be experienced with housework, and to be “good” for three months - the period an employment agency remains legally responsible for her work. It is presented as wholly conceivable that a maid could “pretend” to be experienced for three entire months without her employer realizing she is unskilled at ironing, washing dishes, etc. He describes a semi-theoretical, generalized trajectory of a maid’s behavior: She is swell and docile for three to four months, fulfilling all of her obligations (even though in truth she does not possesses the applicable skills and is in fact hoodwinking her employer), and then she suddenly undergoes a tremendous change - she’s rude, she can no longer cook, she can no longer launder - she may even abscond.

The author does admit that both the rights of maids and Saudi employers are violated by employment agency tactics. There is certainly truth to this statement, as agencies are notorious for their largely unregulated behavior. Saudi employers do have the right to be upset when they are swindled out of their own money. However, the suggestion of a large-scale conspiracy between migrant workers and these agencies is unbelievable and dangerous; the notion that the average maid would want to abscond from steady employment in a non-abusive household to return home, after the extraordinarily arduous process of immigration, where the prospect of employment is significantly lower - all for for a one time-sum, is difficult to fathom. The author also recounts the story of a friend whose maid absconded, but was later found working in the employment agency's office. Certainly possible in one instance - but absolutely implausible as the systematic practice the author suggests. Similarly, the author's other notion that thieving migrants abscond after their three month commitment only to obtain new passports and work permits to continue bamboozling Suadis nationwide is preposterous given that the legitimate documentation process is difficult enough, not to mention the severe penalties illegal migrants, as well as absconding migrants, face.

Perhaps the article is not devious in its intention, but its effect is to support the misperception of foreign domestic workers in the Gulf. Such pieces encourage suspicion towards maids, exacerbating the already tense relationship that exists between so many migrants and their sponsors. Furthermore, it designates migrants as the principal problem while relegating the stories of abuse, slavery, and exploitation to mere stereotypes used to hide the somehow more perturbing manipulation of Gulf employers. It overshadows the darker experiences of domestic workers, who are subject to the invisible sphere of the home and often excluded from labor legislation, with a narrative that centers on economics - rather than human rights.

While migrant workers are not the only victims in the foreign domestic service complex, they are the most seriously affected. This article only adds to the myriad of irresponsible pieces that trivialize migrant abuse in the Gulf.