Victimizing the employer: Gulf media’s backward reporting

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Jun 26 2012

Imbalanced media reporting is a regular topic featured by Migrant Rights; migrants are too often spoken of, but rarely spoken to, as employers and government officials dominate the narrative surrounding foreign worker issues. The public perception of migrants is consequently distorted –one-sided and so skewed it appears deliberately manipulated.

The escalating number of employer-centric, alarmist pieces published by Gulf papers contributes to this propagandist character. We've dissected several pieces written by employers claiming victimization from "crazy,” “dangerous,” or “deceptive” maids in the past - but over the past couple of months, the number of such reports has surged, creating an environment even more hostile to domestic workers. Some trends and similarities between these articles include: accusations that the maid is 'insane' - medically, and not at all linked to physical or psychological abuse the worker may have endured; complaints that they run away too frequently; that they conspire with recruitment agencies to exploit employers; that maids simply cannot be trusted; that the necessary response is not to grant them labor rights - nights off, for instance - but to secure control over every aspect of the worker's life. The only way to ensure the domestic worker is not scheming behind your back is to never turn your back; prevent her from using the phone, confiscate her passport so she can't abscond, control who she sees romantically (that is - no one) and ensure she has so much work to occupy herself she cannot possibly find the time to plot against you.

The accusations are repetitive not only in their content but also in their short sightedness. Rarely are the reasons behind these allegations ever explored - except to inculpate the recruitment agencies who must be directing maids in the deception of employers (by coaching them to act decent and skilled for interviews and through the first few weeks of employment, only to later reversing their behavior, abscond, and force employers to seek a new aid with the agency - requiring them to repay all of the associated fees.) Employers are eager to hold absconding maids and recruitment agencies accountable, but unable to acknowledge the culpability that lies in their own actions - as they rarely call for such legislative reform of domestic worker rights. Sometimes, employers may blame the government for the lack of recruitment agency regulation. But rarely is their concern with the absence of law regarding domestic worker labor rights, which enable employer abuse and sustains any “backlash” from workers. Generally, the only employers who “must” be punished are those who bypass the sponsorship system and hire help that "belongs" to another citizen.

The thought of releasing any increment of control over maids government proscribed standards is terrifying to employers so used to dictating the terms of their service. While different variations of the sponsorship system exist under the Gulf, its primary defect remains the same: sponsors wield entirely too much independent control over the labor and associated rights of migrant workers. They decide the length of working hours, the conditions of housing, and the precise time of vacation. Negotiation of these terms is utterly inconceivable to an employer's way of life, as evidenced by the reaction of employers to requests for days off and related privileges:

…their new demands include weekly holidays, when they should be let outside without monitoring; exclusive daily time for sports activities as well as freedom to pursue personal relationships. These demands are against the UAE culture, say residents.

The UAE has recently attempted to address the sponsorship system’s vulnerabilities by proposing an oversight administration of sorts, but such short-cut responses only prolong the institutional deficiencies of the system. Employers may be required to relinquish some terms of employment to government standards, but the continued reliance of migrants on their employers for their means of livelihood sustains the opportunity for exploitation. This imbalanced relationship is reinforced by the fact that domestic workers do not hold the same rights as other migrant laborers, forcing them even further under the thumb of their employers. The proposed administration still preserves the conception of domestic workers as people who happen work in a domicile rather than indentured servants who, once employed, are inseparable from the residence.

These articles and their authors do advocate reform – the reform of domestic workers themselves into ever more docile instruments of their servitude. The arguments that employers need to assert even more control over their foreign staff to ensure their obedience reflects the deflection of any responsibility regarding the treatment or behavior of workers. These articles willingly fail to connect any 'deviant' behavior of domestic workers to their abusive conditions - which recent investigations, including one conducted by the Dubai police, have affirmed. Minimal attention is attributed to the conditions domestic workers encounter, as the minor inconveniences faced by employers is presented as the point of disconcertment. The exploitative relationship is entirely reversed.

Some pieces do include the odd migrant-worker perspective or explanation of major claims against maids; for example, in this piece by the Saudi Gazette, the author makes the effort to contact domestic workers and present their side of the story. The workers explain that they were subjected to 24/7 work with minimal compensation, in conditions much more laborious than their employment contracts stipulated. One worker affirms:

I wasn’t hired to look after a baby. I was only hired to do household work, but when they (employers) pay us our monthly salaries, they think they have bought us

This article surpasses most others in this in its inclusiveness, but the views of employers greatly outnumber those of domestic workers. Each employer indicates that maids enjoy leisurely lives, have become spoilt, and exploit their 'kindness.' Consequently, the final paragraphs conveying the refutations of domestic workers appear, to an audience already predisposed to agree with the employers, overly defensive. Complaints from domestic workers regarding the amount of work they are expected to complete seems only to fit in to the employers’ preceding narrative: following employers' claims that they heeded nearly all the "outrageous" requests of their worker, that the domestic workers appear to be complaining about the amount of work they are given appears only to fit the preceding narrative; employers give into the “outrageous” requests of their employees, only for workers to request more and more. This result is perhaps unintentional, but nonetheless reinforces support of employer perspectives.

Another article, written from the perspective of doctors rather than employers, mentions the support system maids require in such tough positions, which often include physical or psychological abuse. It is one of the few articles that links workers’ volatile behavior to the stressful environment they endure. However, the idea that maids are predisposed to mental illness is the primary focus of the article - the researchers interviewed endorse psychological testing of maids prior to their migration, legitimizing fears that workers are prone to psychological imbalances regardless of their employment conditions and that such testing is necessary for employer safety. Yet, the doctors do not advise similar tests for employers, who are much more often the instigators of abuse. The articles’ contradictions reflect the depth of alarmist domestic worker perceptions.

Even cumulatively, these pieces fail to provide a comprehensive understanding of employer-migrant relationships. Domestic workers are cast as untrustworthy and enigmatic foreigners - necessary evils for busy employers. But employers who are overly concerned with their own safety, as cases of domestic worker ‘backlash’ are few and far between. Meanwhile, employer abuse is an enduring phenomenon. Only the most gruesome of stories tend to catch the media’s attention, but varied forms of employer abuse reoccur with infinitely greater frequency and more severity than maids who seek revenge against their employers or simply “ask for too much.”

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East