Media and society’s degrading depictions of domestic workers

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Jul 7 2012

The written word is not the only contentious component of media pieces featuring domestic workers. Some pieces are adjoined by equally distasteful cartoon depictions of domestic workers that evoke racial or otherwise condemnable stereotypes. The cartoons not only reflect the pervasion of these disdainful attitudes in Gulf society, but also perpetuate these distorted conceptions of domestic workers.

Ads for recruitment agencies or other employment offices represent one particularly offensive medium. This image published in Jordan is reminiscent of the attitudes discussed in our "Trivializing Abuse" post as it belittles the perilous conditions of domestic workers. Though the object of ridicule appears to be both the employer and the maid, the depictions are not equal; The employer provides entertainment because she is overbearing, while the maid's subjugated position offers a much more sinister form of 'humor.'

The cartoon's accompanying words add to the farcical depiction of exploitation and abuse; the ad jokingly suggests a cheaper way for employers to hand-pick their workers and bypass legal means of recruitment, allowing them to hold onto to their maids for a 'longer time.' The image not only degrades the severity of employer abuse, but furthermore reflects the culpability of recruitment agencies in this abuse as their unfair methods of recruitment are a leading factor in migrant worker exploitation.

This second cartoon published in Qatar's Gulf times plays on prevailing fears of 'vengeful maids.' The reality is that there are few documented cases of 'revenge' (whether it be in the form of retaliatory violence or otherwise), especially relative to employer abuse. But because these cases are so atypical, they almost always make headlines, generating the misconception that maids are customarily dangerous and untrustworthy. Domestic workers are generally far too concerned with their employment to risk vengeance, even when they are physically abused or underpaid. Notice that this image portrays domestic workers as the sole perpetrators of violence, disregarding the fact that employer mistreatment is the primary factor in domestic worker violence. Rather than attempt to assert more authority over workers to 'curb their dangerous tendencies', this abuse, which is habitual, must be addressed. Note that this cartoon also contains a racial component; the clearly Indian worker appears insane, and her features have been heavily exaggerated.

This last image published in the Saudi Gazette is consistent with the employer victimization narratives prevalent in Gulf media. The maid is depicted as overly-demanding, as if her employment is a burden on an over-worked employer. In reality, maids rarely are able to request any demands to their employers: their employment contracts are often misleading - the fault of either recruitment agencies or sponsors, - and they are very rarely able to alter any of its terms. They enjoy almost zero legal protections and almost no labor rights exist to moderate these terms beyond minimum wage, which varies by nationality. This image fits seamlessly with the plethora of recent articles decrying the exploitation of sponsors who expect to pay maids little money for 24/7 work. The notion of vacation time, or weekly days off, are inconceivable to some sponsors.

These cartoons are as degrading as the articles they adjoin. They perpetuate dangerous stereotypes that put domestic workers at risk of further labor violations by unwarrantedly fearful employers, and essentially justify the mistreatment of workers. If you see similar images in your local paper, we urge you to express your distaste to the editors.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East