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Trivializing Humanity: On Publishing Images of Deceased Migrant Workers

On September 16, 2013

Arab Times Online recently published disturbing photographs of two deceased migrant domestic workers. Both deaths appear related to their employment; one photo shows a Filipina woman after she jumped to her death, lying on the ground with her arms contorted.  The second, even more horrific image, depicts the gruesome remains of a Nepali maid hung to death. (Caution: this link contains an extremely graphic image.)

Though media outlets should report on the frequent deaths and suicides of migrant workers, they must approach these incidents with respect to deceased migrants and to their families. Outlets cannot publish such sensitive images without the permission of migrant workers’ families, particularly as kin may not even be made aware of deaths for weeks. The primary issue is not that relatives may find out about deaths through the media, but is instead a question of autonomy; media editors do not hold ‘ownership’ of migrant bodies, a notion which is reinforced by the sponsorship system ; outlets must address the deaths of workers with the same basic consideration they would grant to locals - the notion of circulating such distressing images of local Arab citizens without prior approval is unthinkable, a transgression on family and individual rights.

The sparse text accompanying these images furthermore trivializes their deaths; their victimized bodies are exploited for shock value, yet their stories are not worthy of more than a few scant words. Despite the likely connection between their deaths and their employment conditions, despite the frequency of migrant domestic worker deaths and suicides, there is no intimation of the systematic abuse of migrant domestic workers; there is no effort to criticize the regulatory structures (such as the sponsorship system) or the socio-economic (and racial) hierarchies that engender chronic abuse, death, and suicide. There is rarely a follow-up report of these investigations, no concern that justice for the deceased is procured or transgressed. Deceased migrants are victims without perpetrators - their deaths so expected that no further explanation is required or desired.  In particular, the ‘deceased migrant domestic worker’ has become an “acceptable” image, reflecting - and perpetuating - the normalization of abuse.

Moreover, outlets limit coverage of migrant domestic worker issues to incidents of death and suicide and victimhood; their existence is often circumscribed to intersections of their occupation and their nationality and their grisly deaths. There is rarely room for the less sensational but equally important struggles - such as employment mobility or the difficulty of family separation. The circulation of such images, in the absence discussion of migrant domestic workers in other situations, normalizes their victimhood; migrant domestic workers are effectively invisible to the media until they become victims (or commit a crime themselves). There is little effort to document the veritable conditions (live) workers face, only the exoticism of fantastical migrant deaths which works to further distance migrants and citizens.

The publication of such inconsiderate images evidences the lack of sanctity awarded to migrant workers’ lives. Their deceased migrant bodies are mere media adornments - dehumanized in death as they are in life.