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Dehumanizing Ethiopian Domestic Workers

On October 19, 2013

In July, Saudi Arabia imposed a ban on the recruitment of Ethiopian domestic workers. 40,000 visas for Ethiopians were cancelled, and the moratorium levied until a “study on the threat” of Ethiopian workers is completed.

The Kingdom has previously banned domestic workers from both Indonesia and the Philippines following its refusal to improve minimum working standards - in fact, Saudi Arabia began to seek agreements with Ethiopia following these fall-outs. However, this current move has been accompanied alongside an almost fanatically xenophobic discourse; authorities, media, and social dialogues have singled out Ethiopian domestic workers as “dangerous.”  Dehumanizing, and most often imagined or exaggerated, tales of crimes against Saudi families have spread widely throughout the Kingdom. Ethiopians are depicted as heartless, cruel, and criminal, and Saudi families as their victims. This reverse victimization narrative is not uncommon, but has reached new extremes.

Save Your Children, Deport Your Maid 

For example, Saudi's Arar News "reported" on the issue, using a picture of a bloodied knife accompanied by the claim

"Not a day passes by without a new tragedy occurring with one of those maids playing the protagonist."

The piece featured statements by Saudi citizens which conveyed similarly inflated messages.  One man reported his plans to deport his domestic worker because he fears she will harm his children.  Saudi mother Um Salem claims she already deported her domestic worker, stating:

"Those who hire Ethiopian maids are their partners in crime, if the children ever get hurt."

Another Saudi man blamed the state for granting working visas to people "from countries that are not suitable to perform work at our households," adding that he even locks his children up after they sleep “to protect them.”

The article reiterates that Saudi women should "keep their children away from their domestic workers as much as possible to protect their lives." and also urges authorities to seek domestic workers from other countries.

Psychopaths, Black Magic, or Terrorism? 

Saudi newspaper Al-Eqtisadiya published a similarly disturbing piece. Though the article accurately mentions that behavior is affected by the “loneliness” and “isolation” systematic of domestic worker conditions, it fails to locate responsibility with abusive employers and instead proceeds to demonize Ethiopian workers. Notably, no actual statistics are referenced, evidencing the sensational nature of these 'reports.'

The piece posits a phenomena of “the maid’s phobia,” further arousing misplaced fear and xenophobia; reportedly, Saudi women took days off work, hid knives away, and chose to sleep with their children.

The article also claims many families are taking their domestic workers to psychiatrists for help. Professor of criminal psychology at King Saud University, Abdulaziz bin Mohammed bin Hussain, claims these allegedly rampant crime rates reflect cultural practices:

"Cultural beliefs and practices are one of the factors behind these crimes. Those maids believe in superstitious powers that tell them to kill children and offer them as sacrifices for their sins. Such maids need to be identified because not all Ethiopian maids believe in such ideas and also this does not mean that maids from other countries do not have similar practices. Ethiopian women, according to a UN report, are the fifth worldwide to commit crimes."

However, the professor then states that workers feel alienated in Saudi Arabia, become depressed and are driven to commit suicide. The professor explains:

"If a maid is mistreated this might trigger the jealousy she feels towards the family she works for and their comfortable living conditions. This jealousy can drive them to commit crimes against the families they work for."

Hussain called on authorities to rescue Saudis from "maids' terrorism." He advises Saudis to not mistreat domestic workers  - not for the sake of morality or adherence to the law, but to preempt violence He further encourages employers to furtively attempt to “discover their cultural beliefs,” which are purportedly another cause of violence; widely circulated social media networking and messaging apps claims hold that permit the killing of children for sacrifices.

This article does, at least, include one perspective of an Ethiopian migrant. The woman states that such practices are alien to Ethiopians but might have to do with some individuals “superstitious beliefs” and “poor living conditions.”

These few sentences, however, are overshadowed by the predominating narrative.  Though ‘motives’ are found in domestic worker conditions, there are few explicit calls to hold employers and weak legal protections accountable. There is a general agreement to improve conditions, but alongside only further monitoring of workers. Some articles do lament over the systemic conditions of domestic workers, but they are lost alongside the intense dehumanization and criminalization of Ethiopian workers. This reverse-victimization narrative eschews from approaching domestic worker/sponsor relationships as one of employer and employee, and ignores the almost all encompassing authority of  Saudi employers over workers. Domestic workers are monstrasized in order to legitimize the expansion of control over domestic workers and to justify their exploitation.