Two weeks ago, Migrant-Rights.org featured a disturbing Kuwaiti instagram account that published pictures of absconding domestic workers. Several media outlets including al-Jazeera, al-Akhbar, and France24 quickly picked up the story and the account was shortly thereafter terminated. But only a few days later a Saudi instagram account emerged with the same vigilante quest: the account asks followers to submit pictures of absconded domestic workers through direct message, allowing employers to include phone numbers so they can be contacted "if [followers] find the runaway housemaid." In just a couple weeks, the account has published nearly 280 posts and garnered over 2,500 followers.
The account endeavors, in part, to ‘help’ sponsors track down domestic workers who have runaway from them. Several comments from employers declared, "I will not forgive anyone who hires this worker.” Others ‘warn’ potential employers that workers are HIV positive or carry other contagious diseases. One employer adds that a worker is not only HIV-positive, but also a criminal who practices witchcraft.
Comments on the photos are rarely critical of the conditions that induced workers to leave or concerned with the account’s potential endangerment of these workers. Instead, the virtual wall of shame has fostered sympathy for employers who have lost their ‘investments,' as well as more derision towards domestic workers; in one post, Saudis discussed their 'plight' as sponsors who lose their "rights" when workers escape. One wrote: "We citizens have no rights, that's why these workers went this far." Another added: "Authorities are to blame, if they kept them detained until they paid back their sponsors before getting deported, then they would have thought a thousand times before escaping."
Racist jokes, particularly about workers’ skin color and facial features, are also frequent. In one comment, a sponsor made sure to clarify – should someone stumble upon ‘their’ domestic worker - "She is now lighter than in the picture. You know, they come to the country black but then they get lighter as they rest away from the sun."
The majority of these photos feature Ethiopian domestic workers, often claimed by sponsors to be criminals and potential murderers. These characterizations reflect popular, dangerously racist narratives about Ethiopian domestic workers in Saudi Arabia; media and authorities have flamed an absurd hysteria around Ethiopian domestic workers, regularly accusing their ‘culture’ of spawning child abusers, murders, and sorcerers. The accusations of witchcraft lodged against Ethiopian migrants correspond with the very real witch-hunt against these runway workers.
But, there is an unfortunate truth to these scornful commentaries; under Saudi law, absconded workers are indeed considered criminals, as are any individuals who shelter or hire them. Runaway workers discovered by authorities are detained and can be forcibly returned to employers or deported. Despite such severe penalties, absconding occurs regularly because of exploitative working conditions and limited access to redress; domestic workers have even fewer means to resolve issues with their employers than other migrants, as their access to legal services, to their embassy, or to Saudi authorities is heavily restricted; their mobility in general is restrained, and many are unable to leave the house unaccompanied, or in some cases, to even access cellphones and or the internet. Those that are able to reach authorities are still unlikely to receive the aid they need, as many embassies and local authorities are unwilling to do more than mediate. Often, the only choice presented to domestic workers is to return home. But many domestic workers simply want to change employers, especially as many must pay off (illegal) recruitment debts or otherwise continue supporting family at home. But obtaining a transfer of sponsorship requires the consent of the employer, and exploitative employers are likely to demand excessive payment or reject the request entirely. Consequently, running away – even with its severe risks - becomes the most viable option.
While it’s true some workers leave for the opportunity to potentially make more money as freelancers, the majority of workers are not well connected enough to pursue this path willingly, particularly given the risk of being discovered by authorities. Employers do lose their ‘investment’ in recruitment fees, but these sensationalist comments and the popular trope of employer victimization fails to recognize the severe realities of domestic worker recruitment and working conditions.
The hysterical accusations lodged against domestic workers are a socially normalized phenomenon perpetuated by Saudi authorities. Authorities externalize crime and other social issues (such as the mismanagement of systems governing migrant workers) by scapegoating migrant workers. This allows them to justify grave violations of migrants' rights including the mass deportation of undocumented migrant workers in 2013. Detained migrants often endured sub-standard living conditions and most had no means of contesting their status or any means of legal representation. Last November’s Manfouha incident encapsulated authorities’ manipulation of migration narratives and the concomitant violation of their rights.
The refusal of authorities and employers alike to recognize the connection between working conditions and the actions of domestic workers is a Gulf-wide problem. Only recently have certain municipalities, such as Dubai, begun to publicly acknowledge the correlation of employer abuse with domestic worker crimes. Still, the conversation sparked by this concession has centered primarily on the threat of domestic workers; rather than challenging perceptions of worker’s inherent proclivity for criminality, government campaigns encourage employers to treat domestic workers decently while monitoring them more closely – thus restricting workers’ already limited right to privacy and encouraging employers to take further advantage of the disproportionate power accorded to them over domestic workers.
Across the GCC, there is little recognition – by government and employers alike - of the need to ensure decent work for domestic workers by improving their legal protections and access to redress. The criminalization of absconded workers and ‘security campaigns’ against undocumented workers only succeed in entrenching employers’ sense of ownership towards workers and igniting these menacing, citizen-led crusades.