Antionette Vlieger’s book entitled, “Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates: A Socio-legal Study on Conflicts” looks at the conflicts surrounding the controversial relationships between migrant domestic workers and their employees in the Middle Eastern countries of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It is published as a part of the Human Rights and Culture Series published by Quid Pro Books. Her central research question is “Which factors influence the (emergence and character of) conflicts in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates between domestic workers and their employers, the norms of both parties (may) refer to, and the related (im)balance of power?”
Ms. Vlieger outlines the norms in the conflicting societies, discusses the institutions involved with domestic work in the Middle East, household dynamics, and concludes with pragmatic steps forward to bettering the condition of migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Ms. Vlieger gives more background on her research in the interview below.
1) How did you originally begin researching about the situation of migrant domestic workers?
The fact that I got to do this research was quite a coincidence. I was researching intercultural communication between lawyers and their clients, when my professor suddenly passed away. The dean transferred me to another department and my new professor asked me to change my research topic. He proposed something completely dull and I answered that if I’d have to research that for five years, I’d probably jump off the roof somewhere halfway. We decided to think it over for a couple of weeks and that weekend, at the ballet classes of his daughter, he got a request from an anthropology professor: “Something is going wrong in the Middle East with the domestic workers, can you send a lawyer?” He had my resume in his bag, showing that I had studied, apart from law school, a bit of anthropology, economics, some Arabic and politics of the Middle East. That next Monday I totally agreed with him that I was perfect for the job. I guess that I was a bit naïve when accepting this assignment. It was a lot more difficult than I had imagined: not intellectually but emotionally.
2) What was the most difficult challenge you faced when trying to access and interview domestic workers? Employers? Government officials?
There were loads of hurdles to take. For instance, most domestic workers are not allowed to leave the house of their employers. At first I could only interview the women who had run away from their employers, but that very much colored my results. I needed a better place to contact the women and I decided to fly to two countries of origin: The Philippines and Indonesia. There, I simply waited at the airport for planes to arrive from Riyadh and Dubai. I also found an office in Manila where domestic workers renew their passports when going back to the same employer. I interviewed these women in the waiting room. Interviewing employers was not so difficult in Saudi Arabia, but it was in Dubai. The original Emirati population has been reduced to 5%, so many of them are fed up with, or actually afraid, of all foreigners. Most government officials wanted to talk to me and I guess being a tall, blue-eyed blond was a benefit. But the legal-religious elite in Saudi Arabia generally refused to talk to me because I am a woman. Also, I never succeeded in gaining access to prisons or deportation centers. I did manage to research the agencies that send the women across the world. In the two countries of origin,I sent somebody to find out what they would tell her about the working conditions, and then in Saudi Arabia and Dubai I pretended to be pregnant and in need of a domestic worker to hear what they tell employers about the work conditions. According to some researchers, this is not allowed to conceal that you are a researcher, but when dealing with traffickers, it’s the only way to do it. Otherwise they would never have given answers like: “she will be your slave for two years,” while these are very important data.
3) How did benevolent employers react to your research?
The employers vary the way people in our own countries vary. There were employers who warned me: “It is very important what you are doing, but please be careful of the government. There is too much money at stake, they don’t want you to ruin their image.” Others agreed that the research was necessary, but thought it was ridiculous that an outsider was doing it. I always replied that as soon as they would actually address the problems themselves, I would be happy to step back. Many simply denied the existence of a problem, or they said the root of the problem was the domestic workers themselves. Some suggested places to research and others simply admitted to being too afraid of the government to say anything about it. One women in Saudi Arabia was very surprised about my research results, about the lies told by the agencies and about the lack of freedom of the domestic workers, partly due to the severe poverty back home. This lady actually went to Indonesia herself, to stay with the family of her domestic worker, to learn more.
4) Why do you believe there has been an increase in awareness surrounding the issues of migrant domestic workers, particularly in the Middle East?
I am not altogether sure that there has been an increase in awareness compared to the size of the problem. Although I have no quantitative data to support this, I think the problem is growing, not diminishing. And as it is growing, it draws more attention. Both governments are trying very hard to cover it up. Workers who create problems are instantly deported. Newspapers can’t write about it. I tried to say something about it on the radio, to publish something in the papers, but all in vain. Especially Dubai is doing a lot of window dressing: they built this fantastic center for trafficking victims and show journalists around. But they don’t recognize anybody as a victim and then publicly claim there is no problem. Dubai thrives on foreign investments, both dirty and clean. They are well aware of the importance of maintaining the brand of Dubai. Saudi Arabia is already struggling with its image, in light of the origins of Al Qaida and the position of women in the country. They play it rough: If, for instance, Indonesia is complaining too much about the treatment of the female workers, the government threatens to stop funding mosques, to stop delivering oil, to stop issuing visas to pilgrims heading for Mecca. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, (so) that it a serious threat. Also, there is so much money going around in the human trafficking business that many people are paid to keep their mouth shut. I (too) was threatened: “Are you sure you want to get home alive?” In light of all this, the fact that awareness increases is a miracle and I think it can only be explained by the growing size of the problem.
5) What do you think of using a trafficking framework when discussing the situation of domestic workers?
I have used several frameworks to discuss this problem: human rights, women’s rights and workers’ rights, access to justice and power balances. But you are right, I paid a lot of attention to the trafficking framework because I noticed a problem there that in my eyes needs to be addressed. The Palermo Protocol on trafficking prescribes national governments to criminalize and prosecute trafficking. But the business of human trafficking has grown tremendously and the amounts of money going around in it are astronomical. In countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, both poor countries, the average salary of a government employee is very low and therefore most of them can be bribed easily. In the Middle East, the money flows opposite of how it flows in the West, not from citizens to the government in the form of taxes, but from the government to citizens. Oil money is used not only to oppress the population, but also to bribe them. So in the oil-rich Middle East, the system is not corrupt, but corruption is the system. This means that traffickers will not be prosecuted there either: they actually form part of the government. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that we all agree that we cannot leave the fight against drugs to, for instance, the Colombian government, as the drugs mafia is too rich and powerful compared to that government. But at the same time we do leave the fight against human trafficking to national governments, while that mafia is just as rich and powerful. So I feel it is necessary to discuss the issue of domestic workers in a trafficking framework, to draw attention to the fact that the international flows of migrant workers need to be monitored at an international, not at a national level.
Antoinette Vlieger is a professor at the University of Amsterdam. Her book, Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates: A Socio-legal Study on Conflicts is available in paperback, hardcover, Kindle, Nook and Apple. Full info and links available is at Quid Pro Quo and Amazon.
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