Saturday, March 27, 2010

The sad state of domestic workers

There's an ad on tv I've been seeing lately that I have to rant about. It's shown on MBC4, which I assume is one of the Saudi channels since they cut out all sex scenes and kissing from movies and tv shows (meanwhile they're going to start playing The Tudors soon, from what I understand that's solely and graphically about randy royals, so what's the bloody point?)

Anyway, there's this ad for a home shopping show, which sees a mother sitting on the couch. Her two teenage daughters come in, accompanied by their Filippina maid, and they're all looking a bit drab and depressed.

Mum gets a brainwave and points the tv remote at the first daughter. Magic fairy dust! She's got a nice new outfit on, her hair is all done and she's got fabulous earrings!! She turns to the second daughter. Kapow! New dress, hair, the works! Finally, she points the remote at the maid. Wowza! A brand new vaccuum cleaner!!!

This ad represents everything that is wrong with the attitude people have towards their domestic workers. I'm not saying it's a Saudi thing, or an Arab thing, we've all seen the western films with similar attitudes, I'm saying it's a disgusting thing full stop. A friend was doing some research with Filippina domestic workers here, and the stories they had to tell weren't pretty. Their passports are kept with the employment agency, and they can't leave until they've paid back the cost of their airfare, no matter if they're being abused at the hands of their employers. Someone else told us a story of a maid their family hired, who had previously worked for another family. This woman had been given one sandwich a day to eat. That's it. And her female employer would count the number of slices of bread left in the bag so she'd know if the maid had stolen any food.

I had a conversation with the new Filippino masseuse who has started working at the beauty parlour next door. Not a maid, but she is living with the parlour owner. I told her about how on Sundays, a group of Filippinas meet at an internet cafe, how some of them bring food to share, so they can socialise with each other. She looked really excited by the prospect. I then mentioned it to the beauty parlour owner on my way out. "No," she said. "The agency told me that I'm not to let her socialise with other Filippino women." "What do you mean?" I asked, "surely it will be good for her to have a social network with women from similar backgrounds." "No, the agency explicitly told me that it's forbidden. But of course I'll take her anywhere else she needs to go to get what she needs." I couldn't believe it. I can understand how this woman wouldn't want to do anything to jeopardise the investment she's made in getting this masseuse, but for this 'agency' to deny her the opportunity to spend time with women she can share her experiences seems a bit nefarious to me.

It's not just Filippinas here in Lebanon, there are women from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Sudan. Walk past many travel agencies and they advertise cheap flights to and from these countries. There are suicides every week by domestic workers who feel they have no other means of escape. It's a sad reality.

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