Maid in Dubai: Human Trafficking and the Domestic Servant Industry

As Tupa’s experience illustrates, the domestic servant industry in Dubai is a perfect example of how human trafficking can occur right before our eyes without anyone ever knowing it.  Throughout the world, forced labor is inextricably bound up with modern day slavery – and female domestic servants are at the center.   


Over the past several decades, Dubai has witnessed a massive influx in the number of female migrants.  It is not that difficult to understand why really, given that it is the inevitable outcome of Dubai’s evolutionary path: first the men came to build things, the things made money, the money was bestowed upon the citizens by a benevolent government, the citizens became comfortable and required servants…and so women came from everywhere to become those servants.  What is often referred to as the feminization of migrant labor in Dubai is really just a lot of women coming from all over the world to become maids and nannies in Emirati households.  While exact numbers are hard to come by, it has been estimated that by 2006, as much as 10% of the UAE’s entire population was made up of female maids from other countries.  Given such numbers, it is not surprising that Emirati families in Dubai employ a retinue of domestic servants that go well beyond their needs.  It is all part of the unspoken bargain between Dubai’s leaders and its citizens whereby the former offer a life of luxury and relative leisure to the latter in exchange for complete political control and looking the other way when it comes to turning the place into a kitschy playground for western tourists and investors. 


Working as a domestic servant is considered shameful by locals, perhaps because the ways they are treated now is not so different from the treatment of slaves in the past.  And given that slavery was only banned in the UAE in 1963, it can be a very touchy subject, particularly since many Emiratis (mostly those of African descent) who are still alive today were actually once former slaves themselves.  Slavery also left a legacy of over-reliance on foreign labor combined with a rather unique and habitual disdain for physical work that might take generations to wash out.  Subsequently, Emirati households have come to rely on the ever-expanding female foreign workforce to fill domestic servant positions.  Like their male counterparts, female migrant workers come from just about everywhere: the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, etc.  At the same time, however, the UAE somewhat bizarrely restricts maids in terms of nationality, specifying around seven or eight nationalities – Middle Eastern and western/European nations being notably absent – whose residents are even eligible to become domestic servants.  Wage scales are also defined by nationality, thus reinforcing in a quasi-official manner the various social stereotypes commonly held throughout Dubai about individuals from specific places, including, for example, if they are lazy, diligent, careless, hard-working, reliable, promiscuous, nice, not so nice, etc. Despite the fact that Africans have a rather strong historical association as slaves in the region, women from that continent (it does not matter where) have increasingly gotten the short end of the stick in Dubai’s neo-eugenic, domestic servant pecking order, and they tend to be placed on the lowest rungs of the ladder when it comes to their perceived quality as maids, which of course translates into lower wages. Conversely, Filipino women are not only highly sought after and attract slightly higher wages, but garner more prestige and social status for their Emirati employers.  While the individual rankings have shifted and broadened over the years, the regional system of ethnic/racial servitude persists. 


The fact that domestic servants are not strictly considered labor does not help matters.  As is the case in many Middle Eastern countries, maids, nannies, and other domestic workers in the UAE are considered part of the kafalaor sponsorship system, so the Ministry of Labour does not deal with them, and they do not have access to any benefits or rights under national labor laws, not that such things are extensive in the UAE to begin with. Instead, they are defined as migrants (they are not even defined as expats, a term that in Dubai implies highly skilled, Western guest workers) and fall squarely under the realm of the Ministry of the Interior, which has an almost institutionalized phobia of interfering in matters considered to be part of the private household.  Household or family disputes are just that, and they are not something the government wants to get involved in.  As migrants, domestic workers must deal with a set of immigration laws that are complicated, ephemeral, and above all else, put in place to protect the employers who, under the kafalasystem, also happen to be their sponsors.  At any moment and for any reason, the sponsor can simply cancel the person’s residence permit.  In fact, on its official website, the Government of Dubai provides helpful advice on how to do just that, stating among other things, “…you can take your maid to the airport, obtain boarding pass and go the GDRFA (General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs) office near Customs and Immigration counter.  Pay about AED 100 and get the residence cancelled.” As an added convenience, it also suggests, “Try and go at least one hour earlier than the recommended 3 hours international flight time in case there is a line for cancellation.”   In a system such as this – and when considering the fact that domestic workers are overwhelmingly female – one begins to understand why the idea of a maid or nannie seeking any kind of assistance from an immigration official is simply laughable.  As khaddamah– “the help” – female housemaids and nannies are marginalized in Dubai to such an extent that they are essentially invisible; what happens in the Emirati household stays in the Emirati household. 


Without any kind of protection or external monitoring system, Emirati sponsors are free to work domestic workers to the bone.  They are on call 24 hours a day, have few days off, no vacation time, and rarely ever leave the house for anything that is not work related.  Their duties are wide ranging and consist of just about anything the employer/sponsor can dream up.  From taking care of children and the elderly to cooking, cleaning, and gardening, domestic servants are involved in almost every aspect of life that entails some form of physical labor, disagreeable chore, or general drudgery. Even if you do happen to spot them in public, you might not even know it – they are the silent apparitions that trail behind Emirati families at Dubai’s glitzy malls, draped in the traditional abaya, like servile ghosts on constant call.   


In fact, Emirati families have become so dependent on their domestic servants that it has sparked a fierce debate in Dubai.  Sheikh Mohammed himself added fuel to the fire when he publicly accused citizens of relying so heavily on their domestic servants that they had essentially become a bunch of spoiled, in-effectual cream puffs who were becoming less and less capable of doing anything on their own.  Of course, there is more than a little irony here given that the Sheikh and his family are largely responsible for fashioning a society based on excess, indulgence, and what amounts to the governance of coddling. Yet the problem has become such a part of the public discourse in Dubai that even the police department publishes booklets on the dangers of relying too heavily on foreign domestic workers. The issue touches upon an increasing public discourse about the threats associated with foreign workers – or what is generally referred to as the “foreigner problem” – especially how they undermine Emirati society and culture.  Given the intense proximity of domestic workers to what has always been the rather cloistered inner sanctum of Emirati households, they have become a particular focal point for such criticisms.  Because they are foreign, female, and threats from within, they represent a potent combination of risks, and have been condemned for undermining Islamic norms, being a bad influence on children, being unhygienic health hazards, using witchcraft against their employers, poisoning their food, and a host of other evils.  The Dubai police and local newspapers have even posted things to “Watch out for” when monitoring your maid, which states among other things: “Changes in mood – From loving to sad to being depressed and irritable; Bizarre behaviour; Talking to herself; Day dreaming; Change in emotions and facial expressions; Other drastic mood swings.”  In the end, maids are as likely to be criminals as they are mentally unstable. As one high-ranking police official was quoted as saying when referring to this connection, “It is very difficult to imagine such a violent crime being committed for no apparent reason.” 


Blind ignorance among UAE’s leaders is a virtue for many reasons, not the least of which is that it provides a rather neat way to completely deny the existence of the extraordinarily abusive work environment of female domestic servants. The country has become such a poster child for the psychological, physical, and sexual abuses faced by maids and nannies that leaders were compelled by international pressure to draft a law in 2012 specifically aimed at improving the conditions and rights of foreign domestic workers.  And even though they cannot seem to pass it into law, they have regularly and rather smugly pointed to its present form as a completely toothless draft document as a means of condemning other countries for not having something similar (not stopping to think if other countries actually needed it).  Meanwhile, the debates and disputes rage on between UAE officials, human rights organizations, activists, and domestic worker interest groups. In this context, horrifying examples of bad behavior on the part of maids and their employers/sponsors receive enormous attention in the press, such as the Indonesian maid in Abu Dhabi who received the death sentence for murdering her employer’s four-month-old baby girl by smashing her head on the kitchen table, or the Emirati woman who received 15 years in jail in 2014 for starving her maids for days at a time, locking them for several months in a room specially outfitted with iron bars, and ultimately killing one by making her drink cleaning products and pesticides because she was unsatisfied with the job she did cleaning the bathroom.  There are so many gruesome and widely reported incidents – scaldings with hot liquids, driving nails into hands, whippings, beatings, rapes, and humiliations of all sorts – that some reports and newspaper articles read like trial transcripts for the International Criminal Tribunal.  Conditions are so bad that the Ministry of Interior initiates regular campaigns to round-up “absconding maids,” who have simply run away rather than work in such an environment.          


Speculation about the sexual lives and experiences of Dubai’s female domestic workers occurs against this backdrop of abuse and the general tension between dependency and perceived threat.  Somewhat predictably, a lot of discussion revolves around the threat theme, and painting foreign maids and nannies as promiscuous and hyper-sexual is an effective if not well-worn shibboleth in the age of AIDS.  Talk with them long enough, and you will find that many Emirati will justify the severe restrictions they place on the movements of their maids and nannies as an HIV prevention strategy.  


Beyond the ethnic/racial stereotypes, however, there is no denying that given the growing yet inconspicuous nature of the domestic servant industry in Dubai, there will be various murky overlaps with the much larger and more conspicuous prostitution industry.  It is common knowledge that recruiters use the former as cover for the latter, luring women to Dubai with promises of well paying jobs in the domestic service industry only to strip them of their passports and coerce them into paying off their debts as sex workers.  A wide range of strategies are employed to entrap women in this manner, all of which are relatively easy given Dubai’s lack of government regulations, indifference to the plight of migrants, and financially lucrative culture of hedonism.  Some women might even start out as a maid or nannie, but turn to sex work as an escape (of sorts) from the abuses and inequalities associated with these jobs.  Others might work part time in both industries.  There are even reports of very young girls who are hired as domestic servants in order to give their handlers time to indoctrinate them into the world of sex work.  Such strategies only add to the sexual abuses that female domestics already experience within the household, which according to many reports are relatively common. In the end, the invisible nature of the domestic servant industry makes it the perfect breeding ground for an entire continuum of experiences associated with both trafficking and sex. What happens as a result of choice and what happens as a result of manipulation or outright coercion and force is not always as cut and dry as some would have you believe.  Sex, female migration, and human trafficking come together in Dubai to form the ultimate grey area, and nobody really knows what goes on behind those closed doors on Emirati households.  This is especially true given that fears linked to foreign labor and migration – which have reached such a pitch that the issue is regularly deemed a “national security threat” – have created a siege mentality among Emirati themselves, causing them to retreat ever further into the private realm while dragging their domestic servants along with them.