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Migration et politique au Moyen-Orient

Françoise de Bel-Air

The Role of the State in the in-Migration of Domestic Workers to Jordan and the GCC Countries

Le rôle de l’État dans l’immigration des travailleurs domestiques en Jordanie et dans les pays du Golfe

Knut V. Bergem


More than two million Asian women are currently employed as domestic workers in Jordan and the Gulf-countries. The institution of domestic service in these countries has, accordingly, become intimately intertwined with state immigration policies. It has also become part of “internal affairs”. The availability of foreign domestic workers can be seen as part of a social contract between the authorities and the middle classes, by which the states provide an easy and comfortable life for their nationals, in exchange for political support.

On this background, the article addresses some of the structural problems facing the foreign domestic workers, and takes a critical look at the current immigration- and employment-practises shaping their stay. In significant ways, the article argues, foreign maids are kept out of society by being deprived of basic human rights or proper labour protection. Both the state and national employers benefit from this situation, each in their different ways, as will be shown. Finally, the article discusses possible ways to create a more humane immigration system for foreign domestic workers in the region.

Plus de deux millions de femmes asiatiques sont actuellement employées en tant que travailleuses domestiques en Jordanie et dans les États du Golfe. L’institution des services domestiques, dès lors, est devenue un élément à part entière des politiques étatiques d’immigration, comme de la politique intérieure des pays concernés. La disponibilité de travailleuses domestiques étrangères peut être envisagée en termes de « contrat social » entre les régimes et les classes moyennes, selon lequel l’État garantit un confort matériel aux citoyens en échange de leur allégeance politique. Dans ce cadre, cette contribution aborde certains problèmes structurels auxquels sont confrontées les travailleuses domestiques.

Il questionne les politiques actuelles d’immigration de même que les pratiques encadrant le séjour de ces personnes. L’article met en relief l’aspect structurel de l’isolement social comme de l’absence de politiques de protection des droits humains ou de loi du travail appliquées aux employés de ce secteur. Le profit politique engendré par cette situation, pour les États et employeurs des pays d’accueil, y est éclairé. L’article propose également quelques pistes pour l’élaboration de politiques plus humaines d’immigration de travailleurs domestiques vers la région.

Texte intégral

1A large number of books, reports and articles on domestic service in the Middle East is concerned with abusive aspects of the employer-employee relationship and the prevalent, degrading treatment of foreign, “live-in” maids (for example: ILO, 2004; Heyzer et al., 1994; Longva, 1997; Brochmann, 1993). Most authors seem to agree that the level of exploitation and abuse is extremely high in the region. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO, 2004) a majority of foreign domestic workers in the Middle East suffer from either mistreatment, overwork, restrictions on movement, non-payment of wages, or other grievances. In Kuwait, 51 % of foreign domestic workers report being victims of either “physical, verbal or sexual abuse”, according to ILO. In Bahrain, foreign maids work an average of 108 hours a week without any days off. Freedom of movement is heavily controlled in all countries covered by the report: Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain and UAE. Non-payment of wages is also a recurrent problem in all countries under consideration (ILO, 2004: 18).

2Given the systematic and well-documented level of worker abuse in the region, surprisingly few works have addressed the role of the Middle Eastern states in shaping the relationship between national employers and foreign employees. This serves to reinforce the persistent assumption among government officials and the general public, that domestic service is a “private affair” and the in-migration process a predominantly market-regulated matter. Implicit in these assumptions, is the notion that problems facing domestic workers are unrelated to the conceivable more important topic of state politics. It has to do, instead, with personal factors: hostile employers, greedy recruitment agents, racism, cultural difference, language problems or other factors in the employer-employee relationship. The General Director to the Dubai Migration Office, for example, states that:

  • 1 Cited in Sabban, 2004: 91.

“United Arab Emirates society suffers from the degrading perception of the foreign female domestic worker. This negative perception is causing major problems in the relationship between the worker and her sponsor. This wrong perception is also recreated along the new generation [as seen in the manner] UAE children mistreat the foreign female domestic worker.”1

3In one respect, it is hard to argue against this position. “Wrong perceptions” or racism is without doubt a central factor in the problems facing domestic workers. But are these attitudes the cause of the problem? Or are they merely a symptom of an abusive and exploitative immigration system in the region?

4In contrast (but not in opposition) to the “private affair”/racism-approach, this article will argue for the importance of a “state approach” to domestic service in the Middle East, in order to explain major problems facing domestic workers. In one respect, this choice is obvious, as long as state authorities are responsible for the current immigration regime: the system of laws, regulations and practises by which a state sets out who can live within its territory and under what conditions. The rationale behind the immigration policies, and how these policies affect the societies and the foreign workers, however, is less obvious.

5Through the current immigration regime, I will argue, state authorities not only structure the in-migration-process, but also shape the relations between employers and workers in significant ways. The relation between state authorities and the employing middle classes will, accordingly, be put at the forefront of the discussion. Specifically, it will be argued that “market demands” for domestic workers in the Middle East interact with economic, political and demographic factors in structuring the current migration policies and practices. Only by changing the whole immigration system or “worker program” pertaining to these vulnerable migrants and giving them certain “core” rights, the article concludes, can a substantial betterment of their situation be achieved.

6There are some minor differences in immigration and labour policies from state to state in the Middle East. The same holds true for relations between domestic workers and employers. Generalizations might often be misleading, and a term like the Middle East, even more so. Still, I think it is possible to identify some general patterns and common trends in both government policies and employers attitudes that can substantiate the generalized claims I put forward. Legal arrangements, hiring and employment practices and cultural values are, in large part, similar in their content in all countries under consideration. The same holds true for relevant aspects of State-society relations; both rich oil-states in the Gulf (GCC-countries) and non-oil Arab states in the Levant, like Jordan – can be described as rentier or semi-rentier states due to their oil-dependent and “unproductive” economies (Beblawi, 1990: 85-98). In all countries, foreign workers are brought in to take “unwanted jobs” and expatriates constitute a major part of the manual labour force. These expatriates are not integrated in the societies, but are excluded from most of the political and economical rights that nationals receive. Based on these and other factors, a bird view-approach, including the Gulf-region and Jordan (hereafter referred to as the Middle East) will be the chosen level for discussion.

  • 2 In connection with ongoing research for a forthcoming book about the globalization of domestic wor (...)

7The article is based on different written sources, available statistics and personal interviews with government officials, NGO-activists, employment agents, employers and domestic workers in Jordan and Bahrain. All interviews were undertaken in 2004 and 2005.2


8The globalization of domestic service has been examined from various angles during the last decade or so. Most studies seem to come from one of three major theoretical paradigms within the field (Cheng, 2003: 168).

9One paradigm highlights the international division of labour, how the globalization of domestic service reproduces gendered and racialized divisions of labour worldwide. The transfer of care work from less developed to more developed countries stands at the forefront in this paradigm, which is concerned with the interaction of global capitalism and international labour flows (for example: Heyzer et al., 1994).

10Another strand of works might be labelled “trans-national studies of domestic service”. In contrast to the first paradigm, these works focus on the “trans-national” experience of migrants, and highlight the interdependence of women from different social, economic and national backgrounds. A common point of departure is the role of “global cities” (Sassen, 1991) as local points for both global production and reproduction, and the formations of diasporic communities in these cities. One important work within this paradigm is Rachel Salazar Parrenas’ (2001).

11A third theoretical paradigm, partly based on the others, stresses the active intervention of states in structuring the lives of foreign domestic workers, what we can call “the state approach to domestic service”. At the forefront of these works is the connection between paid reproductive work and the political economy of receiving states (see for instance Chin, 1998).

12The article is especially indebted to this latter perspective, without dismissing insights from the two former. At the same time, I try to extend the state perspective, by speculating further on some of the hidden benefits in state polices toward foreign domestic workers in the Middle East. In other words: what is really in it for the states, as far as paid domestic work in this part of the world is concerned?


13Various inter-connected factors have contributed to the increasing number of foreign maids in the Middle East since the oil-boom in the mid 1970s. These include higher living standards, social changes in family structure and entry of women into the labour force. All of these changes led to an increased demand for domestic workers in the oil-rich Arab region, especially from the late 1970s and onward (Al-Najar, 2004; Shami, 1996).

14In addition to these socio-economic factors, comes the symbolic value of domestic workers in the Arab world. Since the oil-boom, the hiring of Asian maids has become part of an important new status system in the region. As Bridget Anderson (2000: 13) has explained, reproduction is not only about the necessities of life. It is also about reproducing a certain life-style. Domestic workers, accordingly, have become an essential aspect of “presentation” among Arab nationals; the ability of upwardly mobile classes to give the impression of living effortlessly and with enough resources to employ “servants”. The oil-wealth suddenly made it possible for just about everyone in the Gulf to afford a domestic servant. As both the oil-wealth and new living and consumption patterns started spreading from the Gulf to the Levant-countries, the latter countries also became a major destination for foreign domestics. Throughout the region, accordingly, domestic workers became part of a shared, Arabic pattern of “conspicuous consumption”, in large part initiated by the new-found oil wealth (Shami, 1996).

15Various poor Asian countries were quick to respond to this demand. Having little or no oil themselves, they were faced with huge balance of payments deficits resulting from the general price rise of oil, together with high unemployment rates and general household poverty. To meet these challenges, authorities in South and South East Asia encouraged their women to go abroad to work and remit as much of their wages as possible to their home country. This process is still very much in function today, with Bangladesh, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Indonesia providing a large pool of cheap labour to the Middle East. Salaries are generally four to five times higher in the Middle East than in the sending countries, and both “push and pull factors” are still at work, with substantial amounts of remittances being transferred to the labour sending countries every year. In Bangladesh for instance, more than 85  % of the total amount of remittances in 2001 came from the Arab League countries, according to World Bank figures (ILO, 2004: 13).


16In one respect, the flow of domestic workers into the Middle East is considered as unproblematic, from the receiving states’ point of view, in so far as it is not threatening the local labour markets. Thus, no in-migration quotas are in place in any of the Middle Eastern countries, and although all countries talk about – and actually implement – measures to nationalize the workforce, there is no sign of applying this principle to the domestic service sector, as long as these workers don’t take away jobs from “natives” (Shami, 1996). The result has been an explosion in the number of foreign maids in the region.

17By the late 1990s, there were between 1.3 and 1.5 million Asian women working in the Middle East, the majority being domestic workers. According to the Report of the National Consultation of Stakeholders on Migrant Domestic Workers that took place in Colombo in 2002, “although the demand for other types of migrant work was somewhat slack after 1990, there were no changes in the demand for domestic workers” (ILO, 2004: 15). In fact, the numbers of Asian women pouring into the Middle East increased steadily.

18In the GCC-countries, women represented almost 30 % of all inflows in 2000, compared to 8 % in 1980. In Kuwait alone, the number of maids rose from 29 000 in 1980, to almost 400 000 in November 2003. Saudi Arabia now hosts approximately 1 million foreign domestic workers, the UAE around 450 000 and Lebanon near to 180 000 (ILO, 2004; Asia NewsIt, 2004).

19In some of the Gulf-countries, the number of maids is higher or about equal to the indigenous population, with each household often employing three or four maids. As early as 1984 the average number of maids in UAE households was estimated at 2.2. The number in 1990 was approximately 3 per family, although no accurate figures were available (Sabban, 2004: 59). One maid for each child in the family, or one maid for every wife (especially in Saudi Arabia) is not uncommon. As of today (2005) there are more than 2 million Asian maids in the Gulf alone, and several hundred thousands in countries in the Levant.

20From a purely descriptive point of view, therefore, the case seems pretty straightforward as far as regional in-migration policies go: most, if not all, Middle Eastern governments under consideration here, still seem to welcome an unlimited amount of foreign domestic workers.


21There are several reasons for this liberal attitude. A main reason is that Arab women are not willing or not allowed to work as “live-in” domestic workers themselves, due to a so-called “culture of shame”. Domestic work is considered both degrading and shameful for Arab women, and most Arab employers just smile in disbelief when asked if they would consider hiring a local woman to do household chores. One employer I interviewed, rather perplexed, answered:

“No, no, that is out of the question. It is impossible. And I wouldn’t like it, even if it was an option. It would make everything much more difficult for me as an employer.”

22Even Arab employers who grew up with local, Arab housemaids, now consider this practice something unnatural or unthinkable. All attempts to get poor local women to take up positions as domestic workers have so far been futile.

23At the same time there is, as mentioned, assumingly an ever-increasing “market-demand” for this kind of services: a growing number of Arab women work outside the house, many have too large houses to manage on their own, others have elderly family members or kids they want someone to look after, and so on. On top of this comes the important “symbolic value” of servants, as mentioned above. Foreign domestic workers are not only household labour, they are also symbols that construct and maintain social status.

  • 3 According to a number of agents interviewed in Amman in 2004.

24The state authorities in the Middle East seem to acknowledge all of these considerations (both real and imagined market “needs”), by facilitating a smooth in-migration process for domestic workers through predominantly private employment agencies. An Arab employer who orders a domestic worker from a local maid agency in Amman, can in general expect to receive the worker within one week.3


25Foreign domestic workers are in high demand, and the numbers are increasing. At the same time, there is an acute awareness among state authorities and the public at large that a large foreign workforce, including domestic workers, represents potential dangers for the receiving states and their populations. Both political and social costs are frequently addressed, in conjunction with the overarching concern for security and stability (Weiner, 1995). The Middle Eastern regimes are, like most other regimes in the world, trapped in what Hollifield has labelled the “liberal paradox”: “In order to maintain a competitive advantage, governments must keep their economies and societies open to trade, investment and migration. But unlike goods, capital and services, the movement of people involves greater political risks.” (2004: 885)

26Especially in the Gulf, newspapers, academic articles, talk shows and seminars frequently give evidence of grave concerns about the predicaments awaiting these societies as a result of their total reliance on foreign labour. In UAE, for example, the expatriate community comprises more than 80 % of the population, and the number of foreign domestic workers alone is higher than the indigenous population (Sabban, 2004: 158). There is a great deal of uncertainty and confusion as to how this will affect cultural values, national identity, security and social cohesion in the long run. As stated by Michael S. Teitelbaum (2002: 158), “the political implications of international migrations depend not only upon empirical facts but also on the ways these are perceived by political elites and publics.”

27The discussion about foreign labour in UAE is part of a larger discussion pattern throughout the region that is also reflected in national immigration policies. It is of concern of all Middle Eastern governments to seek to contain any negative cultural and social effects that foreign maids might have on the society in general, and its main institution, the family, in particular. Immigration policies regarding foreign contract workers, accordingly, reflect the states’ concern over demographic balance, while attitudes towards the large number of foreigners reveal deep-seated anxiety over national identity and the danger of both cultural and physical “contamination”.

  • 4 In Kuwait they can join unions, but only after they have been residents for a minimum of five year (...)

28According to immigration regulations, all domestic workers need to obtain records for good health, including a pregnancy test, before they can take up work in a Middle Eastern country. They are not allowed to bring family members during their employment. If they get pregnant during their contract period, they will be deported immediately. Citizenship or corresponding rights (such as social welfare benefits) is out of the question, together with rights to organize in labour unions4 or settle down permanently. The latter point is crucial to state control over the demographic balance. A new trend, now, is also to favour Muslim domestic workers over Christians in in-migration practises, in order to avoid wrong influence on children and society.

29Immigration policies and practices for domestic workers, then, must be understood not only in terms of meeting market demands, but also in terms of their role in maintaining national health, social stability, labour docility and cultural purity. Viewed this way, domestic service cannot in any meaningful way be described as simply a private or market-regulated matter. The administration and legislation concerning the in-migration of foreign domestic workers is rather a politically constructed solution to meet certain demands for cheap labour, coupled with severe restrictions on this labour force’s rights and freedoms in order to minimize the effects on the social equilibrium of the societies. The result is a striking contrast between the laissez-faire approach the liberal state has taken towards in-migration, and the states rigid intervention in the provision, organization and control of the migrant workers as soon as they arrive.


30None of the Middle Eastern countries have a state apparatus large enough to administer and control the presence of the large number of foreign workers. State practices of control depend, therefore, on employers and employment agencies for enforcement. Specific mechanisms and legal arrangements, accordingly, transfer power and authority from the state to private employers and agencies. Through the kafala-system, which is in use all over the Middle East, the states solve their capacity problem by delegating to citizens functions that normally belong to state institutions (Longva, 1997: 100). Kafala is ordinarily translated as sponsorship, and is a general and absolute requirement in all countries in the region.

31Sponsorship (kafala) requires a sponsor-employer (kafeel) both to formally “invite” a worker into the country, and thereafter assume full economic and legal responsibility for the worker as long as the contract period lasts. A return ticket should be provided by the employer. The kafeel must also inform the Immigration Departments of any changes in the labour contract (expiry, renewal or cancellation) or any changes in the workers domicile and civil status. The expectation is that domestic workers will leave the country upon expiration of their contracts, unless a renewal of work and residency permit is obtained. Workers who abscond from their employers/sponsors during the contract period (or attempt to run away) due to mistreatment or other reasons, are rendered illegal and are subject to arrest and/or deportation if they are caught.

  • 5 There are two ILO conventions relevant for domestic workers: the Migration for Employment Conventi (...)

32Even if the kafala institution applies to most foreign workers in the Middle East, the consequences of this system for live-in domestic workers are potentially far more dangerous than for other workers, due to their total isolation in the employers’ house and their vulnerable legal status. Domestic workers are not covered by Labour Laws in any Middle Eastern country, and no UN or ILO conventions covering unskilled migrants are ratified by any of the countries in the region.5 In practice, domestic workers are under the sole authority of their employers, who can arbitrarily decide on wages, working hours, living conditions, and so on.

33According to state authorities, the reason for not including domestics under Labour Law is that it is “impractical” and that domestics are “out of reach” of the governments. As a Ministry of Labour spokesman in Bahrain explained:

  • 6 Quoted from Al-Najaar, 2004: 28.

“House workers are treated as part of the family. Disputes should be settled internally whenever possible. Or else the privacy of the household is desecrated.”6

34The Arab “home” is still considered as a form of sanctuary into which outsiders never enter unless explicitly invited, and this also goes for state representatives or Embassy personnel. Labour inspectors are everywhere forbidden from inspecting private households.


35Foreign domestic workers frequently have to put up with severe limitations of their freedom through restrictions which have become normative elements in the employer­employee relationship. These restrictive measures take different forms, and have been in place since the foreign domestics started coming to the region. Employers will in most cases keep the domestic workers’ passports and residence permits, restrict any movement outside the house, not give any days off, not hand out house keys, lock the maids inside while employers are away from the house, restrict the use of phones, including private mobiles, and so on. Employers are granted considerable leeway, in fact are encouraged, in restricting the domestic workers’ freedom of movement in these ways, both by Government officials and employment agencies. In Kuwait, for example, the Ministry of Interior issues statements at regular intervals reminding both employers and employees of the importance of following the practice of keeping the workers’ passports (Longva, 1997: 94). My own interviews with employment agents in Jordan in 2005 confirmed the same attitude, which is in stark contrast to international law.

  • 7 Special Working Contract for Non-Jordanian Domestic Workers (2003)
  • 8 Article 8, under Terms and Conditions.
  • 9 See for example ILO, 2004: 23.

36In the most “liberal” contract for domestic workers available in the whole Middle East, implemented in Jordan,7 one of the articles states that: “The Second Party (the worker) shall be given one rest day weekly provided that the Second Party shall not leave the residence without the permission of the Employer.”8 This contract, which was the result of long negotiations between different ministries, recruitment agencies, women NGOs and UNIFEM in Jordan, is now hailed as a model for the whole Middle East region.9 So far no protests have been raised about the content of the contract, including the mentioned article.

37Employers’means of controlling their maids sums up to a form of a civic surveillance of aliens which, given the large presence of foreign workers, would otherwise have been an impossible burden for the receiving states’ infrastructure (Longva, 1997: 100-101). At the same time, it is considered a natural part of an employer’s responsibility. Most employers and employment agents I have interviewed so far, explained that keeping passports was a reasonable practice, as it prevented domestic workers from attempting to escape, in which case employers would lose their “investment”, referring to the fee they had to pay to the employment agency for getting a worker. It was also widely agreed upon that employers had to restrict domestic workers’ movements in order to protect the workers’ own safety and well-being.

38The willingness to serve as “domestic guardians”, however, seems in large part to be in the interest of employers themselves. This way they get workers who are available at all times, work around the clock and, in many cases, are paid only symbolic sums of money. Employers know that authorities tacitly accept this exploitation through inadequate legal protection (under Labour Law) or granting of political rights allowing the workers to organize collectively. If they are granted all the power in the relationship, why not use this power?

39Employers also know that problems arising in connection with the work situation are classified and dealt with as “law and order problems” and not as labour conflicts, as long as maids are not considered workers in any legal sense. This also has consequences for the settling of conflicts between employers and employees. If employers are not satisfied with their workers, they can simply have them returned to the agency within a “trial-period”, or have them repatriated by putting them on a plane back home. Domestic workers therefore have to live with the constant threat of deportation.

40All in all, the whole system can be said to maximize the benefits for employers, while minimizing or eliminating any obligations, whether social or economical, to the host state. At the same time it leaves the domestic worker more or less powerless.


41According the sociologist Rima Sabban (2004: 90), writing from the UAE, the “increasing dominance of domestic house workers is part of an unspoken bargain between the state and the emerging civil society, by which the state provides a leisure life in exchange for complete political control”. She also argues that “[t]his unspoken state-civil-society contract is part of a larger developmental policy”, as far as the authorities are concerned.

42In other words: through its favourable immigration and hiring procedures (for employers), the state provides an opportunity for an easy, comfortable and “modern” life for the middle classes. Women of the household are free to work or attend to other activities, while their Asian maids do domestic chores, look after kids or take care of the elderly. This way the state ensures a smooth transition from a pre-modern to a modern life-style based on extended socialising, formation of nuclear families and free time for shopping and other activities for women of the household.

43In exchange for this offer, the state demands political support. The logic is the following: “We can’t solve all your welfare needs, but at least we can provide you with alternative and cheap private solutions (domestic workers) through our immigration laws and favourable hiring procedures.” As long as domestics are tied to their sponsor, wages can be kept down. The kafala-system implies that there is no free labour market where workers can choose to change to a better paid job, and thereby raise their wages. Wages are normally set by the agencies. Labour unions for foreign workers are forbidden. The state also promises not to interfere in employers’ private affairs, namely, the way he or she chooses to treat the domestic worker(s), as long as the employer sticks to her/his responsibilities as far as the worker’s legal status is concerned. As already stated, employers will have a self-interest in complying with this arrangement, as it renders the domestics under their complete control and surveillance.

  • 10 This is a conservative number based on estimates from the Sri Lankan and Philippine Embassy in Amm (...)
  • 11 If we multiply the number of foreign maids with the government levy per maid (365 JD).

44And the State profits, as well. In addition to the free help in alien surveillance, governments make quite a bit of money on these migrants through the levies they charge for residence-permits. In Jordan, where the number of maids is still relatively modest (around 50 000),10 the levies amount to more than JD 18 250 000.11 In Gulf countries, with a much higher numbers of maids, the income for the state is of course much higher.

45On top of this direct income for the state, come all the hidden savings of not having to spend government money on welfare services or subsidies as long as the foreign maids provide much of this work. The “maid industry” is big and convenient business, not only for the agencies that import the women, but also for the states that legalize and monitor the “maid trade” and rely on its citizens to report on the immigrants’ whereabouts.


46There is, however, more than money involved here. Larger politico-ideological concerns are also at stake in this large-scale “maid trade”, as far as the governments are concerned. These political considerations will by nature not be stated openly, but can be detected through what governments actually do – or choose not to do.

47The most obvious effect of the large inflow of foreign domestics, in this regard, is the process of “privatization of social life”. Families are encouraged to turn to the capitalist market for the provisions of goods and services (domestic help, childcare, nursing of the elderly), instead of relying on the state, the local community or the extended family for mutual help and support. One motive in this “privatization scheme”, as far as the governments are concerned, seems to be a mix of economical and social considerations.

48In most development-oriented economies the nuclear family is considered the most appropriate organization of modern social life, inasmuch as it facilitates the development of capitalist market economies. As Janet W. Salaff (1988: 268) writes, regarding Singapore:

“As members of households become directly linked to the market economy as consumers, debtors and pensioners, wider ties to the local community based on mutual aid are weakening. At the same time, these exchanges stimulate the market economy and empower the state.”

49In other words: the state participates in the construction of a “modern” middle class, which in turn becomes an integral part of the consumption base that sustains the economic development of the society. In this process the state co-opts the institution of domestic service as a central component in its political project of modernization and privatization, and harvests political support along the way.

50In most Middle Eastern countries, as is the case for Singapore, the process of privatizing social life at the level of the household occurs in conjunction with privatizing efforts at the national level. The states tend to disengage from the economy by selling state-owned industries or corporations, which in turn will offer goods or services to the population on the open market. A major difference between these two processes, however, is that while economic privatization at the national-economic level is premised on economic growth and efficiency, the privatization of social life is premised on the real or imagined need to mould society in a manner that is conducive to normalizing a capitalist way of living and consuming (Chin, 1998: 177). While the first process amounts to a neo-liberalistic, economic restructuring, the latter amounts to a form of social engineering in order to facilitate a “modernization” of social relations.

51The paradox, as far as the institution of live-in domestic service is concerned, is that this social modernization goes hand in hand with an archaic institution like unlegislated domestic servitude. Furthermore, few academic commentators on the issue describe the domestic workers as a necessity for the social development in the region. Why then, are the states so much in favour of the in-migration of foreign domestic workers?

52In addition to the factors already mentioned (economy, the culture of shame, modernization, political legitimacy), an important cultural factor might be involved here. Namely, the very presence of domestic servants keeps the modernization process under control. More specifically, while consumption and political consent are stimulated through the availability of cheap household labour, equality between the sexes is halted in accordance with cultural/religious norms and traditions among the state elites.


53Although major changes have taken place in the Middle East since the oil-boom, the new prosperity has also helped preserve central social and cultural traits (Brochmann, 1993). An interesting factor in this context is that the radical changes in living standards, education levels and consumption patterns, so far have not been accompanied by serious conflicts in the domestic sphere, that is, between the sexes. One of the reasons is, without doubt, the employment of domestic workers in the household and the “liberating” effects this factor has on the situation for women in the region.

54The presence of a large number of underprivileged foreign workers can, first of all, be said to enhance the national women’s social position and standing in society. Still not on equal footing with men (legally and morally), the daily interaction with women of lower status nevertheless makes them acutely aware of their relative high standing, as both nationals/citizens and employers. As the Norwegian anthropologist Longva (1997: 218) has written concerning Kuwait: “The larger the presence of the migrants, the more acute the Kuwaitis, in particular the women’s awareness of their cultural identity and social position in society.” This pattern is not exclusive to Kuwait, but is found in most countries based on policies of strict exclusion between citizens and expatriates. A strengthened national identity among privileged, female employers serves to enhance the overall role and identity of native women, and thereby reinforce state legitimacy.

55At the same time, and central to the argument here, the presence of foreign servants serves to prevent the modernization process (especially the equality between the sexes) from reaching beyond a certain “danger threshold”, where female actors begin to question the basis of the hegemony of their men over them. As Longva (1997: 218) writes:

“Thus the increasing presence of expatriates and their depreciated status relative to the Kuwaitis, cause […] native women to distance themselves from the opportunities that modernity offers […] in order to crystallize their own ethnic identification.”


56One aspect of this “crystallization of ethnic identification” is the elevation of national women to the position of professional employers. After the entrance of domestic workers in the household, homemaking is no longer what it used to be. It is now something that is contracted to and carried out by foreign women, very often from poor backgrounds and without sufficient skills, according to native employers. The domestic worker, therefore, requires supervision, training and management. This tendency among female employers is today reinforced by the growing in-migration of lower-paid and largely unskilled women from countries like Indonesia and Bangladesh. Compared to their Filipina colleagues, for example, these women are relatively less familiar with modern kitchen equipment and other modern appliances in the household. The female employer, accordingly, has to assume the position, not only as an employer, but also something akin to a household “manager”. One employer I interviewed told me how she preferred to hire unskilled domestics, preferably from Indonesia, because this allowed her to “mould the girl the way I want her. The Filipinas always insist on doing things their own way. The Indonesians are more simple and obedient.” The same attitude was found among a large number of employers in my sample.

57Household labour itself is reconstructed and redefined in this process of “management”, together with the “crystallization” of the female employer’s identity. Homemaking becomes a “professional” occupation. The private sphere, the home, at the same time, is transformed into a form of public sphere, where state policies and nationalist politics are played out on a micro-level, with the female employers in charge and total control over the foreign domestics. The “liberal” state welcomes the unskilled women into the country, while the employers control, mould, manage and contain the domestic workers inside their houses, before they are sent back again.

58Whether one calls the current of laws and practices surrounding domestic service in the Middle East “a bargain”, a “social contract” between authorities and the employing middle classes, or an exchange of favours (cheap domestic labour in return for political support), what is central to the argument here, is that there is a convergence of interests between state authorities and middle class employers that results in a system that is extremely harsh for the domestic workers. On the one hand, it fulfills the states’ need for control and security over aliens at their territory. On the other hand, it provides middle-class employers with a disposable pool of workers who in large part are kept out of society, without basic human rights or labour protection. “The management of foreign domestics at home”, writes Cheng (2003: 184), “is not only important for labour control but also central to the state’s administration of its alien subjects. It ensures their exclusion from the nation as well as from the society as a whole.”


59The kafala-system applied to domestic workers is so favourable to the host state and to employers in the Middle East, that changes or substantial reforms seem extremely hard to achieve through official or unofficial channels. The disregard for the domestic workers’ rights and working conditions can be rationalized and legitimized, from a state point of view, not only because it benefits the politically important middle classes in the country, but also the economies of the sending states. Why change a policy, or immigration system, that both saves and accumulates money for the state, keeps the affluent classes happy, provides remittances for the poor sending states and gives the domestic workers the chance to earn much-needed money (in exchange for political and social rights)?

60One reason, from a humanitarian point of view, is, as already mentioned, that the current immigration system is very brutal for a large number of the foreign domestic workers. In many cases they are treated like slaves, not paid their salaries and there are relatively small chances that abusive employers will experience sanctions in the legal system (even if this happens every once and a while). During my field trip to Bahrain before Christmas 2004 the local newspapers ran stories every day about beaten and exploited maids. There were stories of rapes and suicides. This coverage is of course an embarrassment, not only to the local population, but also to the authorities. Expressions like “human bondage” and “modern-day slavery” give both residents and authorities a bad standing in the international community.

61Several reports undertaken by organizations like ILO, Humans Rights Watch, UNIFEM, the European Commission, and so on, have also, and in different ways, highlighted discrimination and abuse from employers, recruiting agencies and state authorities throughout the region. This has resulted in growing concern at the political level, and also led to a top-level conference for GCC-countries in October 2004, in order to address the problems, both for the workers themselves and the receiving societies. A report from Human Rights Watch from July that same year was instrumental in this regard. The title of the report said it all: Bad Dreams. Exploitation and Abuse of Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia.

62Even if the majority of foreign maids are not victims of severe mistreatment, the current employment practices concerning maids amounts to what Ray Jureidini (2001), based on Kevin Bales (1999), has called “contract slavery”. The very expression itself signals an urgent need for change, something akin to a modern anti-slavery movement.


63Another reason for change is that the current institution of domestic service might be very unhealthy, in the long run, for the nation building processes in the Middle East. Rima Sabban (2004) states that foreign domestic workers are increasingly becoming scapegoats in the disrupted social order brought about by sudden wealth and modernization in the UAE. Both academics and journalists in the Emirates have highlighted the negative effects the extensive use of housemaids might have on children’s upbringing, including language skills, social norms, religious knowledge and general health. Another commentator from the UAE has put attention to the fact that a society that relies on domestic workers in the socialising of kids is “recreating generations of dependent personalities who request that domestic workers do everything for them. Our full reliance on domestics in the household is encouraging the growth of an unproductive family”. (quoted from Sabban, 2004: 91).

  • 12 See for example “Housemaid system for local kids can affect their culture”, Khaleej Times, Oct. 23 (...)

64Similar concerns are voiced throughout the Middle East region, and (male) fingers are regularly pointed to Arab mothers who neglect their responsibilities in the upbringing and socialization of their children.12

  • 13 “Sponsorship system is the root cause of much evil”, Gulf Daily News, January 3, 2005.

65In addition to these concerns, the police all over the Middle East have pointed to breaches in residence regulations, “immoral behaviour” and crimes committed by maids, which, taken together, assumingly also have disruptive effects on society. The surveillance and control measures undertaken by employers and state authorities will always be incomplete and the system itself produces thousands of “illegal” migrants or runaway maids every year. In Saudi Arabia alone more than 19 000 maids fled from their employers during 2002, according to Amnesty International. In Bahrain more than 45 000 expatriates were considered to be “runaways” in 2005.13

66In sum, both internal and external factors have put governments under increasing pressure to take a more active and protective role in the in-migration process. The notion that something has to be done has become more urgent. The big question, of course, is exactly what should governments do?


67A wealth of reform suggestions has been put forward by researchers and organizations that have looked into the problems mentioned here. But so far, most participants in the debate have mainly been concerned about details and minor adjustments to the current immigration system, not the system at large.

  • 14 As of 2005 four agencies have been shut down, according to my source in the Ministry.

68One small step that has been implemented in Jordan is to register, legalize and monitor the employment agencies that import the maids. The new law concerning the recruitment process allows the Ministry of Labour to monitor the work of the agencies and to take action if they violate the regulations aiming at protecting migrant workers. This is of course a good initiative, and a couple of agencies have actually been shut down because of maltreatment of maids.14

69Another measure is to produce working contracts that can actually be used in the legal system. As of today, Jordan is the only country in the Middle East with a state-sanctioned and legally binding contract like this. Even if this contract has some flaws, as mentioned earlier, it is still an important first step in securing some basic rights. My own impression, nevertheless, is that the contract is frequently “overruled” by the employment agencies, and not followed by employers. A foreign domestic worker will also face major difficulties in the legal system, and usually not be able to afford to wait for the case to come to court.

  • 15 Migrant Workers Protection Society (former Migrant Workers Group) was officially acknowledged as a (...)

70A third area of action relates to complaint procedures (such as establishing hotlines) and establishment of places (safe houses, etc.) where maids in trouble can seek help. Today many of the abused maids actually end up in jail, in lack of other places to keep them while their cases are being processed. So far, only a handful of embassies in the region have opened their doors and provided shelter for abused maids. In Bahrain the only national NGO15 in the Gulf that explicitly works for the rights of migrant workers has finally been allowed by the government to open a small shelter, primarily catering for abused maids. Even if this is modest, it is still a positive development.

71What is still lacking, however, is a comprehensive discussion and assessment of the current immigration regime in general, and the rules and practices for domestic workers in particular. Policy makers have been very reluctant to ask the fundamental ethical questions concerning the current institution of domestic service. For example: what “moral standing” should be accorded to domestic workers and other non-citizens? Who is responsible for the welfare of these workers? Are domestic workers workers? How should we balance the interest of national employers and the receiving state, with the interest of migrant workers and the sending countries?


72Striking a workable balance between these interests, must be the goal of any new and improved immigration regime. The point must be to avoid too much of a discrepancy between the “ought to be” and what is currently realistic, as stated by Ruhs and Chang (2004). On the one hand, idealistic considerations are needed to bring some ethical guidelines or regulative ideas into the debate. On the other hand, pragmatic considerations must guide the discussion if the object is to yield any practical policy implications. As King (1983: 530) argues: “to ask people to accept policies which threaten to lower their own well being sharply in the name of some abstract moral principle is clearly impracticable.”

  • 16 A recent proof of this is the reluctance of Arab (and most other labour receiving states) states t (...)

73A “realistic” approach to this complex phenomenon, then, must first of all take as a starting point that labour immigration policy in this part of the world (unlike the EU) is still being made and implemented at the national, state level. This is important, inasmuch as it takes the question of the difference between citizens and non-citizens into due consideration. It will be a non-starter to place unrealistic demands on national policy-makers in this regard, such as equal treatment of citizens and temporary labour migrants. The whole notion of citizenship – with preferential rights for citizens – is still a strong one, and will most probably be so in the foreseeable future.16

74But how different shall citizens and non-citizens be, as far as rights are concerned? No rights at all for non-citizens, which is very close to the current reality for many domestic workers, is an untenable position. The same rights for migrant workers and citizens, on the other hand, will make the whole notion of citizenship meaningless.

75However policy makers decide to distribute rights, some core rights for non-citizens have to be agreed upon (such as working conditions, hours of work, a minimum wage, and so on). The right to hold your passport is also critical, and a right that has to be fully acknowledged. At the same time there must be mechanisms in place that make it possible to both implement and monitor these rights. Realism/nationalism has to be coupled with the right degree of idealism/cosmopolitanism in order to achieve a better balance than the current state of affairs.

76Given that rights are and will be unevenly distributed by the state, the challenge must also be to heighten the “moral standing” of temporary migrants in the region, without necessarily making them equal in rights to permanent residents. The “wrong perceptions” (racism) mentioned earlier have to be modified. In the long run, the law is crucial in altering peoples’ attitudes and behaviour. A general requirement in this regard must be state policies that prevent a situation where migrant workers in practice are sold to employers who thereby assume full control over their workers as a form of “property” or “labour investment” to be guarded. Domestic workers must have the option to back out of abusive work-situations, without being criminalized. They must be considered workers in their own rights, and not an extension of the host family. This must be followed up by the granting of a right to join a union, like other workers. In short: the current kafala-system must be abolished.

77A moderate alternative to the kafala-system would be to give migrant workers a freedom to move within certain sectors of the labour market, as workers. For domestic workers this would imply the ability to freely choose between private household employers during their contract period. After all, this freedom, albeit limited, is what makes a labour relationship something different from slavery.

78The incentives for the receiving states to make substantial reforms in their immigrant worker policies must also be made clear. A point of departure in this regard must be to stress the fact that any migrants who achieve better overall outcomes in terms of economic betterment and welfare rights, are much less likely to be associated with crimes and other “bad consequences” in host states. This is especially true for domestic workers, who have an extremely low “moral standing” in receiving states in the Middle East, but at the same time are in the most intimate contact with the native population.


79The view put forward in this article is that domestic labour in the Middle East is intimately integrated in state policies of modernization, development and reproduction. A main argument is that states authorities in the Middle East structure the in-migration process of foreign domestic workers in order to gain political legitimacy and solve a range of welfare tasks. Thus, examining the role of the state in the in-migration of these workers is still of uttermost importance in order to comprehend the current institution of domestic service in the region.

80Experience shows that the current immigration regime highly favours employers and the receiving state, while the domestic workers face an extreme hardship due to a range of restrictive measures, and the refusal to recognise them as workers. Authorities in the Middle East are increasingly acknowledging this, and some small steps have been taken in order to improve the situation. What is needed, however, is a total overhaul of the whole immigration system.

81In the short run, this seems unrealistic. Policies regarding foreign domestic workers are linked both to a pre-understanding of the division between public and private, between real work and servitude, and between women’s and men’s roles and duties in society. The current policies and practices are also linked to a sharp division in the conception of citizenship rights on the one hand, and migrant workers’ rights, on the other. All of these issues have to be raised, discussed and acted upon before real improvements for foreign domestic workers in the Middle East can be achieved.



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1 Cited in Sabban, 2004: 91.

2 In connection with ongoing research for a forthcoming book about the globalization of domestic work, to be published in 2006.

3 According to a number of agents interviewed in Amman in 2004.

4 In Kuwait they can join unions, but only after they have been residents for a minimum of five years.

5 There are two ILO conventions relevant for domestic workers: the Migration for Employment Convention (Revised), 1949 (No. 97) and the Migrant Workers (Supplementary provisions) Convention, 1975 (No. 143). The relevant UN convention is the International Convention for the Protection of the Rights of All Migrants and members of their families which came into force July 1, 2003 and is ratified by 25 countries as of May 2005.

6 Quoted from Al-Najaar, 2004: 28.

7 Special Working Contract for Non-Jordanian Domestic Workers (2003)

8 Article 8, under Terms and Conditions.

9 See for example ILO, 2004: 23.

10 This is a conservative number based on estimates from the Sri Lankan and Philippine Embassy in Amman from 2005. Available figures from Ministry of Labour and the Jordanian Border and Residency Department differ, but both tend to be much lower than the estimates from the embassies due to the large number of “illegal” workers.

11 If we multiply the number of foreign maids with the government levy per maid (365 JD).

12 See for example “Housemaid system for local kids can affect their culture”, Khaleej Times, Oct. 23, 2003; or “Maid troubles”, Khaleej Times, March 21, 2003. An interesting fact is that very few of these critics at the same time, criticize men for not being more involved in housekeeping and socialization

13 “Sponsorship system is the root cause of much evil”, Gulf Daily News, January 3, 2005.

14 As of 2005 four agencies have been shut down, according to my source in the Ministry.

15 Migrant Workers Protection Society (former Migrant Workers Group) was officially acknowledged as an independent NGO in 2005 and allowed by the authorities to rent a three-room apartment in Manama where abused maids could seek shelter.

16 A recent proof of this is the reluctance of Arab (and most other labour receiving states) states to ratify international conventions from the UN and ILO, that promote a very comprehensive (and some would say, unrealistic) set of rights to migrant workers.

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