Namrata Raju

In Wayétu Moore’s fictional novel, She Would Be King (2018), the author reimagines the birth of Liberia as a homeland for free slaves through a sophisticated marriage of history and magical realism. The book describes a woman named Charlotte, a slave on a Virginia plantation, who died without realising her predicament, and experienced what it was like to be completely invisibilised by society.

In sum, repeated discrimination turned Charlotte into a living ghost. Charlotte is an apt allegory for the experience of low-wage migrant women from Southasia and other developing states in the Arab Gulf – where gender, nationality, race and other markers dictate the full extent of a worker’s invisibilisation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a tragedy, and for the world of work, the implications are daunting. Across global labour markets, once-marginalised workers have been unceremoniously pushed even further to the margins. A March 2020 note from the International Labour Organization (ILO) reads, “Some groups, such as migrant workers and workers in the informal economy, are particularly affected by the economic consequences of the virus. And women, who are over-represented in the public health sector, are particularly exposed.” The pandemic has thus laid bare an ugly truth about our current labour systems: that in an era of unprecedented job loss and financial strain on workers, having 4 billion people in the world outside the ambit of social protection is, quite simply, untenable.

The two-tiered labour market systems in these countries must be given a makeover, with worker rights incorporated both into law and practice.

Many of the hardest-hit workers are women. Migrant workers, too, have received the short end of the stick. Caught in the crosshairs of travel bans and early lockdowns, they were stranded either away from their homes or employment. While the pandemic has continued to rage, a very specific monster grew stronger in the world of migrants, and of migrant women.

We shall term this gnarly monster the gremlin of graded invisibility.

Invisibility in the Gulf labour markets

So how is this relevant to the Arab Gulf in particular – and why speak of Southasian women in the region?

Comprising over 90 percent of the workforce in the Arab Gulf, low-wage Southasian emigrants have been contributing to the region’s economic agenda ever since the oil boom of the 1970s. Regrettably, countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar essentially operate two-tiered labour market systems, which privilege nationals over non-nationals both in law and in practice. Women, who face structural inequalities even prior to migration, are amongst the most invisibilised within this two-tiered system. Under these labour regimes, a kafeel or sponsor (usually the employer) possesses undue power over the movement and employment of migrant workers under limited duration contracts, with workers being bound to their sponsors in terms of changing jobs or exiting the country. The system in effect renders an imbalanced power dynamic in favour of the employer over the worker, causing the ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR) to warn that this type of labour market is “conducive to the exaction of forced labour”.

In terms of scale, the annual outflow of migrant workers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal is estimated to be a whopping 2.5 million, and over 90 percent of the workers from India and Pakistan sought to emigrate to a Gulf country in recent years. The pandemic has only served to worsen worker conditions within these discriminatory labour regimes. A report released by labour rights organisation Equidem in November 2020 observed that scores of migrant workers faced the non-payment of wages and end-of-service benefits from their employers, coupled with other rights violations such as illegal recruitment fees, unsanitary living conditions and racial discrimination. The report proceeds to note that in all three countries, reforms were introduced that further privileged the rights of nationals and industry over their ample migrant worker populations. UAE’s Ministerial Resolution 279 is one such instance: passed in March 2020, the resolution in effect made it easier for employers to fire migrant workers, reduce their pay, and place them on unpaid leave, all in an environment where workers do not have the right to freedom of association and trade unions are not permitted by the state.

To understand how the graded invisibility gremlin impacts women in these three states, the domestic work sector is an insightful starting point, with 70 percent of the female foreign labour force in the Arab Gulf being comprised of domestic workers. Due to the gendering of job roles, Southasian women are heavily represented in arenas such as domestic work, care work and the service sector. In the UAE, a sizeable 146,000 or more domestic workers are female migrants, many of whom report human-rights abuses ranging from confiscating their passports by their employers, an illegal act even by local law, to physical and sexual exploitation.

It is equivalent to an imagined world where workers are given grades in line with their gender, race, nationality, and other socio-economic markers. You get an A+ if you are Caucasian, and your grade begins to plummet quickly based on your skin colour. If you are a Southasian woman, perhaps your teacher will not deem you fit enough to even sit the exam in the first place. Depending on what grade your employer deems appropriate, you get paid more or less, in line with your socio-economic class. Although migrant women, many of whom are Southasian, make up 39 percent of the workforce across the Arab states, their pivotal role in the economic success stories of the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia continues to be ignored. For women, these systemic inequalities take the form of multiple guises: from significant pay gaps between men and women for the same jobs, to being expected to work in roles deemed more acceptable for women, and of course, facing gender-based violence and harassment both inside and outside the workplace.

So, who are these nowhere women? What types of jobs do they possess, and what are their hopes, concerns and dreams?

It must be noted that recent years have witnessed welcome reforms by the three governments in question, such as the UAE’s February 2022 reforms which include the introduction of a minimum wage amongst other changes, and Saudi Arabia’s reforms in March last year which attempt to ease entry and exit restrictions on migrant workers. Unfortunately, research indicates that reforms on paper are inadequate in the face of structural exploitation of migrant workers. A recent report released by Equidem in February 2022 on the labour practices at the Dubai Expo indicates that low-wage migrants are subjected to both forced labour conditions as well as racial discrimination. Since the Dubai Expo, celebrated as the pride of the UAE, has attempted to establish good labour practices on paper which may even be better than the national law in some respects, this calls into question how bad the situation is for workers in employment scenarios where the standards are far lower.

And what of the women workers, often deemed so lowly that they don’t even make the grade?

Much like in Wayetu Moore’s story, where the key characters exercise their own agency in the face of invisibilisation, low-wage migrant women continue to emigrate and to work against all odds, remitting larger portions of their monthly wages to their dependents back home compared to their male counterparts.

So, who are these nowhere women? What types of jobs do they possess, and what are their hopes, concerns and dreams?

Here is a look at a few Southasian women who oil the cogs of three of the world’s fossil fuel leviathans, without any credit for their economic contributions.

The heroes of Gulf labour market

“More than 100 Bangladeshi migrant women ‘abused and harassed’ return home from Saudi Arabia” reads a sobering headline from August 2019. The article then observes the various employer abuses meted out to these women, including several forms of physical, psychological and even sexual harassment. Owing to heavy-handed state regulation, the availability of empirical data on worker exploitation in Saudi, Qatar and the UAE is slim, but research by UN bodies and rights groups tells a worrying tale. This is further compounded by events such as the abuse of Bangladeshi women which have unfolded in the public eye. Other instances, such as the execution of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia as repentance for alleged crimes, have been equally chilling. An earlier case in 2013 involved the execution of the Sri Lankan domestic worker, Rizana Nafeek, for allegedly killing a four-month-old boy. Similar cases have arisen in recent years, with the execution of Tuti Tursilawati, a domestic worker and Indonesian national in 2018, seven years after convicting her for murdering her employer. Most recently, a 39-year-old domestic worker from the Philippines was put to death after being found guilty of murder in January 2019.

Haneefa says that her experience hasn’t been too bad at all, in fact she prefers the UAE to Kerala – “When you step out of the house in Kerala, people stare at you. The UAE is safer”.

Generally, migrant women in the Gulf tend to emigrate in four key categories: domestic work, care work, service-sector work, and finally, with their families.

Selvi (name changed), a migrant worker returnee now back home in Kerala, said that her experience of domestic work in Qatar was “pure living hell from the second I got there.” During her interview, she described being duped by a recruitment agent that charged her exorbitant recruitment fees, and reaching Qatar only to find herself at the mercy of an abusive employer. “He threw hot curry at me once when he was angry, and dragged me by the hair,” recounted Selvi, tearful but determined to tell her whole story. “I thought I would never come home.” Selvi’s movements and phone conversations were constantly monitored by the employer, and post-pandemic realities such as restrictions on mobility only made matters worse. In the midst of Selvi’s abuse, a ransom message demanding a fee of INR 100,000 (USD 1300), was sent to her husband by the recruitment agent. Selvi finally made it back home with the help of a civil-society organisation, and never recovered the four months of pay that she is still owed by her employer in Qatar.

What is Selvi’s dream? “I am unemployed at the moment, but I enjoy working. I like doing domestic work, I am really good at it,” says Selvi. “Maybe now I will find work here [in Kerala] itself.”

Selvi’s story is just one of many examples where migration can go horribly wrong – and while it is the responsibility of governments in origin states to regulate the recruitment industry, it is incumbent on employers to ensure that workers have access to decent work, and on destination countries to develop labour regimes which are less hostile to low-wage workers.

By and large, domestic workers face a much higher degree of exploitation than women workers in other sectors. Take, for example, Fatima (name changed), from Basail village in Bangladesh’s Tangail district, who usually goes by just her first name. Fatima lived in Saudi Arabia for a little over two years, emigrating as a domestic worker to support her family income. Fatima described a sadly typical case of recruitment fraud: although she was not charged any fees by her recruitment agent, the employer paid her a salary of only SAR 800 (USD 200), as opposed to the SAR 1000 (USD 260) she had originally been promised. “My experience was so bad… one time, he even slapped me in front of another Bangladeshi employee at the house… he even tried to exploit me physically, but I never gave him that chance. That’s why he used to misbehave with me. The man had two wives. I told them that their husband wants to make illicit relations with me. But they didn’t say anything.” According to Fatima, the sexual exploitation of women by their employers, especially amongst domestic workers, is extremely commonplace in Saudi Arabia. When asked about her plans next, she said that she has two daughters, and after returning to Tangail district, her husband is now the main breadwinner. The family faced losses there too: he had lost his job from a sweater factory during the pandemic, but Fatima bought him a rickshaw from her savings, which is now tiding them over. She is hoping to allocate the rest of her savings towards building a tin-roofed cottage, and having a celebration for her daughter’s wedding.

“He threw hot curry at me once when he was angry, and dragged me by the hair,” recounted Selvi, tearful but determined to tell her whole story.

Lincy Jacob (name changed) has a more positive story. She sounded like she was smiling into the phone as she spoke with me from her home in Kannur, Kerala – she recently passed her Occupational English Test with flying colours, and has plans in motion to emigrate to Ireland soon. “Nursing was not my dream,” she says, “my parents told me to become a nurse, so I took their advice – but I am very happy now.” Lincy used to live in Buraidah, Saudi Arabia, where she worked as a nurse for four years, starting in 2016. Despite the awful stories about migrant workers from the region, she says that her experience of working there was largely good. Above all, Lincy’s main reason for going to Saudi was the considerable pay differential when compared to back home in Kerala. “After my BSc in Nursing, I earned just INR 20,000 (USD 260) in monthly salary – but in Saudi, I got almost INR 100,000 (USD 1300) a month”.

Overall, Lincy’s migration story is a successful one, despite using a private recruitment agency for which she reported paying a recruitment fee of INR 350,000 lakhs (USD 4600). Lincy was unaware that this fee is illegal as per the Indian Emigration Act of 1983, which caps chargeable fees at INR 20,000 (USD 260), in an attempt to curtail a practice that often precipitates lower-income groups into debt bondage. While she mentions some difficulties in adjusting to the Saudi Arabian requirement for women to cover their face in public, Lincy is a strong advocate for migration as a source of upward economic mobility and a better lifestyle. “Wherever we go, we will get better salaries than India”, she laughs. “Might as well”.

Lincy’s experience in Saudi Arabia is indicative of the experiences of many women who emigrate to the region for care work: while there are always exceptions, women within this sector tend to be happier on average than in others.

Another common reason for women to emigrate to the Gulf is moving together with their spouse or household. In some cases, women tend to the household and are homemakers, while others work if they are able to obtain work permits. Still, other women under this segment do part-time work, which is the case of Haneefa Muhammed (name changed), an Indian worker who is based out of Ras Al Khaimah, UAE. Haneefa is currently back home in Kerala and had initially moved to the UAE with her husband, who works as a pharmacist. Although she has a BE in Mathematics, Haneefa says that it has been incredibly difficult to find work in the UAE, which led her to begin tutoring high school students in mathematics.

Haneefa says that her experience hasn’t been too bad at all, in fact she prefers the UAE to Kerala – “When you step out of the house in Kerala, people stare at you. The UAE is safer”. Like many migrant workers who were either stranded overseas during the pandemic or stranded away from their jobs, Haneefa has been stuck in India, while her husband remains in the UAE. She returned home to Kerala with her two little children for a brief vacation, and has been unable to go back to the UAE due to a discriminatory ban on flights into the UAE from India, given the rise in COVID-19 cases in India during earlier months. This ban on incoming flights exemplifies discriminatory actions against migrant workers, an even more egregious issue given the large populace of migrant workers that contribute to the UAE’s economic might.

“My experience was so bad… one time, he even slapped me in front of another Bangladeshi employee at the house… he even tried to exploit me physically, but I never gave him that chance.”

Another segment in which women tend to work heavily is the service sector, specifically within industries such as hospitality. Kabita, a Nepali worker from the Qatari hospitality sector interviewed by Equidem in its report, ‘The Cost of Contagion’, says that she faced a tremendous amount of difficulty during the pandemic period. Working as a cleaner, she was told by her manager that she would be sent to jail if she did not sign a document. “The document stated that due to COVID-19, the company’s contract was terminated, and I am not working. It also said the company is providing accommodation so I have to agree to not get paid a salary and will not contest this in any legal way.”

Kabita’s experience is not dissimilar to scores of workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) who were denied their pay during the pandemic, particularly from companies experiencing financial strain, which passed on their losses to workers by means of unpaid wages and end-of-service benefits. Many of these workers had also incurred debt from recruitment fees, often charged to them illegally by recruitment agents or sub-agents, with the promise of well-paying jobs in the Gulf. Having no written contracts also continues to be a common occurrence, in contravention to local and international laws and labour standards.

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”

The layers to the invisibilisation of women workers are varied and complex. Responses to these problems, therefore, must be equally varied, all while placing women’s interests at the centre of decision-making and policy processes. One example is that of the draconian restrictions placed on aspiring domestic worker emigrants under 30 years of age to the GCC from India, in a bid to “protect” women from exploitation – a flawed premise, given that women still in need of jobs may then emigrate via irregular means, placing them at greater risk of exploitation. Sri Lanka and Nepal have similarly placed restrictions of their own on women emigrating to the GCC for domestic work – all indicative of the region’s patriarchal attitude that women need to be ‘protected’ rather than given more tools to exercise their own agency at will. Attitudes around women working in different types of jobs also need to be transformed: women are not ‘just’ domestic workers, and at the same time, can be skilled to work in various capacities, not unlike their male counterparts. Long-term solutions will have to consider the multiple dimensions of labour governance: law, policy and practice at the various levels of origin state governments; destination state governments; the employer; the recruitment agent; the sub-agent; the contractor, and various other actors in the supply chain.

Above all, however, the two-tiered labour market systems in these countries must be given a makeover, with worker rights incorporated both into law and practice. Finally, within each of these levels of labour governance, it must be remembered, as Audre Lorde once said, that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. Women need to be an integral part of decision-making processes, via trade unions, worker representation committees, and platforms to voice concerns: an especially important point given the severe restrictions on freedom of association in the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Decent working conditions should not be invisible. Women should have hot food in their stomachs via provisions for food or food allowances, rather than having curry hurled at them by abusive employers. The bodies of women should not be subjected to relentless harassment and commodification by an invisible gremlin. While one part of this deliberate invisibilisation may hail from the economic benefits of exploitation, perhaps it is worth pondering whether part of this tactic is rooted in fear.

Perhaps it is because, as Wayétu Moore wrote, “If she was not a girl or if she was not a woman; if she was not a woman or if she was not a witch, she would be king.”

Namrata Raju is a labour migration expert and the India Director at Equidem, a labour rights organisation.

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