The Housemaid's Tale: "We Need to Make a Good Future. That's Why We Come Here"
"Some 250 million people are international migrants - people who leave their home countries for opportunity or safety," states a recently published report from United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), discussing why migration is a feminist issue. It goes on to point out that nearly half of these migrants are female, and that a large part of female economic migrants are employed as domestic workers.
The GCC countries (Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain) all employ small armies of domestic workers. In Oman, the majority hail from South East Asian countries like the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh, and increasingly, women arrive from African countries.
The lives of domestic workers can be hard to learn about, as they spend much of their time behind closed doors, within the confines of the private domestic sphere. Sunita, a Sri Lankan woman in her mid-30s, agreed to share her migration story with me after knowing me for three years.* I asked her how she came to work in Oman, what her motivations are, what she hopes to achieve and what her hopes and dreams for the future are.
While my own main reason for leaving my home country (Norway) was a sense of adventure and a desire to discover the amazing diversity of our world, I found that her motivations were entirely different.
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Sunita has been in Oman, working as a domestic worker (or "housemaid" in her own words), since 2009. Oman is her first overseas experience and when she arrived here, she was a single mother to a small child. She has since re-married and her husband lives in Sri Lanka, as do her daughter, father and parents-in-law.
"There are so many poor people in Sri Lanka," Sunita starts her story, taking a sip of water and leaning back in my sofa. "If you have an education and a degree, you can get a job, but I don't have a good education or a degree. The people who leave to work as housemaids don't have a degree; but we need the same things as rich people; a house, land, food, clothes and school. We also need to make a good future. That's why we come here."
"When I looked for jobs in Sri Lanka," she recalls, "the best I could find was a garment factory. The factory pays maybe 10000 - 15000 Sri Lankan rupees (€52 - €78) per month. It is not enough. One salary is not enough. I wanted a better future for my daughter, so I left my home."
Sunita's background is not unique. Over the years, I have employed several - mostly Sri Lankan - female domestic workers in my households around the world, and spoken to many more. They have shared similar circumstances of being raised in relative poverty, with a lack of access to, or funds for, secondary education. Some have had husbands who work but don't make enough money to support a family. Some have had husbands who drink the family funds away and some have had sick husbands, unable to work. Some have been abandoned by their husband and some have been widows. They have all been parents and they have all stated economic motivations as their reason to leave home - a desire to improve their circumstances, to provide their children with a better future, a better life, than what they had. That women frequently make rational choices to migrate from Sri Lanka for financial reasons is supported in this report from HarvardFXB.
"We need the same things as rich people - a house, land, food, clothes and school. We also need to make a good future. That's why we come here."
"Housemaid jobs are easy to find," states Sunita, matter-of-factly. "I want to build a good life, a future, for myself and my daughter."
Sunita sends everything she makes home to Sri Lanka, keeping only a small amount for herself. She supports her daughter, who is now 14 and still in school, her (ageing) parents, her husband (who works sporadically) and her parents-in-law on her salary. Over the years, she has bought land and started building a family home.
Her daughter doesn't like that her mother lives away from her. Sunita, however, has clear plans for her daughter:
"I explained to her," she shares, "that I need to make money and she needs to go to school and study, so she won't have to go to another country to be a housemaid. I want a different life for her; a good job, maybe a doctor, or an engineer? I don't know if she can, but I push her and I will do what I can to help her have a better future."
In 2020, when her current employer leaves Oman, she plans to return to Sri Lanka; but she recognizes that this may not happen:
"It is hard to say," she ponders. "If there are more problems, I may have to stay. Maybe the house is not yet finished, maybe my daughter needs more money for school - this is how some housemaids end up staying for a long time."
Earning potential and working conditions: "You just don't know what to expect"
Sunita has worked for three families in Oman. When she first arrived, she earned 50 riyal (€105) per month. In addition, her employer provided accommodation, food/personal hygiene items, and clothes. After one and a half years, her (monetary) salary increased to 70 riyal (€148) per month.
"But that was a long time ago," she says. "I think now, salaries are higher." She ventures a guess: "Maybe 120 riyal (€254) per month?"
Exactly how much a domestic worker can expect to earn is complicated. Different sending countries have different rules and agreements in place for their overseas citizens, resulting in a situation where contractual wages are determined to some extent by nationality. A domestic worker from Bangladesh or India, states a Times of Oman article, should earn no less than 75 riyal (€159) per month, while a Sri Lankan should earn 115-120 riyal (€ 242-254) per month. A domestic worker from the Philippines, according to a statement made by the Philippine Overseas Labour Office at time of writing, should earn a minimum salary of 160 riyal (€ 337).
In addition to the monetary salary, the employer should provide the domestic worker with accommodation, food and personal hygiene items/clothes. The employer should also cover medical expenses, visa related expenses and flights. There is currently no agreed upon standard applicable to all domestic workers determining what constitutes for example 'acceptable accommodation', so working conditions can vary considerably.
From day one, Sunita worked hard - sometimes with limited rest and time to herself - but to her, working hard means she is working towards her goals. She does, however, recognize that it wasn't always easy:
"Before, I cried every day," she recalls. "The work was so hard and I didn't understand the language, the culture and what I was supposed to do."
"We housemaids are always alone - when you are sad, when you feel pain, when you face problems, you are alone."
Moving to a new country, taking up a job in a foreign language and in an unfamiliar cultural setting, is a huge undertaking.
"Some families are good, some are not good," says Sunita. "When you come from the agency, you just don't know. It would be good if it was possible to check the house and family you were going to work for before starting, but how?"
A family apart: "Not living together is difficult. You need to control your heart"
Talking about how she copes with the challenges of living overseas and how her life has changed over the years, Sunita mentioned what a difference access to internet-based means of communication has made for her. 9 years ago, the only way she could communicate with her family was through expensive international calls. Now, she uses the internet and communicates with her family daily.
"We housemaids are always alone," she shares. "When you are sad, when you feel pain, when you face problems, you are alone."
"Some people give holiday every year," she continues, "but some only give holiday every two years. Not living together is difficult, but I control it. Every time I think I need my family, I think of my house that I'm making. Like that, I control my heart, because we need that money to make the house and to send my daughter to school."
Sunita pauses, takes a sip of her water and looks at me. I struggle to maintain my composure, imagining what it might feel like to see my three young children once every year, or even worse, every two years. To watch them grow up over the phone. To hear of their challenges and victories from afar.
"You are very lucky," she says. "When boss (my husband) goes, you are all going. For housemaids, it is not like this. We cannot take our family."
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This is her story. Parts of it are sad, but other parts are encouraging and hopeful.
I believe in sharing stories - the horrid stories, but also the good stories. There are stories of abuse and misuse of power among domestic workers in the GCC countries but there are stories of empowerment and agency, too. Stories of strong women, who find a way to reach clearly defined life goals.
To me, Sunita is a role model. A role model of forward thinking, planning, innovation and personal initiative. I don't know if I had been able to do what she has done. I don't know, because I've never had to - and there lies my privilege.
Author's note: This text was written while I still lived in Oman. Given the country's lack of freedom of expression, I have had to refrain from commenting on the kafala system and lack of formal rights and protection from abuse many domestic workers face, in Oman and across the GCC states. You can read more about this at Human Rights Watch.
*Sunita was under no pressure to participate in this conversation. Her employer was informed, and I did not pay her for her time.