Forgive me, but in the last few weeks Donna Summer has been ringing in my head.
“The problem is not whether maids will use their days off to run away. Rather, the exponential increase in days off may lead them to squander their hard-earned pay instead of saving it to help finance a better life when they return home. The higher risk of promiscuity, extramarital affairs and unintended pregnancies are also possible consequences.”
This was one reason cited by a letter writer to Singapore’s Straits Times about why housemaids should not get ONE day off a week. This particular person cited the hardship on her family. Who would take care of the children or the elderly if the maid has the day off??
Uh …. you?
How do you get to a place where you believe that is a valid argument supporting essentially slave-like conditions for your employees. And not just any employee: These are the people who care for your children and your elderly parents! They live in your home!
The sad thing is, I’m not surprised by such attitudes. That Singaporean letter writer has plenty of company in the Gulf. Most expatriate and Emirati families here, too, have at least one nanny to take care of the kids. At the malls it’s not uncommon to see two or three Filippina/Indonesian women steering the baby stroller or keeping hold of an unruly child’s hand — in addition to carting around the shopping bags — as the parents glide undisturbed in front.
And in the media, with regularity, you will find a story about how you can’t give time off to maids because they will run away or find boyfriends — and we know what that can lead to! So, the only solution is to keep them under lock and key at all times under your roof.
Jamal, a 47-year-old father of three, is quoted in The National as saying his six maids don’t need time off because ”they eat with us – the same food we eat – and we buy them dresses.” (I’m not even going to get into the math of six maids for a family of five. Seven, maybe, if his parents live with them. Jamal might very well be a great employer who, all things considered, treats his maids well.)
But, look, I’ve had some great bosses but I still didn’t want to be with them 24-7. We all need a period of rest to recharge mental and physical batteries. And, especially when you consider that these maids’ jobs are to care for the most vulnerable members of your family, wouldn’t you want them to be in the best shape possible?
And I certainly don’t begrudge anyone hiring someone to make life a bit easier. Most of the women who take these jobs will tell you themselves that the work is welcome even at wages of about $250 a month. You and I might find that sum appalling. For many of these women, who are their families’ sole breadwinners, that number feeds and houses an entire family. Hell, they may choose to forgo the day off for the money. We’ve all made that choice from time to time.
The point is choice. Why must this relationship be an either/or proposition? These are grown women, after all, who typically have children of their own back in their home countries. Why not give them the responsibilities that belong to the adults that they are and, if they do anything illegal or if they are in violation of their work contracts, they can be sent home. There is a plentiful labor pool waiting to replace maids that aren’t up to the job.
And we’re not even talking here about outright physical and sexual abuse, of which there is enough to provide the local media with regular copy. Fellow Texas Ex and Dubai resident Longhorns and Camels writes that sometimes “I see maids at the grocery store with their employer and I can’t help but wonder if they are one of the ones who are being mistreated. Are they longing for someone to save them? I try to look in their eyes but am rarely met with a reciprocal acknowledgment.
“There are undoubtedly many situations where housemaids are treated respectfully and fairly,” she added. “But there are definitely undercurrents of palpable tension between some housemaids and their employers. That tension becomes part of your daily experience while living in Dubai.”