By Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar
Their stories are not easy to access, and their experiences defy categorization. I’ve spoken to women from a dozen nationalities, encompassing regions as diverse as North America to Asia. Here’s what I found.
There is a silent army in this city that makes sure that the homes of all nationalities run smoothly so that fathers and mothers get to the office on time; so that ladies can lunch and husbands can golf on the weekends; and who help children scream through successive birthday parties or park outings.
They are the nannies and housemaids. They are invisible, because unlike the much-discussed workers in blue uniforms, they do not move through the city unless their employers allow them to do so either with them on outings or alone at their own leisure.
The main difference between my nanny and me is that my parents didn’t need my income, either while I was growing up or when I became an adult, to meet basic living expenses. When I came abroad it was with a sense of adventure and curiosity.
These women are the breadwinners for their families, starting their careers abroad in their twenties. I say career because for most of them, this is the only occupation they will ever have. Often they send back money not only to children or husbands but also parents, siblings, and extended relatives.
Their sacrifices finance the dreams, medicines, and studies of others. They skip their annual trips (those who get them), saving the ticket money and working without a break in order to avoid increasing demands for money, trinkets, and favors.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zQsmhkXRAs?rel=0]Nanny diaries: Rajakumar speaks to Vicky about why she’s working in Qatar.
When I began asking around to interview maids and nannies to tell their stories, no one would talk to me.
“My madam will not like it,” came the reply, over and over again when chatting with nannies at the playground.
“You don’t have to say anything about her,” I said. “You can tell me about your life.”
They shook their heads and moved away. These were not women who worked for Arab families or Qataris (the two categories who are generally blamed for the worst abuses). These were the nannies of expat families who worked in the education and oil sectors. The employers with western passports.
What was going on? Why were these women, who ostensibly worked for rational, fair-minded people of all nationalities, afraid? And what kinds of repercussions were they afraid of?
The fact is, Qataris are not the only ones guilty of superior attitudes or abuse when it comes to the help.
Maid abuse not a Qatari problem
The startling truth is anyone can beat a housemaid.
You can be a Western expat who works for an oil company, upset that your windows are not washed correctly at 2 a.m., and hit your much-smaller in stature and status worker.
You can be an Indian national, outraged that the cleaner you have been paying QR25 an hour for part-time work, has actually found a family who wants to give her a contract with benefits, and shout at her for being selfish.
You can be a naturalized American who stands aside as your wife berates the maid and instructs the compound guards not to let her off the property when you are traveling with your family.
You can be a researcher in migrant affairs who doesn’t pay your house help when you decide to leave for the summer.
The list goes on and on and on – and painfully – on.
The fact is, the power structure within the GCC puts everyone on your honor; you only have to be as reasonable as you want. After all who will hold you accountable? Not the law. Not the government. And certainly not the community, who are your co-workers and friends.
What someone is paid, whether she has a day off, how much she gets to eat, all varies from house and house.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JktKfg8VJwM?rel=0]Nanny diaries: Imelda explains that she’s actually happy here.
I managed to tape four “Nanny Diaries: Doha Edition” as I called the project. Their stories were similar yet different. Children, college fees, businesses that needed capital. These women were very focused and very forthcoming about their struggles, sometimes breaking down into tears.
What became very clear was that those who are career nannies, or women who have lived in the GCC for a long period of time, have a broad base of knowledge of the employment landscape. They know who they want to work for and they know what they want as compensation. They have a pretty good idea of who will offer it to them.
Some call this stereotyping. I call it self-preservation.
“Can you believe I called a nanny to see if I wanted her to work. When I was done asking questions, she was interviewing me!”
Career nannies have worked for multiple families, often with more than one child. With their wealth of experience, they can now pick and choose their employers.
The idea of choice is a new twist on the paradigm of the sponsorship system. They want to be treated well – meaning they have one day off, don’t pay for transportation to work if they live out, would like to see their families on an annual basis and are compensated for the hours they work – and now, some of them are standing up for themselves and exercising choice.
These “nanny interviews” are heartwarming in a system that exploits them and assumes “if it was better back home, you wouldn’t come” or “if you don’t like it go home”.
How easily we forget that others are humans with responsibilities too.
God forbid any of us have to face the choices staring these women in the face. Or that one day, we’d find ourselves working for someone like us.
Credit: Photo by Gustavo Tejal
Note: This article has been updated to reinforce the author’s main point, that maid abuse is perpetuated by people of all nationalities.