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March 31, 2022

Q&A with on Women and Forced Labor in the Gulf Region

For Women’s History Month, we’re excited to share a Q&A we conducted with Vani Saraswathi, from

For Women’s History Month, we’re excited to share the following Q&A we conducted with Vani Saraswathi, Editor-at-Large and Director of Projects at Founded in 2007, is a Gulf-based advocacy organization that aims to advance the rights of migrant workers. Through their online platform, on-ground projects, and grassroots initiatives, they work to document migrant narratives, ignite local discussion, and encourage change in attitudes and practices towards migrant workers.

HU: Vani, can you set the stage for us about what living conditions are like for women migrants in the Gulf?

VS: Domestic workers are housed in their employer’s homes, homes that are provided as part of the employment package by companies for their executives. Considered a private sphere, these homes are out of bounds for inspection or help from embassies. Only if the worker calls the police to report a grave crime or abuse would she be able to receive help. For women in the private sector, they are either given an allowance or are housed in company accommodation that may be a shared villa or apartment. These are not registered as labour accommodation and hence do not show up in the labour inspection systems.

For domestic workers, many do not receive a weekly day off, and even among those who do receive an off-day, most are not allowed to spend time as they wish, or to move around without supervision. Often women employed in other sectors who are also housed by their employers, like in cleaning or retail, also endure restrictions on mobility, including curfews that male employees are not subject to. Unfortunately, the inevitable result of filing a complaint would mean being rendered homeless, because being housed by someone other than the employer could attract charges of ‘absconding’ leading to detention and deportation.

HU: Is there space for women, and women workers in particular, to change these conditions and the policies that enable them?

VS: While domestic worker groups are occasionally welcomed, mostly as a token gesture, into policy discourses, we do not see other sectors and migrant women workers allowed space at all. The scarcity of unions, and the still-patriarchal nature of those that do exist (even if headed by women) makes it difficult to bring women into policy meetings.

We still don’t see issues faced by migrant women being addressed in the wider feminist discourses of the region. When it does occur, it is more in terms of “rescuing” or helping to “remove” vulnerable women from these environments, and the workers themselves are not included in the discourse. Even these limited mentions are almost always about domestic workers, and one rarely sees the hundreds of thousands of migrant women who work in healthcare, cleaning, retail, hospitality, and catering represented in these conversations.

There is an added element of sexualization of these jobs and by extension the women, as they are viewed as a “risk” to the family unit. Gulf countries do not have proper legislation on gender-based violence or harassment at the workplace, which means when they are subject to harassment or violence, women do not have the support or the mechanisms to raise complaints. These are the broad issues and types of intersectionality that feminist networks should address, but we are not yet at that stage.

HU: What are some concrete steps that advocates can take to ensure that corporations and governments take the labor exploitation of women seriously?

VS: First recognize that the spaces for workers to speak up are limited. And in those limited spaces it becomes even more difficult for women to speak up. We then end up with women’s organizations or women-only meetings, which can be superficial when civil society space itself is non-existent. Perhaps every step of the way – be it in policy planning by international agencies, funding by donors, advocacy by INGOs, investments and recruitment by businesses, or laws by governments – the central questions should be:

• Will this policy/decision be different if the target group is predominantly women?
• Will it impact women adversely – both the ones directly employed and the women in the families of those we employ?
• Will this make it difficult for women to participate as equal players?

If your answer is yes to any of these questions, then it’s time to revisit the drawing board.

[In addition, advocates], where possible, should move away from being gatekeepers to migrant women workers’ experiences and the solutions thereof; and play a more involved role in providing platforms and skills that can help the workers design their own solutions. This may not happen immediately or easily.

Advocates and their donors must account for the investment required in training, translation, interpretation, and meeting other access needs that have gone unmet for too long.

HU: Is there anything you’d like to tell us about your experience as an advocate?

VS: Access to governments can be difficult as a brown woman. There are racial stereotypes when it comes to class, expertise, and roles in the society that are very ingrained. Which means it will require a lot more effort and negotiations to get a foot in the door. This can be very tricky as one must do this without disavowing who we are, to be both part of the vulnerable group but recognizing the privileges of not being subjected to all the troubles of the vast majority who look like me and come from where I come. So we are not only fighting the biases of the other person, but our own internalized class biases.

In a more general sense, ideas put forward by a woman are often glossed over, and when repeated by a man even within the hour in the same setting, they are taken more seriously. When it comes to legislation or other supposedly ‘serious’ issues, or sectors such as construction, men are seen as the expert, although women are taken more seriously while speaking about relief work or domestic workers.

And on an interpersonal level, I can also attest to experiencing constant interruptions. It takes a level of pigheaded repetition and very thick skin to stop someone from interrupting you!

HU: Thank you for your time.

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