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Friday, May 22, 2009

"The Help"


One of the most striking differences between life in Amman and the United States is the presence of "the help"--the approximately 40,000 legal and 30,000 illegal women from the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other countries who serve as maids, cooks, nannies, and everything in between. Most upper class and many middle class families have help. Walk down any street in Deyr Ghbar or Abdoun, Amman's wealthiest neighborhoods, and you'll see these women on balconies washing windows or shaking out rugs, or on the street pushing strollers and herding gaggles of squealing children. You'll also find them out in town buying groceries, taking the children to the park while mom goes to the gym, or even babysitting the kids in a back room during church. Salaries are attractive enough to these women to draw them from the farthest reaches of the world, but a pittance by Western standards; I'm told the going rate for full-time live-in help is around 250 JD per month (about $350 US). The presence of "help" is so deeply ingrained in the culture that an American who doesn't utilize it is a paradox that will leave most people scratching their heads. When my wife and I tried to explain the reasons we did not want help, people looked at us like we were from Mars.

These migrant workers are frequently exploited and abused in Jordan and across the Middle East. In its report Isolated and Abused, Amnesty International reports that these women are frequently not paid or are paid reduced wages, often work 16-19 hours a day with no time off, are often abused physically, emotionally and sexually, and are often trapped in their situation. Legal protection for these women is poor. In Jordan a maid requires sponsorship by the family that employs her, giving the employer immense power over her life. The employer is responsible to maintain her annual work and residency permits, but if he fails to so, expensive daily fines accrue and the maid is liable to be arrested or held in the country. An estimated 14,000 women are trapped in Jordan because of these fines. Hundreds of women escaping abusive situations are sheltered in the Filipono, Sri Lankan, and Indonesian embassies, trapped in legal purgatory. In Saudi Arabia (the subject of this 2008 Human Rights Watch report) employers must sign an exit visa before a maid can leave the country. Not only can abusive employers withhold wages and exploit their workers, they hold these workers under legal lock and key. Reform is creeping along in the Arab countries, but at an unsatisfying pace. Bahrain recently announced one of the most promising reforms, setting a precedent for the region: ending the kafala sponsorship system. Women will no longer be chained to their employer. Instead, they will be sponsored directly by the Labor Authority.

I am proud that Americans have a reputation for being among the fairest and kindest employers of maids in Jordan, but I worry that the widespread acceptance of "help" nonetheless has an insidious corrosive effect. There is no question that having help in the home makes good economic sense for both parties, but my question as someone who is not-quite-a-utilitarian is this: are there values that trump economic prosperity? All employee-employer relationships involve a disparity in power, but what happens when that power disparity becomes part of the fabric of our regular, day-to-day lives? Is that healthy? When we look back at history, these arrangements always look nasty. Today we have little regard for historical cliches like the British colonial administrator with his walled palace and retinue of servants, the American missionary with a standard of living far above the locals he is supposedly serving, and the white landowner with black servants long after the slavery era. I'm sure all these arrangements made perfect logical sense in their day; they probably still do. But are they right? A lot of people tell me I'm too sensitive about this. Maybe I'm just a product of my American education with its highly-attuned sensitivity to racial issues, but I will never be totally comfortable with the idea of sitting back with a newspaper while a Filipino woman who hasn't seen her children in three years scrubs my toilet. I also worry about the consequences when a society decides raising that its own children is undesirable, unskilled work best outsourced to others--something I plan to write more about soon.

Even among well-intentioned Westerners, racism can also creep in. This is the exception to the rule among the Americans I know here, but I've heard anecdotes. One friend told us about an American playgroup she visited. Instead of staying to play with their children, most of the mothers just dropped the kids off with their nannies. While her child played, our American friend struck up a conversation with one of the nannies. Another American woman quickly pulled her aside and said, "We don't talk with the help." Most American families we know have close, warm relations with their maids, but I think one has to constantly be on guard for the most subtle forms of dehumanization.

In the end, despite my wife's and I firm desire not to have help in the home, we ended up hiring a Filipino woman 3-4 hours a day to babysit. The only way we could both take Arabic language classes--something very important to us--was if we found childcare for our son, and because of the prevalence of "help", daycares and nurseries are not what they are in the United States. Hiring a babysitter was our only option. Our babysitter recently escaped the kind of situation described in the Amnesty International and HRW reports; she'd worked for a family for two years that forced her to work virtually all the time, including in a factory the father owned. Her full-time, live-in wages were less than we pay her for three hours a day, and her employer st