Migrant Domestic Work in Arab States
Rhacel Salazar Parreñas



What Is Unfree Labor?

RUTHIE, A SKINNY, PETITE FILIPINA DOMESTIC WORKER in her late 20s, sits on the outdoor patio of a rundown villa in Satwa, a working-class neighborhood in Dubai, where she stays with her boyfriend from Thursday evening to Saturday afternoon every weekend. Ruthie sits slouched into an old discolored couch, with her feet up on a heavily chipped wooden coffee table. Pointing to the sheets hanging on the clothesline behind us, she complains that her work does not end when she leaves her employer for the weekend, as she not only has to do her boyfriend’s laundry but also has to cook for him. Ruthie’s weekend arrangement is unusual; most domestic workers are not allowed to spend the night elsewhere, let alone have an extended day off. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), sexual relations outside of marriage are haram, meaning strictly forbidden, and considered a sinful act. Yet in Ruthie’s case, her employer trusts in her discretion as an adult not to put her employer or herself in legal jeopardy. Most days of the week, Ruthie works for a 35-year-old single mother from Iran. Her employer was raised in the neighboring emirate of Sharjah, though she went to college in Canada. In a two-bedroom condominium in a high-rise luxury building near the Dubai Mall, Ruthie occupies one room while her employer and her employer’s 8-year-old daughter sleep in the other.

According to Ruthie, her employer gives her a “light” workload. Her primary tasks are cleaning and helping with childcare, which she does with minimal supervision. When her employer leaves with her daughter at 7:30 every weekday morning, Ruthie is often encouraged to “just go back to sleep and wake up at 12 or 1.” Rarely monitored, she usually decides how and when to do her job. While not expected to cook for the family, Ruthie still on occasion chooses to do so, which is a favor that her employer never overlooks. Ruthie shares, “Sometimes, when I know she is tired or when she is late, I will just go ahead and cook. She will then say, ‘Thank you Ruthie for fixing our dinner.’ That is what she is like.” The kindness and consideration of her employer are not lost on Ruthie. Marveling over her generosity, Ruthie notes that her employer gives her free rein in the kitchen and even invites her to use whatever ingredients she might need to bake pastries for friends on weekends. Each month, Ruthie earns 2000 dirhams1 (US$555), significantly more than the minimum monthly wage of US$400 stipulated by the Philippine government for this work. She also receives an annual one-month paid vacation to the Philippines, which she never fails to take so that she can spend time with her own children.

Ruthie’s story does not fit the dominant assumptions of labor conditions for domestic workers in the UAE, presenting a counter-narrative to the stories of enslavement, entrapment, ill-treatment, and violent abuse that are frequently featured in the news bulletins, advocacy group reports, and scholarly accounts of domestic workers in the region.2 Such accounts make Ruthie’s story difficult to imagine. Indeed, negative public reports on domestic work in the region make it hard to imagine that employers could ever possibly recognize the humanity of domestic workers. Instead, one is more likely to assume that employers would infantilize, if not entirely dehumanize, them, as in the case of 47-year-old Joy, who is treated like a child and assumed to need constant supervision both at work and in her personal affairs.

Joy initially worked for a Yemeni family who maintained their dominant hold over her in multiple ways: they denied her any time off; overworked her, making her do “everything, cooking, ironing the clothes”; and refused to release her from her contract. After completing her two-year contract, Joy had repeatedly wanted to quit, but her employers would lure her with vacations to get her to change her mind. Though her employers’ strategy often worked, Joy knew her situation had not been ideal. Infantilized by her employers, Joy did not have much say even in what foods she could eat, as her employers always made this decision for her. Further magnifying her infantilization was her employers’ refusal to pay her on a monthly basis. Access to her salary was extended on an as-needed basis, such as sending remittances to her family in the Philippines only when her employers deemed the request justifiable. They were supposedly managing her money to ensure that she would not squander her earnings, but would instead return to the Philippines with sizable savings that she could then invest in a business. Yet withholding her salary only aggravated their hold over her, which in turn discouraged Joy from ever leaving her job. It was not until she visited the General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs, the office that was at that time in charge of monitoring foreign domestic workers in Dubai, that Joy learned that it was illegal for her employers to withhold her salary. This knowledge emboldened her to quit after five years of coerced labor, but, perhaps not surprisingly, this came at the cost of her unpaid wages. When she left, her employers still owed her seven months of back pay. While Joy had little recourse for retrieving her remaining salary, she used their nonpayment of her wages as leverage to ensure her “release” as opposed to “cancellation.” Being “released” meant that she could seek another employer in the UAE, while being “canceled” would have forced her to leave the country.

Joy’s experiences are far from the worst faced by domestic workers in the UAE. Some face more extreme experiences of dehumanization, such as being “treated like animals,” expected to work like “robots or machines,” and subjected to physical violence. Dehumanized domestic workers are usually also ill-fed, as was the case with 29-year-old Roda, who was fed only once a day by her first employer, an Emirati. She recalled,

When I was new, I didn’t eat before I will start to work. It is right thing to do, you eat first before working so you can have energy. With her, you finished first your work before you eat. What time will I finish? It is late in the evening. You will just find water so you can survive . . . it seems like they treat me like an animal. I am not an animal.3

Dehumanized domestic workers like Roda are often made to work for more than 18 hours a day. Many are physically abused. Some are slapped in the face, pinched on the arm, or smacked on the head for the most minor of infractions.

Other dehumanized workers are subjected to more brutal disciplinary measures, as was the case for JoAnn, a 25-year-old single mother, who only managed to escape the extreme violence of her Egyptian employer after he accidentally left his house keys on the dining room table when he fell asleep one afternoon. I met JoAnn at the Philippine consulate in Dubai, where she was waiting to be repatriated to the Philippines.4 JoAnn told me that she had probably had the worst experience of the hundred or so women staying at the consulate, and the others did not contest her observation.5 Removing the scarf covering her head, she showed me her uneven haircut, which she said had been cut by her employers, and then, pointing to the visible bald spots on her head, she explained that these were caused by their repeated pulling of her hair. She told me that even after a month at the consulate, her head still hurt. Describing the violence that she had fled, JoAnn solemnly recalled:

At first, she would slap me, bang my head against the wall, spit on my face. I tried to endure everything because it was Christmas time. I want to send something for my child. She slapped me using a flat shoe and they even burned my face with a match. They even told me that if I don’t work, they would put a stick inside my private part. They were so disgusting she told me that they, the husband and wife, would even help each other to do that to me. It’s true, I don’t lie. . . . How many hangers has she broken against my body? If you would just see my pictures. . . . Punches, slaps, throwing my head against the wall. Then December, that’s when she started hitting me with a wooden hanger, end of January 30, I escaped, 2nd or 3rd week of January was the time she started hitting me with belts but the hanger still continued. The slaps, spitting on my face continued.

For the brutality they inflicted, JoAnn’s employers were eventually punished: one received a one-month prison sentence, and the other avoided prison by paying JoAnn a diya6 of 5,000 dirhams (US$1,388).7

What are we to make of the vast differences in the labor conditions for Ruthie, Joy, Roda, and JoAnn? Ruthie enjoyed relative respect and decent living conditions, while Joy was strictly limited by her employer’s overbearing rules. Roda and JoAnn each lived under abusively controlling employers whose behaviors threatened the women’s well-being. As domestic workers in the UAE, they were all subject to the kafala, meaning sponsorship system, under which they were required to work solely for their employer-sponsor, as a live-in worker, for the duration of their contract, which in the UAE is typically one year for foreign employers and two years for local employers, i.e., Emirati. By legally binding them to their employer-sponsor, the kafala ultimately subjects domestic workers to the arbitrary authority of the employers. This authority is what explains the different experiences of domestic workers from one household to another. Under the kafala, employers are the primary assessors and administrators of the law. In other words, the “employer’s word is virtually law”8 in their households. This remains the case despite the recent implementation of domestic worker laws across the region.9

Under the kafala, domestic workers are the legal responsibility of their employer. As such, they must secure the consent of their employer to transfer or to quit their job. In other words, they lack the right to freely participate in the labor market, as they are legally bound in servitude to their kafeel, or sponsor.10 This suggests that domestic workers are in fact denied freedom, given that they lack the liberty to “determine [their] course of action or way of life.”11 As the official “sponsors” or “patrons” of their domestic workers, employers ultimately have the power to determine their fate and, if they wish, terminate their membership in UAE society. Employers can fire and deport them at will. Magnifying the servitude of domestic workers, employers can also, conversely, keep them from leaving the country by withholding the extension of an exit visa. Finally, absconding, which is defined as leaving one’s job without permission, is considered a crime and is punishable by incarceration and deportation, even for domestic workers who are dissatisfied or abused at work.

How do the domestic workers themselves see their relationship of inequality with employers? For the most part, they are aware of the absolute power of employers not only to deport them but also to determine their labor conditions. At the same time, the domestic workers are complicit in this inequality, accepting whatever their situation is as the fate, or luck, that they have brought on themselves by choosing to work within this system. Josie, a 45-year-old domestic worker in the UAE who previously worked in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Malaysia, and Hong Kong, noted: “It is really luck of the draw when it comes to getting a good employer. I can’t help but feel sorry for some who you know are getting maltreated by their employer.” Her sentiments were echoed by 28-year-old Jovie, a domestic worker previously employed in Lebanon and Kuwait, who said: “It is really just luck that determines your fate.” However, it is not in fact luck that determines the fate of domestic workers. Rather, it is the arbitrary authority of employers under the kafala that subjects them to inconsistent labor standards and thereby renders them vulnerable to abuse. All domestic workers, including Ruthie, are subject to this vulnerability, as a sudden change in attitude by their employers can easily shift their terms of employment.

Variations in labor conditions across households in the UAE indicate that employers respond differently to their sponsorship and patronage of domestic workers. Given these differences, can we uniformly describe domestic workers as unfree? The vast differences in labor conditions among the 750,00012 estimated domestic workers in the UAE speak of an absence of labor standards. This absence does not come from a lack of labor protection, which, although minimal, does exist.13 Employers may not, for instance, withhold the salaries of their domestic workers. Nor may they physically harm them, and if they can be proven to have done so, it can land them in prison. However, under the kafala, employers do have arbitrary authority over the domestic workers in their employ, which is a condition that renders the domestic workers unfree in that it leaves them vulnerable to interference and restraint. This interference and restraint include the denial of adequate food, as experienced by Roda; the refusal to allow a change in jobs, as confronted by Joy; and subjection to bodily and emotional harm, as realized by JoAnn. However, it is not this actual interference and restraint that makes migrant domestic workers unfree, but rather the fact that the workers are left vulnerable to the possibility of its occurrence.14

Advancing this argument does not mean dismissing the very real and devastating consequences of abuse suffered by domestic workers. It does allow us to recognize that not all employers act on their ability to abuse, and to call into question the dominant claims that abuse of domestic workers in the region is near universal.15 In other words, we can acknowledge that the kafala system need not result in the mistreatment of domestic workers while emphasizing that it facilitates abuse and that that must be mitigated. But how do we recognize the severe inequality that grants employers arbitrary power over their domestic workers while at the same time acknowledging the different ways they have responded to this power? Key to addressing this question is an understanding of freedom and unfreedom.

Unfree is an ethnographic exploration of the conditions of migrant domestic work in the UAE.16 Relying primarily on in-depth interviews with 85 Filipina domestic workers and 35 employers in the UAE, as well as participant observation of government-required pre-departure orientation seminars for domestic workers in the Philippines, the book focuses on the experiences of migrants from the Philippines, as they comprise one of the largest constituencies of domestic workers in the UAE.17 The book examines and explains the emergence of a wide range of labor experiences as an approach to addressing the question: What is unfree labor?


1. During the time of my research, one US dollar was approximately 3.6 dirhams.

2. See, for example, Human Rights Watch 2014; Mahdavi 2011. For a more nuanced perspective, see Sabban 2012.

3. Interviews with domestic workers were conducted in Filipino, English, or Tag-lish (a combination of the two). Throughout the book, there will be inconsistencies in the English of research participants. I have chosen not to correct the grammar or wording of those who spoke in English or Tag-lish. Interviews in English were conducted by undergraduate students from the University of Southern California who accompanied me for one month in Dubai.

4. I solicited interviews at the Philippine consulate with the assistance of the labor attaché at the time, Delmer Cruz, who informed the women sheltering at the consulate about my research. He requested volunteers and arranged for interviews to take place in a private room at the consulate. I did not directly compensate research participants. However, I showed my appreciation by purchasing Filipino pastries sold by vendors outside the facilities and giving them to the women at the shelter. I also donated rice and cooking oil to the shelter.

5. I asked research participants at the migrant shelter to tell me why they had run away, and then I asked them to compare their situation with those of others who were also sheltering there. Frequently, I did not even have to ask, as they often volunteered this information at the beginning of the interview, which they would usually start by asking me if I wished to know what had happened to them.

6. In Islamic law, a diya refers to the financial compensation extended to victims or their family in cases of murder, bodily harm, or property damage.

7. Since JoAnn’s harrowing escape and brief stay in the shelter, she has returned to the Philippines to be with her son. A single mother, JoAnn hopes to eventually join her boyfriend Adrian in Maryland. The challenge, however, is Adrian’s undocumented status in the United States: he is a migrant worker from Mexico. JoAnn met Adrian through Yahoo Chat and communicated with him before she migrated to Dubai. Prior to her migration, he had regularly sent her money. She continued to sneak in ways to communicate with Adrian once she was in Dubai, and it was he who emboldened her to escape.

8. Bryant 2013.

9. See for example Bahrain 2012; Kingdom of Saudi Arabia 2013; Kuwait 2015; and United Arab Emirates 2017.

10. Longva 1999.

11. See United States v. Kozminski, 487 U.S. 931, 943–44 (1988). In this ruling, the Supreme Court of the United States determined servitude to be identical to the deprivation of free will.

12. Estimate obtained from the website of a migrant advocacy group in the region, See Accessed December 25, 2018.

13. United Arab Emirates 2017.

14. Pettit 1996.

15. Even the scholars who underscore the abuse of migrant workers in the region admit to observing extreme variability in the experiences of migrant workers under the stringent conditions of the kafala. Mahdavi (2011), for instance, acknowledges that some domestic workers maintain “strong ties with families who provide good accommodations and regular time off,” while others face “abusive situations” (142). Likewise, Gardner (2010) observes of migrants in Bahrain that the governance of workers under the kafala system depends largely on the sponsor, with some accommodating and invested in protecting workers and others taking advantage of their power and abusing workers. However, they have chosen to ignore these differences in advancing the argument that the kafala system is nothing but a form of structural violence. Those who write about domestic workers see the kafala as akin to human trafficking, forced labor, or slavery. The existing scholarship generally implies the near universal abuse of migrant domestic workers in the region. See also Jureidini and Moukarbel 2004; Jureidini 2010; Pande 2013; Fernandez 2014.

16. See Appendix A for an extended discussion of the methodology.

17. Official numbers are unavailable. Of 750,000 estimated domestic workers in the UAE, it has been said that approximately 200,000 are from the Philippines. See news report by Dajani (2017).