[MAID ON CALL-PART II] When things fall apart

She called at midnight, weeping, saying in Tamil: “They sent me out, they asked me to leave. I am near the gate.”

And so ended the day after 20-exhausting hours, with a much closer look at how stifling it can get here.

Fifteen months ago, with great trepidation we took on the responsibility and welcomed home Y, to help me run my home. Even though she was responsible and her work left little room for complaints, we were increasingly ill at ease to have a live-in help. Even as we were contemplating our options, things came to a head.

At 4 am on Thursday I was woken up by a missed call. From Y’s number. Panicking, we rushed to her room to see an empty bed. When we called back, the phone was answered by an Arab man who introduced himself simply as ‘the police’, and told us that they had caught ‘the maid with man.’

We were stunned. What man? How, when, who… Our Y? The one we trust so implicitly with our children, our home, our unlocked wardrobes.

Once we got our head around the call, R rushed to the capital police.

Here’s what happened:

  1. We were not allowed to speak to her. R saw her in the questioning cell looking scared. She speaks Tamil, and has only a smattering of English.
  2. She was caught sitting in a car with a man, outside our building, is all we were told.
  3. We were told ‘we were safe’ because she was not caught on our premises, so we were not culpable.
  4. They refused to tell us what action would be taken, or what we could do.
  5. They did ask what we wanted to do, and we made it clear that we won’t file a case, but take her home and send her back to her country.
  6. They asked R to come back after a bit, but he was not allowed to meet her.
  7. When R went back the cop was actually surprised and little rude about why he was so bothered, and sent him back. They were suspicious of a sponsor/employer who seemed to care.
  8. The next stop was the embassy. They again said nothing could be done. The law will run its course. But what was the law?
  9. When in doubt about migrant rights, call Aakash. He gave me some clarity. But again, the same counsel. Nothing could be done.
  10. The cops did mention that the prosecutor would make a decision that night. But they would call us, and we can’t do anything more.
  11. They didn’t call us. They just sent her out. Late in the night. When we went to pick her up, she was with the guy they found her with. It was midnight, she was waiting with someone who probably made her feel safe in a strange place.

We brought her home, and sent her back to her home country the next morning.

What did we learn during those 20 hours? When the sh*t hits the fan you might or might not be soiled. You just wait and watch.

Here is why we will not recruit and sponsor another live-in help:

  1. However good our intentions, because of the nature of the laws here, she will be in a state of entrapment.
  2. It is not a healthy environment for an adult to be dependent on his/her employer for sustenance, entertainment and solace. The employer wields unfair power over the employee.
  3. Unlike Hong Kong which also has a large number of domestic workers, there is no provision in place here in Qatar for their entertainment or socialising.
  4. An adult woman has needs. And the fact is, we would not have allowed her to meet her man outside in the dead of the night (we have our interests to protect), nor allow a stranger into our home (we have our kids safety to keep in mind.)
  5. Because I don’t want to ever feel this angry and this helpless. However much I empathise with situation, I am still very upset that my home and children were placed at risk.
  6. Many months ago when she asked to meet someone outside, we asked to meet and speak to the guy first. It made us feel sick and feudal. But we had to do it because:
    • As her employers/sponsors, we would be held responsible if we knowingly allowed herself to place herself at any risk.
    • We recruited her through a friend, giving her family back home an assurance that she would be treated with respect and kept safe.
    • We did not know of any place that she could meet anyone, be it man or woman, without being questioned or harassed. (Only the Filipinos seems to have a sense of community that addresses the socializing needs of workers of all income levels)
    • We had from day 1 explained how the system works here, and why things that are not really a ‘crime’ are illegal here. Yet, one cannot easily accept feeling like they have no life.

My regrets:

  1. If I were to go through the last 15 months all over again, I would have tried harder to provide socialising opportunities that were not dependent on us. Having said that, I wouldn’t have gone through the process at all.
  2. But, I don’t regret having Y in our lives these past several months. She made it so much easier for me to cope with a new job and new challenges. I do regret that she didn’t leave with more dignity.
  3. I regret not picking up on some signals over the last few months. But I see them as ‘signs’ only in hindsight.
  4. I regret that for several minutes through the day I judged her character, slipping into a moralistic frame of mind (when did I become that kind of a person?). I had to remind myself the number of times in my youth I sneaked out for a rendezvous, betraying my parents’ trust.
  5. I regret that she didn’t really trust us enough to take us into her confidence (she wants to marry this guy); We trusted her with our children, after all.
  6. I regret that she didn’t save enough to buy the land she wanted, or shop for her family and go back with bag loads of gifts as she did the last time.
  7. I regret that her last memory of my family and me would be overcome with her own regrets and ignominy.
  8. She left our home stoic, and without a farewell to the children (who were asleep then and think she went home to take care of her mother). I will regret that.
  9. Little room for second chances for the disempowered. Regret…
  10. I regret that I am part of a system that is inherently prejudiced against low-income migrants, especially domestic workers. When ‘caught’, she was not allowed any representation.

Why am I writing this blog post?

  1. If you are planning to recruit domestic help, ask yourself tough questions. You are taking a human being into your home, her basic needs are the same as yours, would you be able to give her a life that you won’t be afraid to live?
  2. Do not forget that you have power that no one individual should be given. So use that power cautiously. We only had to say ‘file a case’, and she would have been entangled in a long prosecution and detention. She would have been treated as a ‘runaway’ or ‘absconder’.
  3. Make your threshold a sacred space that no one crosses without your permission, especially when there are kids. I think we communicated this strongly enough, that she assured us that she never brought her boyfriend home. It gave us both a degree of relief and guilt.
  4. Because I spoke about the experience of sponsoring a domestic help earlier, I thought it only fitting I write this too.
  5. And finally… Writing is how I cope. It is how I vent and how I heal. This post is public because I feel we live in an unfair society, and we have to be perennially aware of what this kind of migration is all about.

It’s not just migrant rights. It’s people’s lives, Qatar.

Fourteen years ago, after reporting on a very interesting general election in India, I headed to Doha.

I had reported on child labour and abuse, NGOs swindling foreign funds in the name of HIV/AIDS awareness, blood bank scams, corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. I worked as journalists are supposed to.

Then I came here and read insipid press releases, and rehashed agency stories for the local newspaper. Every now and then I would manage to write pieces I was proud of, for publications in India. But most of the time I didn’t. Though more recently, I have the freedom to explore issues that don’t make me see myself as a stooge.

In the last week Guardian has published some very strong pieces on Qatar, on its slave labour, its abuse of migrant workers, its stark inequality. You can read that here and here. There were other articles, but those were written without any understanding of Qatar, by armchair journalists, so I won’t share them.

That migrant workers here are abused and ill-treated is no secret. It’s there for all of us to see… and turn away and focus on our fancy cars, our latest smart phones, and the next holiday destination.

Which is fine. C’est la vie. What really draws my ire is when people start denying the situation. When they talk about the environments the workers were escaping in the first place, as if that justified their treatment here in Qatar.

I have seen horrible things here. Child jockeys bitten by camels, grown men pleading for kindness, and oppressed women being physically bullied by their wards. And yes, I’ve seen worse things were I come from; the country which is the main supplier of cheap labour. But there is a vital difference… people don’t stop complaining and speaking up against these issues in India. They have a voice.

Obviously, Qatar doesn’t ‘get’ journalism or free speech. They are used to press releases and people fawning over its wealth. It doesn’t understand that it’s not a journalist’s place or concern to sugarcoat the bitter realities.

You see, they want to be criticised in a manner that doesn’t demonise them, or force them to look within (and squirm). They want to be seen as the super rich benefactor who reaches out to the needy in Indonesia and Pakistan, in Sudan and Palestine. What about the needy on your own soil?

I am here now, finding myself disagreeing with both the critics and those in denial.

I do believe there is hope, and that not everything is black and dreary. Neither do I believe we need to sit back and allow Qatar to work at its own pace to bring about change. This is not a Montessori system, for goodness sake!

Criticism, brutal criticism, brought about a fabulous change some years ago. In 2000 Qatar won the right to host the Asian Games in 2006, and the WTO was scheduled for November 2001. It was under immense pressure to prove it was a worthy host for both, and at that point it wasn’t the plight of labourers, but that of children being starved and used as camel jockeys. It had no choice but to ban the employing of children as jockeys. Not out of the goodness of its heart, but because it made political and business sense to do so.

Likewise, migrant rights will be taken seriously only when Qatar feels the pinch at a political and international level. Not when it ‘realises’ the errors of its ways, as some naive souls (offended and saddened by the criticism) seem to believe.

The unbearable burden of privilege [MAID ON CALL]

Six months ago our menagerie grew to five. Our life got more comfortable. Waking up to a neat home, beds made, hot meals for the asking, children cared for… and yet, I feel burdened.

Y is an adult who chose to travel thousands of miles to a strange land. What I grapple with daily is that it wasn’t necessarily an educated choice. All she had to go by was one Skype conversation, and a contract that I printed off my home computer.

R & I would forever be haunted by the look on her face as we received her at the airport. He saw her first, as he had to go meet the immigration official at the Maha lounge to ‘claim’ his ward.

She walked five steps behind him, holding onto her black handbag, and approached the group of us waiting for her at Costa’s–me, the kids, friends who travelled to Doha on the same flight.

Wide-eyed after a long flight, transfers included, quite clearly afraid of what and who awaits her.

Over the next six weeks she was trained by our part-time help of seven years and honorary matron of the family, K. We were all getting used to each other. That seems a long time ago.

Now, we are used to having someone at home all the time. We are ever-conscious of how much smoother the functioning of our home is, and are grateful for it.

But it doesn’t escape me that we wield an unfair control over Y.

That’s the nature of her assignment as a migrant domestic worker.

In the absence of a law that protects them, it falls on the presumed goodness of her ‘sponsor’–in her case R & me–to treat her well, and the way we would wish to be treated.

How she lives, what she eats, how she is treated, whom she can speak to, her access to her family, access to help or care, what she can wear… all of this is probably easier to quantify.

What about not being in control of her mobility? Not being in control of with whom and how she socialises? How she chooses to spend her weekends? What about being 30, single and abstinent? What about the freedoms we have to consider deeply and often deny, because of where we live?

So, yes, her life (like the rest of her ilk) in Qatar being a good one hinges on the goodness of her employer. The goodness of people, however, is a fickle thing to depend on; personal motivations will likely trump humanitarian action.

My egalitarian attitude towards Y is at least in part motivated by my need to reduce the burden of guilt–for being a link in this chain of exploitation. To feel better about who I am.

I will continue to make gestures to ease my conscience; find justifications for my actions; and excuses for my inaction.

I We (all of you included) will pull out every logical argument in our heads to say we are not like them (them who exploit, those others)… we will grow used to the comfort, we will learn to set the burden aside, we will secretly hope the status quo remains as our life is easier for it, we will always have ‘those others’ whom we will judge harshly; consequently and conveniently we will judge ourselves kindly.