Americans are largely unconcerned with problems surrounding domestic workers (maids, nannies, and cooks), outside of scandals involving officials using undocumented workers (illegal immigrants) and sex scandals with the babysitter or nanny. Yet in Western news reports on Middle Eastern countries there are sensational stories about human trafficking, physical abuse, labor without compensation, and forced captivity. Many of us Westerners were horrified to hear of cases where maids were beaten, given little food, or held captive without pay. Some maids are subject to cruel treatment, long grueling hours, and hard labor. Despite the downsides of maid service, thousands of maids come to places like Kuwait for opportunities to work in middle class and affluent Kuwaiti homes. Many American and Western expats in Kuwait rely upon domestic help. From my conversations with American expats and my own personal experiences with maids, I have seen how the intertwined working and living arrangements between well-off families and poor women gives rise to numerous ethical and social problems in kuwait.
Before I begin talking about live-in maids, I wanted to discuss some of the underlying assumptions and cultural attitudes that many of us share about domestic workers. Americans often have a negative view opinion of people who use domestic help. In the States, only affluent families or well off families can afford live-in domestic help. The general public see the women who rely upon nannies as lazy, indulgent mothers. Conservatives who believe that women should be in the home look down upon career women who rely upon nannies and maids to do domestic work. Stay-at-home mothers who hire nannies to help out with children are also viewed negatively. People see them as lazy indulgent mothers who don’t want to spend time with their children. A common view is that they are not caring for their children. While there are less negative views about housekeeping services, the general public generally looks down upon families that rely upon live-in maids. The most common view of domestic workers is that they are vulnerable and exploited by bosses who are too lazy to do things that normal people do for themselves.
As a servile position, the abuse of maid service has been compared to slavery by media and labor activists. While this essay makes no attempt of a thorough analysis of slavery and servile institutions, however it is clear that live-in domestic workers’ toils and tribulations pale in comparison to the historical experiences of chattel slavery in the Atlantic slave system or plantation slavery in Africa (West African [crop] and clove planations in Zanzibar). Maids have a much greater degree of choice and agency. A maid also maintains links with their family and in time can return back home. Slave systems worked because slaves could not go back home. There is no social death from free person to non-free person and their position is temporary (although some contracts can render a maid in greater debt when they leave). Maids have rights over their own children and lineage. A slave had no rights over their own production and biological reproduction.
Maids migrate to developing nations out of their own free will in order to seek better opportunities. The measure of free will depends upon if we can argue that desperate economic conditions still leaves an individual to choose freely. What happens once the maids arrive in a family’s home can differ greatly, depending on laws that protect immigrant workers and domestic help, contract, and temperaments of the family and the worker.
I intend to explore various issues surrounding maids, from the motivations that drive live-in maid service as an institution and the types of maids that live in Kuwait. After looking at some underlying assumptions we might have in the West, I will then consider the ways employers have exploited maids. I will then look at stories about unethical maids. Through anecdotal evidence, I hope to explore complicated issues that move us beyond a simple black and white picture of the difficult relationships between maids and the families that hire them.
Part 2 Motivations and types of Maids
Part 3 Maids as victims
Part 4 Scandals and the Maids who abuse the system
Part 5 Personal experiences, Reflection on the institution, and Conclusion