Rethinking the Role of ‘Madam’: Kafala and the U.S. Foreign Service

What makes the kafala system so morally unsettling is the way it exploits vulnerable populations while claiming to be a benign safety net for them. / vetta collection / dishka


I am the spouse of a Foreign Service officer and the mother of two young daughters. During our recent tours in Qatar and Jordan, our family employed women to work in our home, which enabled me to volunteer and work part time outside of our home. They kept our apartment clean and tidy and, most importantly, they cared lovingly for our children.

Their presence in our home, like our embassy-issued furniture, was also utterly ordinary. Employing domestic workers—nannies, housekeepers, cooks or gardeners—during an overseas posting in the Middle East (and elsewhere) is common for Foreign Service families. Even our previous embassy’s Community Liaison Office handbook speaks of domestic help as “one of the perks of living abroad.”

In the Middle East, this “attractive” domestic-employee relationship is part of the larger kafala system for non-immigrant workers from other countries. From what I observed, it is a system in which the laws governing how domestic employees are treated are deliberately weak and their enforcement universally pathetic. The result is a morally suspect arrangement in which thousands of mostly South and Southeast Asian “guest workers” are trapped.

The culture of kafala horrifies me, but during our years in the Middle East, I also came to see myself as a full participant in it. I am writing about that personal dilemma in the hope of spurring a conversation within the Foreign Service community that might lead to more constructive, sustained moral reflection and action among other Americans and expatriates on this topic.

How I understand Kafala

Kafala, the Arabic word for sponsorship, is the legal system by which many Middle Eastern countries, in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere, permit entry to non-immigrant laborers—typically from India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka or Indonesia. Through a complex series of multinational arrangements, recruiting agencies “import” these individuals to work in the booming construction industry (usually men) or in households (usually women). The agencies assign each guest worker to a local sponsor, to whom he or she is legally bound until that sponsor chooses to release them.

In fact, almost all expatriates who work for national companies in the region, including Arabs, Europeans and Americans, have a place within the kafala system, as well. An American executive working for a Qatari company is sponsored by that company. But the qualitative circumstances of sponsorship usually fall sharply along ethnic and socioeconomic lines, and its darker aspects affect poorer South Asian workers hardest.

What makes kafala so morally complicated is the way it keeps vulnerable populations controllable, even as it publicly purports to serve as a benignly paternalistic safety net for workers and their employers. The guest worker’s legal status is dependent on his or her sponsor, who according to laws and guidelines is required to provide paid medical care, room and board, and in some cases phone calls and periodic trips back to the home country. A domestic guest worker is something of a non-family member of household—in theory.

Domestic work for a Filipina, or a Sri Lankan or Indonesian woman may resemble indentured servitude, if not imprisonment.

In practice, however, the system favors the powerful. Not only are the laws governing it routinely disregarded; but also, since there is no real market competition for employees and they enter the country with few meaningful legal rights or freedoms, they are without recourse when problems arise. Even if one argues that kafala is not technically slavery, the institution permits the development of all kinds of slave-like situations.

Indeed, “running away” from one’s sponsor is often the only real form of escape from terrible working conditions. And there are plenty of runaways who then live in legal limbo, lacking passports and local documentation because their sponsors have taken the documents from them, a widely practiced contravention of the laws.

The treatment of domestic workers usually falls far short of any legal norms issued by their countries of residence. The acceptable range of pay varies widely, as do normal working hours. Some employers refuse to let their domestic workers leave the home without permission, imprisoning them inside; and many deny their employees use of a phone. It takes little imagination to appreciate the kinds of abuse women who are so thoroughly hidden from society may experience. Domestic work for a Filipina, or a Sri Lankan or Indonesian woman may resemble indentured servitude, if not imprisonment.

Domestic workers try to find work in households where there are stronger cultural expectations for basic human rights, usually among Western expatriates. Often these arrangements can be quite beneficial, where remuneration for work is relatively above market price, with days off, sick-day compensation, and so forth. But a far larger swath of guest workers toil in homes or factories where conditions are abusive, unjust, isolating and unrelenting, and where the employee has no remedy.

My Place in the System

During our tour in Qatar, we employed a Filipina (I’ll call her “Lola”) to work in our home. I had serious reservations about sponsoring and employing her, but mostly because I was squeamish about losing our family’s privacy and because I felt that hiring a domestic employee violated my American work ethic. (I still think cleaning one’s own toilet is good for the soul.)

But with my husband’s long work hours, the long list of housekeeping tasks in the large house assigned to us, and trying to care for a toddler and a nursing newborn, an “extra pair of hands around the house” eventually came to sound like a good idea. After all, having some kind of household help was part of the cultural fabric of Doha, as well as within the American embassy community.

Lola’s original American sponsor/employer had been abruptly fired by his Qatari company when he was traveling outside of the country. Because his legal rights in Qatar were nullified overnight, so were hers. If she did not find a new sponsor or host quickly, she would face deportation to the Philippines. Worse, she still owed significant debts to the agency that had arranged her passage to Qatar, and there were financial pressures back in the Philippines, too. She contacted us to see if we could help, and we agreed to hire her.

My husband worked through the process of securing her “release” from her previous American employer, and we helped her get settled into the maid’s quarters of our house. A closet at best, it at least granted her (and us) some real privacy, with a separate entrance and exit, a private bathroom and a door that Lola could lock to keep us out.

Shortly after Lola came to work for us as a “live-in,” it dawned on me that our new arrangement was one with which I had only a literary acquaintance. Since I had been raised in a typical middle-class American family—no “help” whatsoever—having a live-in housekeeper was more the stuff of an evening BBC drama on PBS than real life for me. Along with “Mommy” and “Daddy,” I was now called “Madam” and my husband “Sir.” (Even when I insisted she call me by my name, in a naive attempt to relax the palpable power dynamics, she could never bring herself to do so.)

And I began to understand that, as Caitlin Flanagan aptly put it in her 2007 book, To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife: “My relationship with [my domestic employee] would turn out to be the most legally, morally and emotionally complicated one of my life.”

The same arguments were once used to justify the American enslavement of Africans: “They’re so much better off than where they came from.”

Life as ‘Madam’ / Mari

Lola and I eventually arrived at a workable rhythm to our shared existence, but I found my role in the home harder to justify with her able presence. Odd sensations of territoriality welled up in me at times, even as I was enormously grateful for her help keeping the miles of tile in our home clean—no small feat in the dusty desert of Doha. Lola eased the small frustrations of my life. My very young children came to love her, which I also grew to see as an inevitable, if strangely cosmopolitan good.

During that year Lola and I talked a great deal, sharing stories about our lives. I learned more about the dynamics that actually brought her to the Middle East, besides grinding poverty. Her family situation was incredibly complicated, and while she was in Qatar to earn money for her children, her being there also relieved some personal burdens. We talked about her children, but she also shared stories of friends and acquaintances caught in tragic employment situations—disgusting stories of frequent sexual molestation, and verbal and physical abuse. (These narratives are depressingly common among domestic workers, as are stories of female domestic employees “falling” from upper story windows.)

“There are only two kinds of people I’ll work for,” Lola once told me thoughtfully, “the Americans and the Danes. They are the only ones who treat their nannies well.” I was glad that she felt happy in our family, and I loved that she felt I was doing right by her. But was I? While it benefited her that I was a firm believer in inalienable human rights, I cannot claim to have materially advanced her situation toward greater acquisition of those rights.

The horrific stories we hear from nannies about their compatriots living in difficult households or that are written up in the newspaper enrage us. But I think they also assuage our moral burdens by making the other dehumanizing aspects of kafala pale by comparison.

Lola and her distant children were dependent on our family’s good graces to pay her regularly, treat her fairly and honor our commitments in her contract with us. Yet we could have just as easily denied her basic human and labor rights—and no one would have known, or acted to stop us if they had. In fact, kafala culture looks down on those who are too “soft” toward their employees.

In Jordan, we sponsored two domestic workers at different times. The first, Jennie, was also from the Philippines, and dutifully sent money back to support her mother, brothers and sisters, and their families. She started working full-time at age 12 in a clothing factory—“nice clothes; Gap, that kind of stuff, Madam”—where she earned pennies for her labor. Her widowed mother could not support her six children with her own meager earnings. Already accustomed to hard work, Jennie came to Jordan because she wanted to do more for her family. In Amman, she became active in a local church of guest workers. Through these relationships, she found friendship, wisdom and support.

Each pay period, Jennie sent money home, but her older siblings actually dictated how the funds were dispersed. Jennie admitted once that she knew her older brothers often squandered the money, and that it did not reach her mother: “The last time I was in the Philippines, I tried to teach my mother how to sign her name so she could get the money. But she is illiterate, Madam. She has worked so hard all her life. But she knows almost nothing of the money I send home.”

What Now?

Over the years, I became more accustomed to the murky moral complexity of kafala, as well as to the tired arguments trotted out to support it. The same arguments were once used to justify the American enslavement of Africans; for example, “Their lives are so much better off here than where they are from.”

Life is simply hard—cradle to grave—for most of these workers. For the women, the money they earn is often no more theirs than before they earned it. They face strong pressure from agencies and family members who rely on their remittances, as do the governments of their home countries, whose economies are not keeping pace with ever-increasing populations.

The women also may be misled about the life of a domestic worker in the Middle East, believing that some of the Middle East’s reportedly gold-paved streets might become a path of wealth for them, as well. But the migration laws of kafala and the seething poverty of their countries of origin leave them with few good options.

Beyond the Wilberforce laws, we can be agents of change to combat the cultural indifference and violence toward domestic employees in the kafala system.

Kafala’s notoriously ignoble margins should be treated as a front in the battle against global human trafficking, one of the most pressing international issues of our time. Thinking about it in those terms may be uncomfortable, perhaps because so many of us are entangled in it even though we hardly think of ourselves as being actively involved in human trafficking. I’ve become more convinced, however, that those margins matter.

After researching and witnessing the fallout from kafala, one Foreign Service officer I talked to while preparing this essay said that, as a form of resistance to the entire system, she refuses to employ any domestic worker. Another officer said that employing another person to clean your house under sponsorship laws is “un-American.” I respect these positions, and I wonder how many others in the Foreign Service have taken that kind of bold stand against kafala.

Yet another person I talked to for this article—a local doctor who has seen firsthand some of the abuse these women endure—argued in the opposite direction: “These women will keep coming even if every caring expatriate refused to employ them as an act of rebellion against the current system. And they would be much, much worse off. They are driven here by poverty, and they are trapped here by debt and the prevailing culture. I think if you have a commitment to human rights and labor rights, you should embrace the moral burden to sponsor and employ someone.”

We have helped each of the women we’ve employed pay off back debts and secure actual, legal documentation, when their numerous previous employers had flouted or even manipulated their own countries’ labor laws to extort money from these domestic employees and keep them in bondage. But again, that kind of help only seems to enable a culture and a legal system that beg for fundamental change.

Real Change

The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 outlines the many forms of modern slavery and workplace abuse and the American government’s commitment to combating it. The act governs U.S. personnel’s involvement in domestic employment abroad, but its bite stops at the borders of the embassy community’s bubble.

In truth, the U.S. government does little to enforce its provisions beyond issuing an annual management notice to warn employees of consequences. (I would welcome examples of enforcement, if they exist; we all know FSOs or their family members who treat their domestic employees like dirt.)

Real change in the region will only take place when those of us involved in the system work harder to spark the moral imagination of our friends, our children’s classmates’ families and wider circles outside the bubble.

When we find ourselves or others talking about domestic employees like chattel—“I ordered her from the Philippines,” or, “I was so mad at my idiot nanny that I could have punched her” (just two of many statements I overheard from otherwise well-to-do, relatively Western sponsors)—we are not simply dehumanizing these human beings; we are also dehumanizing ourselves. It’s shameful—not classy—to talk about or treat a domestic employee as if she were a dog in the room, unable to understand what is being said about her.

We need more conversations across the region to pool our collective moral reasoning for the good. I’d recommend exploring the work of scholars who have delved more deeply into this subject. For a start, try Andrew Gardner’s City of Strangers: Gulf Migration and the Indian Community in Bahrain (ILR Press, 2010) or “Of Maids and Madams: Sri Lankan Domestic Workers and Their Employers in Jordan” (Critical Asian Studies 40.4, 2008) by Elizabeth Frantz, an anthropologist to whom I’m particularly indebted for help in thinking through these questions.

Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011) is another essential resource, and I’d also recommend the work of Amnesty International on the treatment of migrant workers in the Persian Gulf region.

Until recently, I was relatively uninformed about and inattentive to migrant labor laws in the United States. But now that I’ve been a participant in the kafala system, I am more alert to immigration and “guest worker” issues here, too. I’m coming to see that the moral task of any decent government is to craft and enforce laws that permit labor to flow, as it inevitably will, in a way that also promotes just, livable working contexts for employers and employees alike.

Beyond the Wilberforce laws, we can be agents of change to combat the cultural indifference and violence toward domestic employees in the system. We can watch for signs of abuse and mistreatment among the maids and nannies we see regularly. And we can volunteer at domestic employee safe houses throughout the region, donating clothing, food and legal expertise to the most vulnerable. At the very least, we can be honest stewards of their stories as witnesses to a wider world.

I want to respectfully employ the women who care for our children, wash our dishes, fold our clothes and facilitate our busy lives. I believe that others in the expatriate community want that, too. Together, perhaps, we could help to create some meaningful moral and cultural resistance to the soft form of slavery that kafala embodies. (Note: In December 2016, one Middle Eastern nation - Qatar - abolished the kafala system.)

Laura Merzig Fabrycky is a Foreign Service spouse. She has resided in Doha, Qatar and Amman, where she worked as a part-time Eligible Family Member. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.