Saturday,20 October, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)
Saturday,20 October, 2018
Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Maids and madams

Domestic workers in Egypt, most of them women, usually have neither legal rights nor insurance and are often subjected to humiliating working conditions, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Maids and madams
Maids and madams

Domestic workers in Egypt, overwhelmingly women, are people who work within an employer’s household. There are no official statistics, so nobody knows their true number. Nevertheless, they are not just a number: they are workers with no rights.

What is known, however, is that 40 per cent of Egyptian households are headed by women breadwinners. Since illiteracy among women in Egypt is still high, particularly in rural areas where most domestic workers come from, most of these women are forced to work as domestic servants.

“I have two young children and I work, so I have two Filipino domestic helpers. They are very caring and scrupulous about cleanliness, which is an important consideration for me,” Pascale Ghazale told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Most professional middle-class women in contemporary Egypt treat their domestic workers with care because they understand that when they are away at work their children are in the hands of the domestic worker at home. The “mistress” understands that her children are in the care of a woman who has her children’s best interests at heart.

“My husband is a chain-smoker, and he does not work. He just stays at home smoking all day long or goes to sit at a café to drink coffee or tea. I am forced to give him pocket money as a result,” one domestic worker told the Weekly. She burst into tears as soon as the subject was broached. “I just had a fight with my husband, and I cannot take it anymore,” she wept.

Another domestic worker said that she thought it was her destiny to work in this way. However, the Islamic religion stresses that a husband must provide for his wife. “We are not hawanem [ladies] who stay at home, wake up late after we feed their children and prepare breakfast, and then fetch their tea or coffee in bed before they go to the gym,” she said. “Sometimes we stay up until two or three in the morning to serve them refreshments while they watch videos with their friends,” one domestic worker sobbed.      

The history of domestic workers in Egypt is sometimes atrocious. Cooking for someone, or some family, is not the only job they do. To say that the domestic worker’s worldview verges on a caricature of the biblical handmaiden of antiquity would be a gross underestimation in this day and age.

“Domestic helpers perform a variety of household services for an individual or a family, from providing care for children and elderly dependents to housekeeping, including cleaning and household maintenance. Other responsibilities may include cooking, laundry and ironing. They also sometimes shop for food and other household errands,” comments chair of the Alliance for Arab Women Madiha Al-Safti, who is also a professor of sociology at AUC and specialises on gender issues and child labour.

Al-Safti said that female domestic workers in Egypt could sometimes be subjected to sexual harassment and even rape by male members of their employer’s family, though this subject was taboo.

In the past, some may even have hit the domestic workers, inflicting wounds. Now such incidences are fast receding as if they are made public the women in question are taken to court, as has happened in the case of several women in Egypt.

“The more they suspect that we are seen as attractive, the more vengeful they become. Some even object if we dress nicely,” one female domestic worker told the Weekly.

“Women domestic workers, including girls, usually never speak out about being sexually harassed for fear of being summarily dismissed or disgraced as liars. Women employers might also turn a blind eye in such cases, even if they may suspect that a husband or son is harassing a domestic worker,” Al-Safti says.

Even so, the situation of domestic workers in Egypt is still in most cases better than in the oil-rich Gulf Arab states, for instance. “Problems with the abuse of domestic workers are more common with foreign domestic workers employed by wealthy Egyptian families than among local Egyptian domestic workers,” Al-Safti notes.


POOR CONDITIONS: It is often assumed that foreign domestic workers are better off than their Egyptian counterparts. Most get paid in dollars, while Egyptian domestic workers are paid in Egyptian pounds.

It is estimated that six out of 10 babysitters in Egypt hail from African countries south of the Sahara, such as Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia and some of the countries of West Africa. Some families may be unscrupulous in their regard and take the domestic worker’s passport in order to ensure that she does not leave the country without the employer’s permission.

Many upper middle-class and wealthy Egyptian women today may also approach agencies to help them to employ a foreign domestic worker due to the unavailability of Egyptian maids. Major sources of domestic workers include Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, West Africa and Ethiopia.

It has long been customary to have an Egyptian servant who lives with her employer’s family. Some of these women had no days off, especially if they were elderly or young girls. In contemporary Egypt, by contrast, many domestic workers come in once or twice a week for general cleaning, cooking and housekeeping. However, the practice of employing teenage housemaids who permanently stay in the house with a pre-agreed monthly vacation is even today not unheard of.

“Servants” or “maids” are older English terms for the more contemporary “domestic worker” and are considered to be politically incorrect today. Even so, they are still widely used in Egypt, where shaghalleh, which means female worker, also implies “servant”.

Moreover, in Egypt today most domestic workers are excluded from many of the legal protections afforded to other classes of workers, including the provision of retirement benefits and medical care. In general, the legal framework for the employment of domestic workers is vague.

The exploitation of children as domestic servants is still seen, or was seen until quite recently. This parallels the situation in Britain in a bygone era when a highly developed system of domestic service peaked towards the close of the Victorian era, perhaps reaching its most complicated and rigidly structured state during the Edwardian period, a period known in the United States as the Gilded Age and in France as the “Belle Époque” and reflecting the limited social mobility before World War I.

In contemporary Egypt, the exact number of children working as domestic workers is unknown, and such workers may be either illiterate or semi-literate. A few, however, are educated, and are prized for that reason.

Their employment in the domestic sphere reflects the widespread joblessness in Egypt and the phenomenon of “disguised unemployment”. Many domestic workers employed by wealthy families in Egypt today may have been middle-class professionals in their own countries and have a good command of English, which is one of the reasons why foreign domestic workers are favoured.

Another reason foreign domestic workers are preferred is because they are considered to be more conscious of hygiene than Egyptian domestic workers who come from the countryside and remote rural backwaters or from the shantytowns surrounding large urban centres such as Cairo and Alexandria.

The Egyptian Association for Economic and Social Rights (EAESR), an NGO, estimates that most such workers in Egypt are badly paid, with long hours and work away from home adding to the problems of in some cases awful accommodation. They often have just 10 days off in around 50 days of work. Two of these may be spent travelling home to distant villages, which can take between six and 11 hours of travel, and their problems may be compounded by the fact that employers do not permit mothers to have their children with them at work.

Wealthy Egyptians on the whole do not want their children to mix with those from lower social backgrounds.


MYTHS AND REALITY: It can be difficult to demolish some of the time-honoured myths concerning domestic workers.

Domestic workers do not loom large in most contemporary fiction, for example, though a notable exception is Miramar, a novel by Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. It was written in 1967 and translated into English in 1978 and is set in Alexandria at the pension of the same name.

The novel follows the interactions of residents at the pension, a basic bread-and-breakfast style residential hotel. The hotel’s Greek owner, Mariana, keeps close watch over her domestic worker Zohra, who is of peasant stock. The interactions of all the residents are based around this servant girl, a beautiful young woman from Beheira governorate near Alexandria who has abandoned her village life.

Mariana, under the pretext of being her chaperon, exploits her beauty to ensure that all her residents, all bachelors, do not leave the pension. As each character in turn fights for Zohra’s affections, tensions and jealousies arise, though Zohra is unaware of her employer’s exploitation of the bachelor residents’ desire for her, a poor domestic worker.

Mahfouz’s novel is also replete with symbolism, for Zohra is presented as the embodiment of Egypt and is seen through the eyes of the four men who are competing for her affections. The story is retold four times from the perspective of a different resident, allowing the reader to understand the intricacies of Egyptian life in the later 1950s and early 1960s after the 1952 Revolution.

Among those vying for Zohra’s affections, and therefore the hearts and minds of Egypt, are Europeans (Mariana), Egyptian nationalists (presented through one of the characters who is a former member of the Wafd Party), the wealthy upper-class of landed gentry, the youthful Nasser regime and the social climbers of the time, and last but not least a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The theme of the domestic worker has also been tackled in a number of films, perhaps the most notable being the 1959 classic The Nightingale’s Prayer starring the legendary actress Faten Hamama who plays a beautiful peasant girl who falls in love with a wealthy engineer who rapes her sister.

The girl, named Amna, seeks revenge, but is unable to kill the engineer. She moves into his house to work as a domestic worker and tries to poison him several times, but her plans fail. Her uncle then discovers what she has done and decides to kill her because she has ruined the family’s reputation. He pays a surprise visit to the engineer’s villa and in a typical attempted “honour killing” tries to shoot the girl. In a dramatic twist, she steps out of the engineer’s sumptuous villa, spots her uncle angrily approaching, but is saved by the engineer who is shot in the back while trying to protect Amna.

The film is based on a novel by the late Taha Hussein, an influential 20th-century Egyptian writer and intellectual. Hussein was an iconic figure of the Egyptian cultural renaissance of the early 20th century and a proponent of Egyptian nationalism along with what he called “Pharaonism”, since he was convinced that Egyptian civilisation was not the same as Arab civilisation and that Egypt would only progress by reclaiming its ancient pre-Islamic roots.

Today, wealthy families often prefer to employ foreign domestic workers rather than Egyptian ones because most leave their children behind in their countries of origin. The main complaint against Egyptian domestic workers is that they have little concept of hygiene and hence are less desirable, especially where childcare is concerned.

Officially, a domestic worker or domestic helper is a person who works within the employer’s household. And while most are women, some are men, and these are called factotums, most of them hailing from South Sudan, but some of them also Egyptians.


ILL-TREATMENT: According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), “domestic work is the oldest and most important occupation for many women in many countries and is linked to the global history of slavery, colonialism and other forms of servitude.”

“In its contemporary manifestations, domestic work is a global phenomenon that perpetuates hierarchies based on race, ethnicity, indigenous status, caste and nationality. Care work in the household is quite simply indispensable for the economy outside the household to function. The growing participation of women in the labour force, changes in the organisation of work and the intensification of work, as well as the lack of policies reconciling work and family life, the decline of state provision of care services, the feminisation of international migration and the ageing of societies have all increased the demand for care work in recent years,” the ILO notes.

In these respects, the contemporary condition of domestic workers in Egypt may be reminiscent of that of others, among them African-Americans. “I was raised by a single mother who made a way for me. She used to scrub floors as a domestic worker, put a cleaning rag in her pocketbook and ride the subways in Brooklyn [New York] so I would have food on the table. But she taught me as I walked her to the subway that life is about not where you start, but where you’re going. That’s family values,” notes African-American activist Al Sharpton.

African-Americans have long tackled this prickly topic. “The Negro was freed and turned loose as a penniless, landless, naked, ignorant labourer. Ninety-nine per cent were field hands and servants of the lowest class,” wrote the African-American “father of Pan-Africanism” W E B Du Bois on the legacy of slavery in the United States.

In sharp contrast, Americans of European descent have often expressed contempt for domestic workers. “The world is not looking for servants, as there are plenty of these, but for masters, men who form their purposes and then carry them out, let the consequences be what they may,” once wrote former US president Woodrow Wilson. Humanitarian trend-setters in Victorian Britain denounced heartless attitudes towards domestic servants. “The greatest heroes are those who do their duty in the daily grind of domestic affairs whilst the world whirls by,” mused the social reformer Florence Nightingale.

While the ill-treatment of domestic workers is still unfortunately a common phenomenon in Egypt, where because of high unemployment many women are forced to serve wealthier women and take care of their families, “there are also many wealthy Egyptian families who take care of their domestic workers, even when they are old and cannot work. There is a tradition of magnanimity and benevolence,” Al-Safti comments.

While Egypt’s first labour union for domestic maids was established 2012, it was soon disbanded. Meanwhile, the Centre for Migration and Refugee Studies, a local NGO, discovered in 2007 that 59 per cent of foreign domestic workers in Cairo were exposed to verbal abuse by their employing families, with 30 per cent insulted, 27 per cent physically abused, and 10 per cent exposed to sexual harassment or attempted rape.

As a result, some foreign female domestic workers may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or anxiety, according to the study.

Women in their mid-20s and 30s are the most common age groups for people hiring foreign maids and nannies rather than Egyptian ones, despite their higher financial cost. Working mothers usually hire them to help them in balancing house chores and work commitments.

Some mothers place rules for African workers, such as preventing them from touching or kissing their children and avoiding leaving the children alone with the helper, or using surveillance cameras to observe them.

Today, the Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement, an NGO, points out that the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation does not recognise the establishment of house maids’ unions. There are no set minimum wages for domestic workers.

“Most foreign domestic workers that I know of do not have any kind of contract for part-time or full-time work. Contracts are not at all common, except in some cases where they may be working as a full-time resident. No embassy does anything for maids here, including my own embassy of the Philippines,” one Filipino domestic worker who chose to remain anonymous told the Weekly.

She said that the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions should permit foreigners to unionise, as is allowed in other countries.

Meanwhile, there are tens of thousands of women employed, either full-time or part-time, as domestic workers in Egypt today. “The number of Asian and sub-Saharan African women employed fluctuates. Both Egyptian and foreign maids are commonly subjected to punitive layoffs, abuse or harassment. However, Egyptian domestic workers are generally treated and paid far worse than foreign ones,” Al-Safti commented.

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