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Home Surveillance and the Rights of Domestic Workers

[Migrant Rights logo. Image from @MigrantRIghts.] [Migrant Rights logo. Image from @MigrantRIghts.]

[The following report was originally published by Migrant Rights on 25 July 2014 under the title "Home Surveillance Marketed Against Domestic Workers' Privacy Rights."]

The alleged link between migrants and crime is a commonly regurgitated misconception in much of the migrant receiving world. In the Gulf States, local media particularly dramatize the ‘danger’ of migrant domestic workers to family privacy and child safety. Authorities further fuel these xenophobic narratives, regularly scapegoating migrants for any and all social problems, including the loss of cultural heritage and language. Saudi discourse particularly demonizes Ethiopian migrants, condemning them as inherently violent criminals with superstitious tendencies. Kuwait recently adopted similarly inciting rhetoric against Ethiopian domestic workers, following the murder of a Kuwaiti woman in March. In the aftermath of any crime allegedly committed by domestic workers, media and authorities are quick to collectively blame migrants; in just one night, Kuwait arrested 13,000+ domestic workers, the majority of whom were Ethiopian, and proceeded to ban Ethiopian domestic workers in reaction to the same murder. Saudi also banned Ethiopian domestic workers in response to an alleged surge of crimes (including sorcery) committed by workers. Hysteria is further flamed by social media and private messaging, with exaggerated anecdotes spreading virally through Facebook and Whatsapp.

The paranoiac narratives on domestic workers not only shape regulations and decrees, but also impact the conditions of their work environment. In both Saudi and Kuwait, media and authorities warn that Ethiopian workers are a particular to threat to children because of “cultural practices” and “religious beliefs” that could lead them to sacrifice children. Parents are encouraged to monitor workers with surveillance cameras in order to protect their children from domestic workers, a practice that has become particularly common in the UAE.

In a Gulf News survey, the majority of Emirati respondents recommended surveillance cameras for homes with young children. Parents claimed monitoring is essential given the “extensive amount of videos about certain inappropriate behavior committed by domestic workers circulated on social media.” The head of family prosecution at Abu Dhabi Public Prosecution, Mohammed Al Danhani, endorsed surveillance, informing the The National that: “Hidden surveillance cameras were a good way of spotting any problems. Most of the cases we received were discovered by surveillance cameras.”

In neither article do respondents or editors reflect on domestic workers’ right to privacy or entertain the idea that it is precisely such unfair working conditions that can induce workers to commit crimes. In an al-Riyadh article last year, Saudi citizens condemned the surveillance of guests, holding that it violates their basic rights to privacy. Though the very limited regulation of domestic work is often justified by the claim that workers are not employees but “guests,” this right does not appear to extend to them.

Other Arabic-language Emirati papers extensively document the use of at-home cameras. An Al-Bayyan report begins: “Due to the increasing number of videos in a society filled with maids, taping attacks on children and others. And due to maids’ violations and the parents’ busy schedules outside home, technology should now be more involved in our social atmosphere, to give us strength and trust.” In the report, Emirati women admitted they installed over 10 cameras in one home, some watching live streams on their cell phones. Most do not inform domestic workers that they are being monitored, using cameras masked as pens or clocks.

Naturally, features on home surveillance predominantly report the offending behavior caught on camera, eclipsing good or normal behavior. A 2010 Kuwaiti feature related only horror stories about domestic workers letting men in, giving food away, and harassing children. Current stories are only publish-worthy if they support these narratives.

Home surveillance of domestic workers is of course not limited to the Gulf States, being a contentious practice throughout the UK and US. But the issue takes another dimension in the Gulf, where domestic workers are regularly confined to the house. The restrictions on their mobility mean that workers are under nearly 24/7 surveillance by employers looking for a reason to punish them. If anything, the excessive monitoring is likely to increase employers’ paranoia and consequently increase the repercussions for domestic workers.

Surveillance is yet another mechanism of control for employers, who are empowered by authorities to encroach the proper bounds of an employment relationship. In the most recent draft of the GCC unified contract, domestic workers are guaranteed a reasonable right to privacy but must also respect the privacy of their employers by "not revealing family secrets" or face significant penalties. It seems unlikely that the two clauses will be enforced equally.

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