Cinderella of the 21st Century

I was on the way with my family to one of the many manpower agencies; we (i.e. my husband, our three children and I) had to repeat this procedure every two years. Every time, I feel extremely uncomfortable having to choose a suitable housemaid for us from a folder with photos of applicants from the poorer Asian or African countries. Many families who live in the Arabian Gulf region can afford to employ a housemaid; some even two and may be a driver and gardener as well. The idea being that our money is so much more worth in other Asian or African countries that makes is worthwhile for both, the employee and employer, to enter into an employment contract of only two years as minimum, giving unskilled and untrained workers the chance to earn good money abroad for their own, their family’s and country’s benefit.

Yet again we were looking for a cheap and willing, but often uneducated service staff from countries beyond the rich West and the petrol-dollar Arabian states, who hope to find a better paid job than in their own country. Unfortunately, one cannot avoid the unpleasant visits to a manpower agency to find right one out of the many miserable looking candidates, who are no emigrants turning their back on their country, but who are looking for a better living and future not only for themselves but also for their families back home. However, what is awaiting them here often does not live up to their expectations and equally frequently chatters their dreams.

Thus, we got out of the shabby lift in this scruffy multi storey building, where most of the agencies of the modern slave trade, as I would call it, were located. When we came around the corner towards our agency I saw a young Indonesian woman sitting near the reception wearing a light blue head scarf, waiting in silence. The especially friendly welcome from the agency owner is part of the locally common business conduct of the Arabian culture. 700 Euro could possibly be exchanged in the next few moments, a lucrative business.

As our previous housemaid had just completed her two-year contract and wanted to return to her homeland Indonesia, we were hoping for an immediate substitute, who was as good and pleasant as the girl we said good-bye to in tears a few hours ago. We were lucky. Another family had just returned an Indonesian housemaid a few days back, in order to exchange her for one, who spoke more Arabic or English, as the communication had become a serious obstacle. This poor woman had endured even physical „correction methods“, that are often used in order to „persuade“ the housemaids to do a better job, which, of course, apart from the human rights violation these people are committing, is of no avail anyway.

We decided to accept the language barrier for the advantage that we did not have to wait until a new housemaid from abroad would arrive. Thus, this young woman, called Kathy, came to us; a 23 year old Indonesian, who never had entered such a big and for her very luxurious house before. Kathy was not very educated as her schooling had been no more than primary level. Her own ambitions and talents were still uncovered, as until now, and as usual for girls from this part of the world, nobody would waste a thought to ask her what she wanted for herself. She told us, that her mother had died when she was very young and her father had remarried. We could feel that she had never received much mother care. Kathy had also married very early when she was only 18, which was absolutely normal for girls of the same age in her country, with the result that she had exchanged the exploitation in her father’s house with that in her husband’s or in-law’s house.

Kathy did not have any children and turned out to be like a working machine, very diligent and reliable. She liked to live and work with us right away and we were very content. The difference to her previous employer was very obvious; we treated her with respect and understanding and waited patiently until she had learned enough Arabic to comprehend us.

I was able to imagine what it must be like to work far away from one’s family and country. I had left my family’s well protected and caring home when I was 20 years old in order to work for some time as an au-pair girl in England, accompanied by insufficient language knowledge and a lot of home sickness. All the strange habits and cultural differences were quite a shock for me at the beginning, even though England is very close to Germany, where I originally come from. But luckily I was to stay with a lovely English family, who helped me settle down quickly through their warm welcome, understanding and kind heart.

However, my experience cannot be compared to that what these young women, who are often still girls, are faced with. I went abroad in order to become independent, to learn a language and to meet other people from different countries. My family was waiting for good news on my language learning progress. Unlike Kathy, she had to go abroad in order to earn for her family a somewhat better and worthwhile living. Her husband and father were always waiting for her salary. Moreover, on the one hand, these women are often used and abused when working as cheap labor without fair rights and sufficient protection. On the other hand, they are, not seldom, likewise exploited by their husbands and families back home.

According to Kathy, during the two years that she stayed with us, she received all together only two letters from her husband. Every time he asked for more money, but he never asked how she was. Many times she sat crying at our table telling us the latest lie from her husband, that he had told her when she occasionally called her husband at their neighbor’s house (the only one that had a phone), so that she would send money again. Once it was her nasty stepmother who allegedly had cheated her husband in order to get the money from the regular money transfer she would send him; another time it was his wish to by himself an auto cycle after he had treated his brother with one from Kathy’s last three months salaries!

Every time Kathy would give in, she would send all her money to her family back home in the hope that it would be different next time and that her husband would look for a job back home to support himself so that she could save up some money for a better future once she returned. But every time she sat with us at the table to cry and release her hurt and disappointment when, yet again, no word of appreciation or thanks had come from her husband. Although she was working so hart and far away from home, her money was spent only on the requirements and demands of her husband.

Unfortunately, Kathy was not the only one living such an exploited life. Our neighbor’s housemaid, Verna, was informed that her husband had married a second wife just three months before she was to return to Indonesia; of course, from the money she had sent home regularly to support him. Another housemaid in my family told us that her husband would spend all the money she sent home on drinking and other women, at the same time as she was longing so much for her little son while working as Cinderella of the 21st century.

Another Kathy, Verna and nameless others are coming and leaving until today, but their stories are similar. Our latest housemaid, Analiza, comes from the Philippines. She is 30 years old and mother of three children. Her first salary that she had sent home just before Christmas was meant to pay off some debts she had with her mother and to buy some new clothes for the children for their Christmas party at school. But as so often before, her husband took the money for himself. He did not pay off the full debt nor did he buy any clothes for the children for Christmas. Analiza’s guess was that he had spent the money on himself to pay off some of his own gambling debts and the rest on his favorite drinks in the bar; just as her own father had done, when she was 12 years old and her mother was working abroad to give her family a better life. Analiza did not have a better life through her mother’s salary, but she had to drop out of school and married early.

So yet again, as it sadly was to be expected, another housemaid sat with us at the table crying and telling us her sad story. A new but so often retold story about double exploitation, a circle of misery and destroyed hopes for a better life, despite the sacrifice these women make far away form their homes and families.

It is a vicious circle that stretches over two cultures. In their own country these women are not respected as girls and women because they are only worth as much as they are able to earn. In their working country abroad these women are also exploited as cheap labor often at the mercy of their agency and sponsor without fair working conditions and labor laws for their protection. As long as these women do not have or see for themselves the possibility to withdraw from the power of the men in their family, so long they will be unable to break this vicious circle.

They cannot expect help from the same men who live very well from the money that their wives or daughters send them and who are themselves too far away to decide for or defend themselves. The consciousness of these women and often desperate mothers must change first, so that they are able to abandon their senseless dependence in favor of self-determination and self-confidence in order to reach a break-through of their own lack of power over themselves.

After almost five month, Analiza could not bear the strain of separation from her children any longer, although she liked us and was grateful to have found a good employer. Nevertheless, she had to return to her children, despite her two-year contract, because her husband did not take care of their children as he had promised.

Well, so there is another agency visit due for us … another chapter in the endless story about unequal wealth and future hopes, modern slave trade and broken dreams.

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