When a researcher or a historian reviews our concerns and life habits he will firstly find an anxious society that is not busy with major issues but with marginal ones like domestic workers. I do not mean derogation of these marginal issues but there is derogation in our prioritization that reflects a luxurious society with no major stresses, or a society that has lost its compass.
Our history will be marked with pieces of news like a maid cooking its employer’s baby in a kettle, a laborer locking his “owner” in a barn in a desert for twenty years, contacts made among high-ranking officials attempting to resolve the case of Philippines and Indonesia forbidding their citizens from traveling to work as domestic workers and another that confirms that Sri Lanka did not prevent its citizens from working after a Sri Lankan maid accused of killing an infant was executed.
The story of the Sri Lankan maid was all over the news. She says he died of suffocation while his parents confirm she suffocated him. The labor minister has become the most famous of ministers and the most attractive to the press after he enforced a tax on hiring foreign laborers. Reactions varied toward the minister’s decision as he was hated by some, especially by the lobby of businessmen, and loved by others, particularly by young people.
Domestic workers have become an important part in the national economy. After years of inclination in the market of Saudi companies as a result of the collapse of the stock market, the only good idea which succeeded was companies of household laborers. The idea was supposed to eliminate problems of bribery and sponsorship. As families complain of weak incomes, statistics of the Saudi economy state that more than 100 billion riyals are being transacted by foreign laborers, mainly household ones.
When reading the society’s resume, the social researcher will find an overt relation between the Saudi woman’s failure in getting her right to drive a car and the easy system of bringing in drivers. The latter has enabled the Saudis to live with the ban on women’s driving by allowing about one million male men from across the world to work as drivers. The paterfamilias pays around 300 dollars a month for the driver.
Contrary to that, the researcher will find a social indulgence relation that broke old prohibitions due to the spread of foreign women working in houses, including those of conservative families. With the entry of the tremendous army of domestic workers, new traditions were brought in by these foreign women to Saudi households.
Therefore, it is not strange that the issue of domestic workers is a pivotal one that keeps government institutions busy. It is not strange for this issue to be among the most important of matters for citizens. As for how states can influence the society’s life, they can fill the market with vegetables, servants or cement bags. The state, with its apparatuses and decisions, has enormous potential that can push citizens in any direction it sees appropriate. It can push them toward nanotechnology enabling five million students to build a scientific society like South Korea and Finland. It can push girls toward sharing the same opportunities and future of children or it can let them sit in the rear seat of the car hoping they will accept a life outside farms and offices.
The official authority can expand construction in villages turning them into cities. The authority with its decision can be the reason of the city’s prosperity or problems.
Domestic workers are a primary issue that means that this society is not busy with the basics of developing resources and building an independent future. The state here cannot prevent people from filling their houses with imported domestic workers. Families will not stop using the help of a domestic worker whose wage is little because it is a comfortable solution. But tomorrow, when resources evaporate and lazy generations appear, the price will be expansive. Had the householder spent money, like he does on servants, on the education and rehabilitation of his children, he would have changed both the history and the future.
This article first appeared in Asharq al-Awsat on Feb. 12, 2013.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.