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‘I Do Not Feel Free’: The Women Trapped in Domestic Work in Egypt

They hear about the abuse and know they will be working illegally, but young women still travel to the Middle East to work as domestic workers. To help understand why, photojournalist Jihad Abaza documented the lives of three migrant women working for a family in Egypt.

Written by Jihad Abaza Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Domestic workers are excluded from Egypt’s labor law, which means they have no social, health or legal protection. Rose, who is from Indonesia, has been working in Egypt for four years and has not seen her family at all during that time.Jihad Abaza

CAIRO – Linda* has missed two of her sisters’ weddings. She has not seen her nephews grow up. When she speaks to her father on a video call, she notices that he is aging, and she hopes he doesn’t die before she can see him again. She has been away from him and the rest of her family for six years, ever since she left the Philippines to work as a nanny in Egypt.

The day she left, Linda, who comes from an underprivileged family in the Philippine province of Nueva Ecija, told her parents she was just going to the capital, Manila, in search of a job – she didn’t want them to worry or try to talk her out of her decision. She boarded a plane on a journey that took her to Hong Kong, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates and, finally, Egypt, where a family was waiting to hire her as one of their domestic workers.

Linda helps the family’s children with their studying. She and the other women who work in the house have a nuanced relationship with the kids whom they take orders from, but also have to raise. “If the kids do something wrong or disrespectful, I am held responsible,” Linda says. (Jihad Abaza)

Linda found out about the job from a friend of hers who had married an Egyptian man with a recruitment agency. She was told that domestic workers from the Philippines and Indonesia were more highly valued in Egypt than those from other countries. Members of the Facebook group Maids and Nannies in Egypt say Asian domestic workers usually get a monthly wage of around 5,000-6,000 Egyptian pounds ($650-$350), 2,000 Egyptian pounds more than domestic workers from Africa.

“I do not feel free,” Linda says. “I want privacy. … When I am with the family, I have to behave in a certain way. I can’t laugh too loud or speak too much.” (Jihad Abaza)

Recent cases of nannies and maids being mistreated, assaulted and even killed by their employers in the Middle East have shone a light on the often hidden and unregulated world of domestic workers. But the promise of a decent wage continues to draw young women from Asia and Africa to work in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. In many cases, the women are working illegally, which means they have little protection if they are abused by their employers.

From left: Rose, Linda and Maria cook dessert together for the family. Linda says one of the few things that makes the job more bearable is the company of the other women. She and Rose, especially, have gotten close over the years. (Jihad Abaza)

Driven by Poverty and Desperation

Linda came to Egypt on a tourist visa, which has since expired. On her flight into the country, she was accompanied by a cousin of her friend’s husband. When they arrived at Egyptian border control, they told the officer that she was the man’s fiancee. “This made me feel a bit better since that way, [border control] would have less suspicion about trafficking. A woman who came before me was detained in the airport for five days because police suspected she was coming here to work illegally,” Linda says.

A few months ago, Maria was working in Abu Dhabi, but left to join her sister in Egypt. They now work in the same household, but in different parts of the house. “I get to see [my sister] during lunch,” Maria says. “I am stronger because she is here with me, and she is stronger because I am here with her.” (Jihad Abaza)

Maysa Ayoub, the head of the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo, says, “Immigration to Egypt is restricted to protect the local labor market from foreign competition.”

Obtaining work permits for migrant domestic workers is “close to impossible,” Ayoub says. “Overpopulation and high level of unemployment have made Egypt adopt encouraging emigration policies and strict immigration policies in an attempt to ease pressure on the local labor market and alleviate poverty.” As a result, most people who come from abroad to work as nannies, cooks and cleaners do not have work visas or official residency paperwork.

Maria has spent so long working in the Middle East, she has barely met her grandchildren. At Christmas, her family asked her why she was not there with them. “I am doing this for you,” she told them. (Jihad Abaza)

Because so many domestic workers are in Egypt without legal documentation, there are no statistics on how many domestic workers there are in the country. But it is known that those who do come to work in Egypt can experience the same type of mistreatment that their colleagues in other Arab countries go through. Domestic workers are excluded from Egypt’s labor law, which means they have no social, health or legal protection.

In response to increased reports about the mistreatment of migrant domestic workers, several countries have tried to stop their citizens from taking domestic labor jobs in the Middle East. Indonesia in 2015 banned its citizens from working as maids in 21 countries (the list included Egypt). And the Philippines temporarily prohibited workers from going to Kuwait after the body of a Filipina worker was found in a freezer in an abandoned Kuwait City apartment. The Philippines government recently reached an agreement with Kuwait to regulate working conditions for domestic labor.

Rose has her meals sitting on a stool in the corner of the kitchen. Her mother passed away two years ago, but she was unable to attend the funeral due to work obligations. Now her father is ill and her employers have agreed to let her return home for good at the end of March. (Jihad Abaza)

But workers from abroad continue to move to the Middle East for jobs, driven by poverty and desperation.

Bird in a Cage

Linda and two other women – Maria, also from the Philippines, and Rose, from Indonesia – now work in a mansion in the suburbs of Cairo, for a wealthy Egyptian family. A typical working day usually starts as early as 5 a.m. and ends at midnight or later. The three women spend their time catering to the wants and needs of the family’s five children, who think their parents “bought” the maids. When the day is over, the women sleep on mattresses in the children’s or the grandparents’ rooms, in case they need anything in the middle of the night. There are no days off, and there is no going out unless it is to accompany the family somewhere.

Passport confiscation is also a common practice among employers, one that Linda, Maria and Rose have all been subjected to in their time as domestic workers.

Linda rests her head on the table as she and Rose take a short break in the kitchen. Linda says she wants to escape, just like Hana, a Filipina woman who was working for the same household and escaped while the family was on vacation. Rose teases her, saying that Linda would get stuck trying to climb the walls surrounding the mansion. (Jihad Abaza)

Linda says her employers are “OK” – they treat her better than their other domestic workers. Still, her job is physically and emotionally taxing, and she often feels she is “stuck.” But at the same time, she has grown to love the children she cares for.

“I feel lonely,” she says. The job leaves her with no opportunity to socialize, and being away from the Philippines for so long means she has drifted apart from many of her old friends.

“It’s like I am a bird and I am in a cage, you know?” she says. “The owners of the bird might be great. They might be taking care of it. But it’s still in a cage.”

*The names of some women have been changed to protect their identities.

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