Of Maids and Madams

Sri Lankan Domestic Workers and Their Employers in Jordan

Author: Elizabeth Frantz


More than 100,000 Sri Lankan women leave their homes each year to seek employment as domestic workers in the Arab world. The oil-rich Gulf States remain the biggest recruiters, but demand has been rising sharply in Jordan, where few studies of the phenomenon have been undertaken. This article analyzes the social, economic, and political factors influencing the market for foreign domestic workers in Jordan and describes how demand there has been fueled by changes in class formation and kinship. It focuses on the largest group of domestic workers in Jordan — Sri Lankans — and draws on extensive fieldwork in Sri Lanka as well as Jordan. The article explores the dynamic relationships between domestic workers and the families who employ them, arguing that an essential strategy used by both groups involves the construction of relations of dependency. The article also chronicles Sri Lankan migrants’ experiences, suggesting that there are meaningful cohorts, which are differentiated by age, length of stay, and place of residence, that have distinct experiences, attitudes to the host country, and homeward orientations. The use of Christian worship and conversion as coping strategies are also described. The author argues that several factors relating to the ways paid domestic work are managed by the state, recruiting agencies, and employers have hindered collective action for workers’ rights. In the absence of other forms of activism, faith-based networks fill the void, providing essential support to migrants in need.

Regions: South Asia
Countries: Sri Lanka
Topics: Labor | Migration | Women

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December 2008
© 2002 ILO/Deloche P.