Expatriate women workers frequently work in caring or ancillary jobs in homes and nurseries. Which makes them invisible. As long as their employers are decent and honourable, as many are, there's no problem.
But who will help the young woman whose passport is in the safe, whose employer arbitrarily deducts 'fines' before handing over wages and pays late or in installments which may or may not be up to date by the end of any given month?
Will her two or three equally miserable co-workers go and stand up to the boss with her?
Will they insist on back wages and threaten to withdraw their labour and go to the Ministry unless they are paid what they are owed?
Will they in fact pop down to the Ministry for a chat over a cup of chai and a doughnut, confident that the understanding official, who is of course as fluent in their language as they are in his (hers?) will come straight back with them and persuade their employer of the error of her ways?
Who can the invisible turn to?
We have seen the awful stories of garment workers locked in at work and at 'home', denied proper A.C., sanitation and healthcare, fined for illness and misdemeanors, or not paid for months on end. We know what some maids have suffered. This is certainly visible.
The trouble is that it usually takes the intervention of outsiders - neighbours alerted by a stinking dumpster outside an overcrowded villa or sounds of weeping from locked windows - to attract attention. How long might that take?
And then what? A flight home with no savings. How pitiful. How absolutely pitiful. But at least those women go home alive. How many maids don't?
And is that little housemaid confident that rape by an employer will not somehow turn into seduction of an employer, occasioning free accommodation for a fixed term, a delivery in handcuffs, bonus exfoliation afterwards and a free trip home?
The mechanisms are in place to protect workers'rights. But the vulnerable don't know their rights: that's part of their vulnerablity.
And it takes confidence to deal with officialdom, even when you're an educated professional with a proper contract which you signed without help. Housemaids are not noted for their kick-ass confidence.
Isolated expatriate women workers need to know that their consulate is there for them, proactive on their behalf. Consulates do follow up the abuses and deaths that make the headlines. But while rights are limited, and expatriate women work out of sight and out of mind, preventive work is needed: consultation with the powers that be, to encourage positive and appropriate policy and practice on workers' rights, and a minimum wage. Yesyesyesyesyes!
And a properly focused community outreach programme ensuring that individuals know their rights, who to turn to if these are abused, and - most importantly - that they will be listened to with compassion, and the primary assumption that their claims are valid.
As they say, prevention is better than cure. At least that's what I think.