It was just a quick high-paying gig to tide her over for a few weeks until she could fly back to the Philippines in late March and return to her 12-year-old son. It sounded like a good deal: $900 a month, double Turkey’s minimum wage, to care for and clean up after a rich family in the upscale Istanbul district of Zekeriyakoy.
But then the coronavirus pandemic struck and the 39-year-old domestic worker Lena’s life turned into a nightmare. The family that hired her made her a veritable prisoner in their home, afraid that if she went outside, she’d bring back the pandemic - even as they regularly leave.
She’s allowed only one meal a day, for fear any more contact with the outside world to procure provisions will increase the risks of contracting Covid-19.
Download the new Independent Premium app
Sharing the full story, not just the headlinesDownload now
Meanwhile, her visa to Turkey has expired and her flight home has been cancelled amid a general shutdown of civil aviation, leaving her stranded and trapped. As for the money she was promised, none of it has been paid; her employers claim it’s too dangerous to visit a bank to withdraw the funds.
“It is almost two months since we are inside the house and not even windows are allowed to be open,” she says in an interview conducted over WhatsApp. “If they order groceries online, they need to leave it outside for one week before we can bring it in. Then we need to wash it with bleach again. The green apples turn to black.”
Already living precarious lives, the coronavirus pandemic has further imperiled hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers throughout the world. Advocacy groups monitoring the Middle East caution that the numbers of abuse complaints by domestic workers have multiplied in number and severity since the pandemic took hold.
“Because we are part of the informal economy, we have no rights,” says Gulhan Benli, the head of an Istanbul association that seeks to protect domestic labourers. Usually, she said her association gets maybe one call reporting an abuse a day. Now it’s six or seven daily.
“Because of the crisis, families don’t let them outside to get fresh air, because they are afraid of coronavirus,” she says. “The workload gets larger. They have to cook more, clean more and have no time to rest. The families do whatever they want with the women.”
Advocacy groups describe domestic labourers becoming sick for lack of medicine, being forced out of their home because they cannot pay rent, or even considering putting their children up for adoption because they afford to keep them.
No hype, just the advice and analysis you need
In one of the most egregious abuses, someone in Lebanon earlier this month was attempting to “sell” a Nigerian domestic worker for $1,000 on a Facebook marketplace page, adding in the post a photograph of the women’s passport and residency papers. The Lebanese justice ministry intervened, and the woman was rescued.
“The crisis that has come about with Covid-19 has been exacerbating all the problems we’re documenting,” says Rothna Begum, a campaigner for migrant and domestic labourers at Human Rights Watch. “The lockdowns, quarantines and curfews essentially mean that domestic workers are trapped inside employers’ homes, forced to work longer hours disinfecting homes, and vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse.”
The wealthy monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula as well as some other Middle East countries operate under the abusive Kafala sponsorship system, making them vulnerable to exploitation because they cannot change jobs, leave the country or in some cases even retain hold of their passport without the permission of their employer.
With the lockdown in place all we can do is counsel endurance. They are quietly living in absolute despair