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Mobile women without mobile phones: Indian domestic workers in the Gulf

DIVYA BALAN  |  23 JUNE 2021  |  ISSUE #15

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Courtesy of the author.

Sheela (pseudonym) is a 38-year-old woman from Kerala, India who supports her family. She did not complete her bachelor’s degree due to financial constraints. Four years ago, like many others in her situation, she went to Saudi Arabia as a domestic worker to a large family of nine. Now back in Kerala, she recollected those two years in Saudi and the hardships she faced there. 


A family friend, who was working in the Gulf, arranged her visa. Sheela’s husband died in a road accident and she has two children in school to support, over and above the loans taken for the house construction and other debts. She recalled the relief on the faces of her elderly parents when the visa came, thinking that their life would be better once she started sending ‘Gulf money’ home. However, Sheela was worried about going to an unknown land all by herself. The visuals from the Malayalam film, Gaddama, kept playing in her head. She did not share her thoughts with anyone as the prospect of migrating to the Gulf and earning money was tempting. Moreover, this was a one-time opportunity for her to save the family and guarantee a better life for the children.


Throughout her time in Saudi, she felt misplaced and mistreated. She told me, 


‘I did not know that I should have gotten a sim card from the airport as nobody told me to do so. That was a mistake. Because I was so anxious, I was only thinking about getting to my workplace. I was more worried about what awaited me there. So, I had to ask my employer several times to get me a phone connection. When that was finally done, they let me use my mobile only once a week to talk briefly to my family in Kerala. I did not know where to get the recharge cards as I was also not allowed to go out, even for personal shopping.’


She worked around the house as instructed, often without a break and no proper meals. Interactions with co-workers were minimal as it is not taken well by the employer. She was forced to work even when sick, and her workload doubled when her employer hosted guests. She faced social deprivations, discriminations and prejudices based on her gender, language barrier, religion, class, and even region of origin.


‘Luckily, I did not face any sexual abuse, but my employer used to beat me badly even when I worked properly. At one time, I thought I might die of thrashing, but I did not say anything to my parents as it will gravely worry them. They still do not know all that I have suffered. Eventually, all the physical torture and workload affected my mental health to the point that I could not sleep at night. I often felt like I was falling into a deep black hole, but I did not know who to reach out to and how. It got to the point that I decided to return to the dismay of my family.’


My interview with Sheela is a glimpse into the lives of many Indian women domestic workers in the Gulf countries. India is one of the major origin countries of domestic workers to the Gulf, especially from the South Indian states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, in addition to the Northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. As Sheela’s case shows, migration to the Gulf is a livelihood strategy for either illiterate or less-educated women from India.


The widespread irregular practices of migrating on a tourist or family-visit visa and the dependence on fraudulent recruitment agents exclude them from the official databases and make them susceptible to exploitation and abuse by recruiters, sponsors and/or employers. The loopholes in the Emigration Check Required (ECR) passport clearance system in India also preclude them from pre-departure training and welfare policy mechanisms. Tied to the much-criticised kafala system, these migrant women workers are also excluded from the national labour and social protection regulations across the Gulf states.


The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the already precarious working and living conditions of live-in domestic workers in the isolated ‘private spaces’ of sponsors’ houses, often deprived of using mobile phones or other digital communication technologies. Government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions curtailed their already limited mobility and occasional weekends, and restrained their access to services such as health, police, legal, and social support when in distress. The word ‘stranded’ that is frequently used in the context of lockdown takes on a new and literal meaning when looking at the plight of these women domestic workers. Inaccessibility of necessary information and redressal mechanisms are problems that domestic workers face in the Gulf countries at all times, but especially during COVID-19. This is where the mobile phone and digital know-how come in handy to reach out to their family, friends, formal and informal community networks or embassies for help.


Empowering them digitally will equip them with greater control over the pre-decision and pre-departure phases of migration. If trained, they can verify the credibility of the recruiter and the specificities of the visa and associated labour rights on various government portals before undertaking the journey. The information available on the websites of the Indian government and the state-level agencies like the NORKA ROOTS and its mobile application can, to an extent, help avoid the cheat pits and exploitation. In addition, digital skilling should be made mandatory as part of the pre-departure training, including coaching on how to install and use mobile and internet-based applications, like the eMigrate or MigCall apps, when in distress. Awareness about relevant labour rules, workers’ rights and available complaint and redressal mechanisms needs to be disseminated through print and e-brochures in their mother tongue, with a dos-and-don’ts checklist, including getting a sim card and not depositing the passport and phones with the employer on insistence. They also need to include hotline numbers of embassies and consulates as well as of other stakeholders. Joining the social media groups of community organisations is also a practical strategy, as sometimes, sending an SOS message can lead to someone lending a helping hand. Most importantly, Indian embassies in the Gulf must reach out to this vulnerable migrant group online and offline.


Before leaving her half-finished home, I asked Sheela about her plans. With a deep sigh, she said,


‘I might go again as we have to finish the construction of this house, and my elder child will go to college next year. But this time, I will try Dubai, and I will be more cautious.’

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Divya Balan

Dr Divya Balan is Assistant Professor of Migration and Diaspora Studies at FLAME University, Pune, India. She teaches courses on International and Internal Migration, Migration Governance, Indian Diaspora, and Refugees Studies in FLAME. Dr Divya has also served as a visiting fellow of the Institute for European Global Studies at the University of Basel, Switzerland. She is an active writer and public speaker on themes related to migration and diaspora.



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This article is part of the issue ‘Empowering global diasporas in the digital era’, a collaboration between Routed Magazine and iDiaspora. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) or Routed Magazine.

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