Transnational brokerage of domestic work and social inequalities, the case of Sri Lanka, from where, in the last forty years large numbers of women have been migrating as domestic workers to the oil-rich Arabian Gulf

Migrant domestic workers
in the Arabian Gulf

di Wasana Handapangoda

Sri Lanka is a developing island nation located in the Indian Ocean, a little southwest of the Bay of Bengal. Since the early 1980s, large numbers of women from Sri Lanka have been migrating as domestic workers to the oil-rich Arabian Gulf. Migrant domestic work presents a ‘promising fix’ for failures of Sri Lanka’s development efforts, whereas persistently high rates of poverty, unemployment and inequality push Sri Lankan women, especially those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, to seek paid domestic work abroad. At present, women constitute nearly 35% of Sri Lanka’s migrant workforce. A large majority of them (75%) are employed as live-in (board and lodging are provided inside the employer’s household) migrant domestic workers, and the Arabian Gulf accounts for more than 95% of all migrant domestic workers.

The vast majority of Sri Lankan women seek the service of migration brokers when finding paid domestic work in the Arabian Gulf. Brokers thus play a major role in Sri Lankan women’s aspirations for outward and upward mobility. In this context, this paper provides a fairly detailed introduction to the brokerage of live-in migrant domestic workers in the Sri Lanka‒Arabian Gulf care market and the (re)production of social inequalities via this process. It is based on my intermittent fieldwork in Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait over the period 2019-2022.

The mobilisation of migrant domestic workers takes the form of a transnational operation in and between Sri Lanka and countries of destination in the Arabian Gulf, engaging both public and private as well as formal and informal actors. However, most of the business is performed by state-accredited migration brokers in Sri Lanka who work in collaboration with similar, state-accredited migration brokers in destination countries. In a regulated brokerage market, they organise and facilitate the mobilisation of migrant domestic workers across borders in many different ways. These include, but are not limited to: scouting for aspiring migrant domestic workers, most of whom live in remote parts of the island; finding paid domestic work by contacting and negotiating with employers; organisation and facilitation of recruitment, selection and placement; and follow-up.

Migration brokers look for certain standards, for example, gender, age, salary, experience, training, language skills (Arabic), religion (Muslim/non-Muslim), civil status, and physical appearance/skin colour when selecting candidates for recruitment. These standards are set by both the state and employers, and are negotiable. Brokers personally negotiate selection criteria and migrant domestic workers’ working/living conditions with employers. Some of my field interviews shed light on this, how brokers mediate and regulate migrant domestic workers ‘desirability’ in their encounters with potential employers and thereby (re)produce certain dynamics of power in the brokerage market: 

“I personally negotiate with sponsors about the salary and make them agree for an extra payment. That’s how my foreign agent [migration broker in the country of destination] and I take care of our women…. However, the ‘girls’ must work as they agreed” (Migration broker, female).

“Employers have their own specifications, like age, below 45 years, skin colour, fair or light-skinned because some employers don’t like dark women. We select workers according to these specifications. …. If we don’t meet employers’ preferences, it’s a problem. It’s our duty to give the right person for the right job” (Migration broker, male).

Next, migration brokers organise and facilitate recruitment by creating, acquiring, using and retaining documents. This includes drawing up two-year work contract based equal contract partnership, which is, nonetheless, questionable. The following quote from a migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia indicates this: when questioned whether she understood the employment contract and what language it was in, she replied: “That I did not know. They [the brokering agency] asked me to sign it and later explained it to me; told me that I should be with that family for two years and my monthly salary was 1,000 riyals”. However, in Saudi Arabia the monthly base salary for a Sri Lankan live-in migrant domestic workers is 1,250 riyals (equivalent to $250). Price control through the minimum salary indicates the state’s interest in regulating the brokerage market; but nonetheless, brokers act at their discretion.

Brokers also intermediate in acquiring documents, such as passports, medical and training certificates, life insurance and visas. They pay migrant domestic workers’ airfares and may even offer to drive them to the airport if necessary. Interestingly, during the mobilisation process, migrant domestic workers receive a personal commission from brokers, a form of ‘thank you money’ that apparently ties workers to their brokers. This commission, proscribed by the state, also acts as a ‘sweetener’, enticing women to migrate: a decision imbued with feelings of family separation and loneliness, hard work, control and subjugation. Lastly, on arrival in the destination country, migrant domestic workers are received and entrusted to employers by the brokers. During the term of a contract, the broker is responsible for the necessary migrant domestic workers follow-up, such as intervention in the event of ill-treatment by employers.

This mobilisation of paid domestic labour to the Arabian Gulf does not come cheap. This is particularly so in the case of Sri Lanka, as emphasised by a Saudi employer:

“There is a good demand for Sri Lankan housemaids in Saudi. …. But the agency fee is very high…. We have to pay 20,000-25,000 riyals [equivalent to 5,400‒$6,750] for one housemaid. In other countries the agency fee is not that high”.

Hiring a Sri Lankan migrant domestic workers costs an employer a brokerage fee of $5,400‒$6,750 and $3,000‒$3,500 in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, respectively. The fee is split between partner brokers in Sri Lanka and the destination country; recruitment costs are recovered from it. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the Sri Lankan migration broker’s commission is around $3,500, while the state approved ceiling remains at $1,560. This system of private sponsorship by employers, called kafala, characterises what is perhaps the foremost rule governing the mobilisation of Sri Lankan women as migrant domestic workers in the Arabian Gulf. It gives employers exclusive rights to migrant domestic workers’ entry, residence, work and exit from the country of destination. Kafala enables a form of bonded labour or sale, giving employer ownership and control over not only migrant domestic workers labour but her entire personhood.

Reproducing Social Inequalities: The ‘Power’ of Brokerage

Migration brokers connect otherwise unconnected Sri Lankan migrant domestic workers and Arab employers across geographical and social space. In striving to supply a desirable product, they strategically combine market elements, such as demand, supply and prices, with non-economic factors like laws, norms and customs. They often do so operating outside the regulatory umbrella of the state, colluding with various actors including migrant domestic workers themselves. They actively construct and shape knowledge between employers, migrant domestic workers, the state and various other actors. In doing so, brokers decide and determine the desirability of migrant domestic workers in terms of bodily form (e.g., healthy, not too old or too young) and bodily expressions (e.g., obedient, hardworking), while creating certain dynamics of power in terms of gender, class, race, age, and language, etc., in a brokerage market that ‘personally’ matches workers to employers.

In sum, migration brokers have the latitude to shape the spectrum of lived realities experienced by Sri Lankan migrant domestic workers during cycles of migration. They are indeed the essential link between Sri Lanka women’s hope of migration and overcoming barriers to migration. Nevertheless, they fashion different patterns, systems, interfaces and scales of (in)equality in the process.   



Based on the project ‘Ideal’ Migrant Subjects: Domestic Service in Globalization, funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), Project M 2724-G, Lise-Meitner-Grant, duration 11/2019-4/2023. Applicant/head: Dr. Wasana Handapangoda and co-applicant/mentor: Prof. Brigitte Aulenbacher, Johannes Kepler University Linz, Institute of Sociology, Department for the Theory of Society and Social Analyses.



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