“I was lucky”: the hidden past of a London housekeeper – The Economist 1843
Aisha showed up on my doorstep in April 2010. My housekeeper Hana, an Indonesian woman who had worked for me for three years, was leaving to get married, and she recommended her friend as a replacement. From the start, Aisha worked with impressive efficiency. Her ironing was impeccable. Bathrooms sparkled and furniture shone. She oiled squeaky hinges, replaced blown light bulbs and revived wilted plants. And she showed a curiosity about the inner workings of contraptions. She read instruction manuals; she opened up the hoover to diagnose a fault with the suction; she took down the Roman blind to understand why it was listing to one side. Aisha carried out all of this with a reserve that discouraged questions.
Eventually, she shared a few details of her life. She was in her 30s and had an ex-husband, two younger brothers and a son who lived with her parents. She came from a small village in West Java, where people either tilled rice fields or went abroad to find work. I knew from Hana that Aisha had escaped from her previous employers, a Saudi couple, while they were on holiday in London. Unlike many other domestic workers she knew, she hadn’t been held prisoner, kept working all hours or cheated of her wages. She simply felt that she would have a better life in Britain.
In the eight years that she has worked for me, Aisha’s circumstances have been transformed. She arrived virtually penniless, but managed within seven years to save enough to buy two rice fields and construct a house in her village – she oversaw the building over Skype. She signed up for accountancy courses and passed all her exams, including the rigorous Life in the UK test, required by the Home Office for obtaining indefinite leave to remain in Britain. She became a political activist and lobbied for the rights of domestic workers in the House of Lords and the European Parliament. Aisha’s career has been propelled by some of the world’s most powerful social forces – migration, globalisation, the emancipation and empowerment of women.
Though Aisha and I are both migrants, as much divides as unites us. We are both Muslim and come from poor Asian countries – she from Indonesia, I from Pakistan. But I am privileged and educated; she is not. We are also mothers, yet as with so much else, class and wealth has made our experience of motherhood quite distinct.
Aisha had been working for me for eight months when I gave her a month off to return to Indonesia and see her family. She went shopping and came home laden with bulging bags. That afternoon, when I went into my eight-year-old son’s room, I found him in his pyjamas standing with his arms aloft. Aisha knelt on the carpet before him. By her knee lay a pile of T-shirts and trousers. She was measuring each one in turn against him and flushed when she saw me.
“Sorry Madam, I was just trying these clothes on him. My son is same age as yours. But I not see him for four years. So I don’t know how big he grow.”
Two years ago I went with Aisha to Babakan, the village in West Java she came from. My presence created a stir. Though many women from the village had gone abroad to work as domestic workers, none had ever brought an employer home. A posse of excited children escorted us down the dusty main street, pointing at me and shouting, “Look, look! Madam is here! Madam is here!” On either side of the street, houses jostled together like crowded teeth. Many were solidly built, concrete structures, painted in bright colours – apple green, turquoise and purple – and adorned with wood carvings and satellite dishes. Caged birds sang on their neat verandas. Others looked poor and shabby, with broken windows, peeling paint and cracked façades. Almost a quarter were constructed in the old style out of bamboo.
Alleys between the houses were littered with cigarette butts, fruit peel, plastic bags, discarded flip-flops and rusting tricycles. The stream in which Aisha learnt to swim as a child had become a sewer clogged with household waste.
The smarter homes had been financed by the wages of workers who had gone abroad. “From every house,” she said spreading her arms to indicate both sides of the road, “someone go out” – “going out” is shorthand in her village for moving abroad to find work. When I asked her to identify which houses specifically, she sighed with impatience. “I’m telling you. From every house they go.” She worked her way down the street, ticking off the countries: Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia. “Every house,” she said.
In the 1970s, Babakan was an isolated hamlet. Though the distance from Jakarta was only 130km, the journey by road took six hours. Most villagers were rice farmers, living in houses made of palm and bamboo. They washed in the river and lit their homes with lanterns. The younger generation studied at the village school but no one went to university. Few had even visited the capital.
In the mid-1980s Suharto’s government signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern governments to export manual labour. A trickle of volunteers soon turned into a flood of manpower pouring out from western Java: men sought work abroad as drivers, cleaners and labourers; women as nannies, cooks and cleaners. By 2016, nearly 5m people legally worked abroad, according to Indonesia’s National Agency for the Placement and Protection of Migrant Workers – some 4% of the labour force. The demand for live-in domestic help propelled the first waves of migration, so women were overwhelmingly preferred to men. Entire villages in West Java were depleted of women between the ages of 20 and 45. In 2009 around 80% of the documented migrant workers were women, though the numbers have begun to equalise as the government has introduced quotas on the number of women going to work in Malaysia and the Middle East.
Salaried domestic work is one of the fastest growing occupations in the service industry globally. According to the International Labour Organisation, the number of domestic workers more than doubled between 1995 and 2015 to 67m. Of these, 11.5m are migrants. The actual figures are probably far higher since the sector is largely informal and invisible.
There are many reasons for the increased demand for hired helpers: rising female employment, the expansion of the middle classes in the developing world and ageing populations in the developed one. Many successful women I know in Britain wouldn’t have been able to forge their careeers without them. Domestic work currently accounts for one in every 13 women employed worldwide. In the last 30 years, millions of Filipino, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi and Indonesian women like Aisha have left remote villages and travelled to distant places in search of livelihoods. Though they are largely invisible, their stories are extraordinary. They have crossed continents to live among complete strangers with alien customs and unfamiliar tongues. Often they lack any legal protections and rely only on their resilience, courage and ingenuity to survive.
In many senses, those who go out are winners. The remittances they send halfway across the world pay school and college fees, finance farms, fund small businesses, pay for homes, weddings and funerals and boost the foreign-exchange reserves of their own countries. But their achievements come at great personal cost. Married women leave behind their own young children in order to look after those of their employers. They neglect their marriages to tend to the comfort of strangers. Their husbands may philander, their children may grow wayward. Aged parents die in their absence. Sometimes, they suffer deep privations, humiliation and even mortal danger to provide for their families. Unsung and unnoticed, each of their lives tells the story of the economic possibilities and emotional dislocation of our global age.
Aisha’s father, Razaak, was a rich man by the standards of the village. Razaak inherited six rice fields and a house from his frugal, hard-working father. He had a television when less than one in five homes in the village had electricity. His wife, Fatima, wore gold bangles. For a brief period, the family even owned a car (one of three in Babakan). But Aisha’s father squandered his inheritance on one hare-brained scheme after another. There was a succession of short-lived shops, a café and a cycle-taxi business. A failed restaurant in Jakarta wiped out the last of his inheritance, reducing the family to penury. Given a choice between working as a field hand in Babakan or “going out”, Aisha’s mother chose the latter option.
She was one of the first women who left Babakan to “go out” to Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s. When they came back, they caused a sensation. Dressed in shiny polyester and high heels, they appeared unimaginably worldly and glamorous. Having been confined indoors, many had grown attractively plump and pallid. They spent their earnings on motorcycles and television sets. They knocked down their old bamboo huts and built bungalows of concrete and terrazzo. Their conspicuous consumption prompted their fellow villagers to head abroad in a mad rush. Rice fields were flogged to finance the expense.
Aisha was 13 when her mother left her. Her absence was keenly felt. Aisha’s younger brother grew defiant and unruly. “My father would tie my little brother – he was four, maybe five – to a tree and beat him. My brother, he did not speak to my mother for many years.” Aisha dealt with the abandonment more phlegmatically. “I am older. I understand why she have to go. So many people from my village go. Also, my auntie and my grandmother, they look after me. But your mother is your mother. How you not miss her?”
Her response was to knuckle down to her studies, becoming a straight-A student. Aisha dreamed of studying further and pursuing her interest in science and maths. But her father had other plans: she was “going out” as soon as possible. She smiles wistfully as she remembers her time at school. “I love maths and chemistry and physics. I was the school chess champion. But what could I do? This is the life. We needed the money. My father was in big, big debt.” He even refused to come to the prize-giving ceremony on her last day when she scooped all the awards. That was not what life was about, he said. You had to dutifully obey your parents.
Within three months of finishing school, Aisha entered a vocational centre in Jakarta run by a labour-recruitment company that specialised in training maids for Middle Eastern clients. Trainees were tested for hepatitis, AIDS, tuberculosis and pregnancy as they waited for their “job orders” and work visas to arrive. At 18, Aisha was one of the youngest trainees. Most others were in their 20s and 30s. They stayed in a boarding house that had once been a large, airy double-storied home. Now it accommodated some 200 girls who slept 20 to a room on thin straw pallets. “You had to wake up very early and go quickly to the toilet,” Aisha recalls. “Girls would fight over the bathrooms.” It was rumoured that a woman was once killed when another smashed a metal bucket over her head in fury.
Each morning, there were practical lessons: how to make beds, polish furniture and clean bathrooms. Trainees were introduced to appliances such as hoovers, ovens, refrigerators and washing machines. They were taught how to iron shirts and hand wash silk. There were basic cooking classes and some simple repairs – replacing buttons, sewing rips, hemming. A nurse from the local hospital came to demonstrate the right way to bathe a newborn baby and change nappies. She explained how to take a baby’s temperature and prevent it from choking. Trainees were also shown how to feed invalids. The afternoons were devoted to basic Arabic classes. There was no conversational practice; instead they memorised lists of vocabulary. “It was all about house and family,” laughs Aisha. “Words like ‘meat’, ‘table’, ‘floor’ and ‘soap’. Some verbs like ‘cooking’, ‘washing’, ‘scrubbing’.”
Trainers warned their students that their lives would be difficult and lonely. There would be no holidays, no leisure, no entertainment, no friends. They would only be able to communicate with their family by letter and were warned to stay on guard against their employers’ duplicity. In some cases Indonesian women had worked for two years on the understanding that they would be paid on departure with a lump sum. But when they asked for their wages on their last day, they were threatened with accusations of witchcraft or adultery. Others had received thick brown envelopes and told to open them when they reached home, only to find them full of blank paper cut to the size of Saudi currency.
Some older women in the centre already had four or six years’ service experience in the Middle East. “They call themselves exes,” says Aisha. “Like ex-Dubai, ex-Saudi, ex-Jordan. When they speak to each other they say, ‘What ex are you?’” Occasionally they would give the younger women advice. “I remember once an ex-Saudi telling me, ‘Don’t ever look your Saudi male employer in his face. It is haraam [forbidden]. If you look at his face he will think you are wanting sex. Also don’t smile at him. Never, never laugh. He will think you are naughty woman if you laugh or smile. And be careful of your female employer. She will get jealous if you speak with her husband. Speak very little to the man. Also don’t stay in room alone with him. If he comes into kitchen when you are working there, leave quietly’.”
Older, married women at the training centre would be visited by their children at weekends. The mothers wept and their toddlers clung to their skirts, howling when they had to go. Older children, more accustomed to the separation, left quietly, their shoulders hunched and eyes moist. “What can we do?” sighed Aisha, when I asked about the atmosphere in the centre after weekend visits. “This is the life. This is the life.” During her three months there, her father visited her only once.
Aisha left for Saudi as soon as she turned 18 and spent over a decade there, in a succession of two-year contracts, working for different families. She endured crushing loneliness, constant surveillance, virtual imprisonment, seven-day weeks and 16-hour workdays. She was not allowed to have a mobile phone or to venture out of the house alone or even to talk to anyone without her employers’ permission. During one two-year contract in Riyadh, she was taken out of the house only twice – both times to visit a mosque. Yet she does not believe that she suffered. “I was lucky,” she says. “I got paid. Many people got nothing after two years. A migrant worker has no rights in Saudi.” No one hit her, she says. Other women were raped. Some were killed.
In her late 20s, Aisha returned to Babakan, resolving to stay for good and start a family. She married and gave birth to a son, Ahmad. Yet she had little to show for her time spent in Saudi: her father had spent all her remittances. Her husband turned out to be equally feckless. He “was a good man, but useless, really useless at earning”.
Aisha was not the first woman from Babakan who saw her dream of stability and satisfaction dissolve on her return. Some who left came back broken and empty-handed. Others found that the money they sent back had been squandered on gambling or extravagant purchases. Even when remittances were used judiciously to pay for education and homes, there was little left over to invest in productive and sustainable businesses. “Everyone tried,” sighs Aisha, “but not everyone was lucky.”
Saddled with a husband who could not hold down a job, Aisha worried about feeding her family. When Ahmad was just five months old, she was compelled by necessity to go out again. Leaving Ahmad broke her heart. He’d just begun to sit up and smile gummily. She entrusted him to her mother’s care and returned to Saudi Arabia to rejoin her old employer, who now had a three-month-old boy named Omar. Aisha became deeply attached to him. “I have a big hole in my heart from leaving behind Ahmad,” she says smiling. “Omar filled that hole.” When her employer watched them play together, she would laugh and say, “This one, he is yours, Aisha.” Her face softens as she tells me about Omar, whom she cared for until he was six. “He have big eyes and brown, curly hair,” she says. “His parents make him sleep alone in his room at night but he get scared and late at night, when everyone asleep, he come quietly into my room and get into my bed. ‘Please don’t tell my father,’ he beg me. His parents get angry with me. They say I am spoiling him. ‘He is baby,’ I say. ‘He gets scared. I can’t turn him away.’’’
It would be three years before she saw her own son again. She visited home, loaded with gifts for him, but he did not recognise her. She had missed his first steps and his first words. Whenever Aisha tried to cuddle him, he’d squirm away and hide in his grandmother Fatima’s lap. Ahmad called Fatima “Ema”, Javanese for mother. At night, when he had fallen asleep, Aisha would carry him to her bed. When she woke in the morning he was long gone.
In 2008, Aisha’s employers took her on holiday with them to London. They were staying in Kensington and every day she would take Omar and his two older brothers to Holland Park to play. One day towards the end of her visit, as she watched the boys playing on the swings, a Filipino woman, there also looking after children, approached Aisha and began to ask questions. Was she a nanny? Was she Indonesian? Were her charges Saudis? How long had she worked for the family? How much was she being paid? When Aisha revealed her salary, the Filipino woman laughed. “I thought so,” she said. “I was like you. Brought here by a Saudi family who gave me next to nothing. But I ran away from them and now I work here and earn six times that much.” Aisha’s eyes widened. She’d never heard of a salary that high. The Filipino urged Aisha to escape. She gave her £20, since Aisha had no cash, and the number of an organisation that she said helped women like her.
Aisha worried the police would pursue her and haul her off to a detention centre, like they did with runaways in Saudi. The Filipino woman laughed: the police had better things to do in London. A couple of days later, Aisha met an Indonesian woman in the park. She not only corroborated everything the Filipino woman had said but also gave Aisha her address and offered to put her up until she found a job.
On the morning of the family’s last day in London, while the boys were watching TV and her mistress was upstairs taking a shower, Aisha slipped out of the house on the pretext of putting the rubbish out. She stuffed her clothes in a black bin bag. In her pocket was her passport, pilfered five minutes earlier from her employer’s handbag, the £20 note and a scrap of paper with the Indonesian woman’s address.
She bitterly regrets that she never got to say goodbye to Omar. Skewered by guilt, she called the family several times after her escape. They were good people and they had trusted her. She wanted to apologise for abandoning them and to hear Omar’s voice. But his mother rebuffed her every time. “She say Omar not at home. I understand. She angry with me for running away.” Almost ten years later, she still thinks of Omar. One of her most treasured possessions is a photo of them together. She keeps it in the same little album alongside a photograph of Ahmad as a baby.
Aisha is Babakan’s biggest success story. She is the only woman in the village with a job in Britain and her earnings far outstrip those of even the most prosperous men in Babakan. She is accorded the respect usually reserved for males. Her house, with its marble floors, air conditioning and flushable toilets, is the envy of the village. When villagers pass by they remark admiringly: “She is like a son to her mother.” She financed one brother’s tofu factory and the other’s lavish wedding and work visa to Saudi Arabia. Her son goes to a private school and she is financially responsible for her eight-year-old niece too. When her father fell gravely ill, she paid for his treatment in the district’s best hospital. After he passed away in 2010, she bore the cost of his funeral, a big feast to which the whole village was invited. She has bought her mother gold jewellery, her brother a powerful motorbike and showers her son with iPads and the latest phones.
Aisha’s material wealth has made relationships with her relatives and neighbours complex and sometimes fraught. She divorced her husband eight years ago. He died two years later. Few marriages survive the strain of prolonged separation. The problem is particularly acute in traditional patriarchal societies such as rural Java where a stay-at-home husband whose wife is the main earner suffers loss of prestige. Many take mistresses to bolster their egos and callously waste their wives’ remittances. Almost all of Aisha’s Indonesian friends in London have divorced at least once. Aisha, her brother, ten cousins and one uncle, all of whom “went out”, are divorced. Babakan is full of children living with their grandparents, while their parents are busy raising younger children with new partners.
Even when couples stay together, major decisions are still taken by the men. They handle money and decide how their wives’ earnings are to be spent. Unmarried women unhesitatingly hand over their entire salary to their fathers. Wives who have spent 20 years in the Middle East out-earning their husbands will, on their return home, immediately defer to them.
Aisha is different. She has established herself as the undisputed head of the household. She puts bread on the table and takes important decisions in the family. Her middle brother’s tofu factory stands on her land. But had her father been alive, or her husband more competent, she probably would have faced more resistance to exercising power. Though her wealth brings her honour, it also makes her an easy target. She is, as they say in Java, “the cow that everyone milks”. Her uncles seek her advice only because she bankrolls them. She is motivated partly by love but also by the deep sense of filial duty ingrained in her as a little girl, and she cannot refuse the frequent requests from her family for loans. Her brother, whose tofu business is flourishing, feels no such obligation.
Aisha’s relationship with her son has improved, if only marginally. When I visited Babakan, Ahmad was a lanky 13-year-old, self-contained and shy. There was palpable warmth between Fatima and Ahmad but he was distant with Aisha. On holiday from school, he spent his days lolling on a mattress playing with his iPad. She was exasperated with his indolence – it reminded her of her husband – but tried not to chide him. She did not want to spend the one month a year they had together carping, further straining their fragile bond. But she was worried; his school reports were poor and he had started playing truant. He was careless with the expensive gifts she’d brought him, losing his phone, crashing his bicycle and regularly misplacing his clothes and books at school. When rebuked, he grew sullen. “He’s slipping out of our hands,” Aisha sighed. “He asks my mother for money all the time and she gives it. She says with his father dead and his mother out, she can’t be too strict with him.” But Aisha did not want to raise a pampered, entitled son. She wanted him to be conscientious and responsible. When she asked him to account for the money he regularly cadged off his grandmother, he mumbled that it was for school expenses.
“What school expenses?” Aisha snapped. “I pay all your school expenses.”
He rolled over on the mattress, turning his back to her.
Aisha wants Ahmad to apply himself to his studies and become fluent in English so that she can bring him to London where she feels he will have better opportunities. That said, Babakan is very different from the place Aisha once left for the first time and Ahmad has more opportunities there than his mother ever did. A new highway was finished two years ago, halving the time it takes to drive to Jakarta. Supermarkets, bank branches and factories have opened up near Babakan, affording the possibility of decent jobs to qualified young people. But the competition is fierce and most jobs go to people whose families can pay the highest bribes. Ahmad, meanwhile, has no interest in books, is not ambitious, and unlike the rest of his village, does not hanker to move abroad. He doesn’t want to learn English and won’t leave his grandmother.
It is not just children who become strangers to their mothers. Deprived of regular contact, even maternal love can wither. Mariati, Aisha’s friend in London, has two teenage children in the lively, bustling town of Bandung, whom she left in her mother’s care eight years ago when she went out. Last year between jobs, she took off three months to spend time with them. When she returned she told me the days had dragged. “I was bored, so, so bored.”
Fatima has told Aisha to stop work when she tires of it, and come home. But home becomes difficult to place after so many years of absence. Aisha still identifies primarily as Javanese and is evidently close to her family. She calls Babakan three times a day to chat to her mother and hear Ahmad’s truculent grunts. But she is no longer a village girl. Having lived in London for over a decade, she has grown accustomed to independence and a cosmopolitan lifestyle that Babakan cannot provide. “I feel more brave here than in my own country,” she says. “If I have to go alone to Jakarta I feel frightened. But here I can go anywhere – Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds, to France even. I’m not scared. Here I believe I can do things. But there? No.”
For all her drive and gumption, Aisha is still emotionally adrift. She yearns to settle down with someone. Many of her Indonesian friends in London face a similar dilemma. If they acquire a partner who is not Indonesian, they know that their ties with their families and the motherland will loosen. And though few think that far ahead, they do not want to die on foreign soil. Mariati knew an Indonesian woman who worked for many years for the same family in London until she grew sick and died. Her employers buried her in a Muslim cemetery but, says Mariati with a shiver, “no one ever visits her there or reads the Koran at her grave. She lies alone, forgotten.” Some of Aisha’s London friends have married men who are not from Indonesia and had children with them. They have made their choice: they will not be going back. Aisha is still hoping for a solution that will allow her to have a foot in both worlds. When I ask her how that will happen, she is uncharacteristically fatalistic.
“It is in Allah’s hands,” she says. “Some things we must leave to Him.”