Saturday, May 21, 2011

It's Not Really About the Money

In The National today, there is a story about a UAE Naval Officer in court in the US over a civil and criminal matter. The charge is that he held an unpaid Filipina worker in the United States.

At some point the maid escaped, reached the authorities, and brought a civil suit against her former employer. At the same time, US authorities have levied a criminal charge of lying to government authorities, and visa fraud.

What is interesting about this case is the perception of it on both sides of the cultural divide.

The maid in question had worked for the family for three years, and when they went to the US, her employer took her passport and forbid her from leaving the house without an escort.

In the Middle East they call that a sensible precaution to keep the maid from running away. In the US they call that imprisonment and (if the charges of not being paid are true) enslavement.

Here is the key part of the article:

Prosecutors said he brought a woman from the Philippines to the United States to work as a maid, then took her passport and did not pay her or allow her to leave the home without an escort.

Mr Corrente said Mr al Ali employed the woman as a babysitter in Abu Dhabi for more than three years before moving the family to the United States last July.

They had entered into an employment contract before the move and the woman was paid $19,000 (Dh69,700) in full for the year, he said. But, he said, the woman disappeared after three months and "now claims she never received any of the money".

Though the situation is not all that funny for those involved, for third parties like myself, the hilarious thing here is that the defendant and lawyer think this issue is only about the money, that resolving the money issue would make it all go away.

But the issue is not really the money at all. The issue is freedom. To the Americans, this officer basically imprisoned a free human being in his house, making them a slave, and denied them their human rights as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. That's the way the Americans see it.

Not paying wages? That's a civil matter. Unlawful imprisonment? That's a much bigger deal.

According the US customs law, the officer can legally bring a domestic employee with him, and there is a special visa for that, but there are also special rules, namely that in the United States, the employer has to pay at least the prevailing minimum wage for the state they are visiting.

The officer in question stated that he paid $19,000 up front, before coming to the US. But the maid claims to have received none of that. Whatever the case may be, the prevailing minimum wage in Rhode Island is $7.40 an hour, and the custom for domestic labour in the Middle East is that they are on duty 24 hours a day, with a day off every two weeks (if they are lucky). Using this as a guide, then the officer would have to have paid his maid over $60,000 to comply with state and federal laws.

Thus the visa fraud charge.

But even though that is the actual criminal charge, what motivates it is in fact the breach of rights committed, and this is where the culture clash can cause difficulty.

In the Middle East, many families keep a tight rein on their domestic employees not because they are mean or evil, but because they are legally responsible for what their employee does. If that employee breaks laws, the employer's neck is on the line as well. In many countries in the Middle East, where sex outside of marriage is a criminal offense, there is indeed a powerful incentive for employers to ensure that their employees do not have the chance to get entangled in some sort of romantic dalliance.

In the US, however, the situation is different. There are no laws like those in the Middle East, and if an employee committed a crime, the employer is not liable.

The naval officer was really only acting as he felt was right and proper, and being in the land of opportunity where there is a much stronger chance that his maid would run off to find work elsewhere, I am sure he felt he was acting in a prudent, and responsible manner. They signed a contract, he needed her services, end of story on his part.

But Americans see it differently. They see a woman trapped, unpaid, and with the seizure of her passport, almost literally chained.

That's the real issue. Not the money.

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