Photo Courtesy of Saba Brelvi

The Domestic Worker Project: In Conversation with Saba Brelvi

“Over the last ten years we have made great progress on other issues related to migrant labor on this campus,” said Brelvi. “But domestic workers remain one category of workers who haven't received the same level of protection as the other workers."

Mar 28, 2021

When Saba Brelvi came to NYU Abu Dhabi in 2012 she hired Lili, a domestic worker hailing from the Philippines, to help her around the house. As an Indian-American who spent her first few years in Algeria and Saudi Arabia and had been living in the United States since age 14, Brelvi was unaware of the regulations surrounding the employment of domestic workers in the UAE. She asked NYUAD’s Department of Human Resources for help with figuring out Lili’s salary and days off. The HR department told her that this was not within their scope of work.
Confused, Brelvi then embarked on the journey of gathering all this information on her own. Before coming to the UAE, Brelvi had worked in philanthropy and nonprofits working to advance reproductive rights. She also had experience working at the intersection of social justice and amplifying the voices of marginalized groups of women and immigrants across the United States. This background, combined with her own experience of dealing with the ethical questions surrounding hiring a domestic worker helped her recognize the absence of ethical employment guidelines for domestic workers in our campus community and the UAE at large.
“Domestic work comes out of a history of slavery and servitude, and the unpaid labor of women in households. Domestic work is not always considered formal labor, and so across the world domestic workers have been left out of many formal labor laws and protections,” Brelvi stated. “Most of the women who are domestic workers here are mothers, many single mothers, and they are extremely at risk financially.”
According to Brelvi, these vulnerabilities are reproduced at NYUAD. She remarked that unlike other workers who were employed on campus across different vendors, these women who are essentially the backbone of the community, helping to care for the children of the faculty and staff, were not recognized enough.
Motivated to give a voice to these women and make information about the ethical standards of employing domestic workers widely available to families living on campus, in 2013, Brelvi started talking to administrators about a potential project that focused on domestic workers. The project formally started in 2014 under the guidance of Hilary Ballon, late Deputy Vice Chancellor, as the Domestic Worker Project.
Addressing Gaps in the System
The project started with three initial aims. The first was to establish a set of community standards, something similar to the Office of Compliance and Risk Management’s Supplier Code of Conduct that applied for subcontracted colleagues. This goal was set because at the time of establishment of the project, the UAE government had not yet passed legislation to support domestic workers, which would have ensured that domestic migrant workers in the UAE are guaranteed the same labor protection as other workers.
The second aim was to provide information to faculty and staff who wanted to employ domestic workers about how to do so in a way that was responsible and did not put the workers at a risk of exploitation. Brelvi recognized one key way to do so was to normalize conversations about the employment of domestic workers and acknowledge their presence in the home.
“It wasn’t something people talked openly about and so part of [the domestic worker employment program] was to bring it out in the open and actually have conversations about how to employ domestic workers well,” she explained.
The final aim of the program was to provide programming for the domestic workers. The programming ranged from specialized health workshops and conversations about women’s health to holiday parties.
Brelvi also recalled an early interaction with Lili when they had just moved to the Downtown Campus: “In Sama tower there was a pool on the roof. We were up at the pool and Lili was telling me about what she was doing on her day off. I suggested, Why don’t a group of you go to the pool or go sit in the hot tub? and she said, Oh, we can only use the pool when we are with the kids we are watching. I told her that this wasn’t an actual rule, but she explained to me that it was the norm, even if it is not written anywhere”
This moment stuck with Brelvi; it became of utmost importance that domestic workers could access all these resources and spaces on campus, to gain a sense that they also belonged to the community.
Redefining Relationships Between Domestic Workers and Employers
Since its inception, the question of whose voices and needs were being centered by the Domestic Worker Project always mattered to Brelvi. By speaking to all stakeholders, most importantly the domestic workers themselves, Brelvi put together a set of community guidelines — which was based on the UAE laws and international standards along with domestic workers voices — for how faculty and staff within the NYUAD community could be ethical employers. A few examples of the guidelines include domestic workers’ days not being longer than 10 hours, with adequate breaks and compensation for additional hours and overtime, adequate separate room if living in the employer’s home which is free of charge, well aired and lit, furnished, offering privacy with a lock and access to suitable sanitary facilities.
The guidelines also state required access to at least three balanced meals daily that meet the cultural and religious requirements and needs of the domestic worker. Health insurance is already required when sponsoring a domestic worker, but according to the guidelines, employers are highly encouraged to cover other health care costs, such as medication and transportation, which are not covered by insurance. Other stipulations include appropriate accommodations and support in the case of pregnancy as well as access to NYUAD’s Office of Compliance for reporting of any concerns regarding working conditions.
“People who know most about what domestic workers need are domestic workers themselves,” she reflected. “When I was putting together the guidelines, I would ask for [Lili’s] opinion; she and her friends would help me think about things whenever I needed guidance.”
Brelvi recalls one time in a conversation during a social event outside NYUAD, whenshe mentioned that her work revolves around domestic workers. The person’s immediate response was that she hoped that Brelvi was encouraging domestic workers to not demand such high wages.
Consequently, Brelvi recognized the need to redefine the relationship between the domestic workers and employers. Employing nannies in the U.S. is often more transactional in nature, less long-term and with different dimensions of responsibility. Brelvi’s awareness about her own positionality and how it contributes toward ethical employment of domestic workers is a vital aspect — even if it sometimes means having uncomfortable conversations.
Looking Ahead: What Needs to Change?
Over the years that it existed, the aims of the program continued to alter and grow as Brelvi recognized new areas for work to be done. It also changed leadership, initially based in the Office of the Vice Chancellor’s, then the Office of Compliance and Risk Management, then under the supervision of Carol Brandt, Vice Provost and Associate Vice Chancellor for Global Education and Outreach. The project formally existed from 2014 to 2016, although Brelvi continues to work on a mostly volunteer basis as new issues arise.
“There have been some administrators, including Carol Brandt and Chetna Koshy, who have consistently been supportive of these efforts over the years and have worked to keep this issue on the agenda and to keep plugging away at it over time,” said Brelvi.
The program collaborated with various departments on campus to ensure that domestic workers were able to take advantage of the available resources. The Arts Center discussed how to better advertise and attract domestic workers to its events, and Public Safety listened to conversations on ensuring domestic worker access to spaces on campus. The Office of Social Responsibility’s educational programs and other initiatives were opened to domestic workers as well, with the hopes that OSR would eventually oversee all the educational and social programming for domestic workers.
Brelvi has not had the chance to collaborate with students on the program yet.
“It’s something I regret. I think if students had been involved more in the past, maybe we would have made more progress,” said Brelvi.
Is the Project doing Enough for Domestic Workers?
According to Brelvi, the program was largely successful in helping interested faculty and staff on campus figure out how to employ women within the existing systems and structures in ways that ensure their health, wellbeing, rights and economic stability.
Brelvi, however, feels that there is a lot more that needs to be done to support and protect one of the most vulnerable groups on campus. “We need a set of clear standards — and not just voluntary best practice guidelines — for employment of domestic workers, along with some sort of mechanism for ensuring accountability if standards are not met,” she stated. “We need somebody in a senior position that actually works on this and pays close attention to this. And we need an embrace of this issue by administration and faculty at all various levels. We need to create a norm and community expectation of ethical employment of domestic workers, or violations will continue to arise.”
Brelvi highlighted how the intimate nature of domestic work makes it easy to overlook labor violations and domestic workers’ needs. “Although I have tried to convey that there are what I consider violations of ethical standards of employment on campus, I have found that some folks on campus think this issue is too dicey and would rather look away a little bit. And because poor working conditions are happening within people’s homes - long hours, not enough time off, etc.- it’s easy to look away. This isn’t happening in C2, or in front of the palms so it is invisible to many people. And I also think there are some faculty and staff who don't think it is the business of the university to tell them how they should be treating their domestic help,” she said.
Brelvi believes that letting faculty and staff treat domestic workers in ways we wouldn’t condone can also be of great reputational risk to the university.
“Over the last ten years we have made great progress on other issues related to migrant labor on this campus. But domestic workers remain one category of workers who haven't received the same level of protections as the other workers on our campus,” Brelvi insisted. “And when we are making public statements about diversity, equity and inclusion, what does it say that this least-protected category of workers on our campus is made up exclusively of women of color?”
This article was originally pitched for The Gazelle's Gender column. Aasna Sijapati contributed reporting.
Amna Asif is Deputy Features Editor and Laura Assanmal is Editor-in-Chief. Email them at
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