RIYADH (NYTIMES) – The young Kenyan housekeeper, dressed in a crisp uniform and a headscarf, nods her head from side to side to the beat of a tune in her video, an expression of mock exasperation on her face as she stares into the camera and mimes the refrain: “Don’t got it.”
Words like freedom and respect pop up on the screen, and the worker, Brenda Dama, 26, swats them away one by one. A single day off? “Don’t got it.” A peaceful life without quarrels or insults? “Don’t got it.”
Dama’s post on the video-sharing app TikTok, a parody of the song Renee by American indie rock duo Sales, vents about the stresses of her job as a house cleaner for a family in Saudi Arabia, where she has worked since leaving her native Kenya in 2019.
One of several videos of hers that have spread widely on the platform, it has amassed more than 900,000 views and nearly 6,000 comments since it was posted in August.
Far from home and in unfamiliar settings, domestic workers in the Gulf region, like Dama – the vast majority of them women – have long used social media to keep in touch with friends and family.
As the popularity of TikTok exploded last year, they have increasingly turned to the platform to open up about their lives and working conditions – many of them saying they are overworked, sexually harassed and targets of discrimination.
“Here, it is really tough,” Dama said in a telephone interview from Saudi Arabia. “You end up crying every day. But when you see the positive comments on your videos, you’re like, oh, this person understands.”
The oil-rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf depend on migrant labourers from Africa, Asia and poorer Arab countries to keep the machinery of daily life running – millions of housekeepers, construction workers, delivery workers, garbage collectors, guards, hairdressers and more. Those workers often outnumber the native population.
As of 2016, there were nearly 4 million foreign domestic workers in the Gulf, according to a study by Abu Dhabi Dialogue, a forum on migrant labour, and the number has most likely risen since. Before the pandemic, an estimated 36,000 new domestic workers headed to the region each year, according to the forum.
Most foreign domestic workers in the Gulf are employed through a sponsorship system that gives their employers almost total control over them. They are unable to change jobs or leave the country without permission from their employer, and their bosses often confiscate their mobile phones and passports.
Female domestic workers, who are often isolated, are particularly vulnerable to abuse, according to rights groups.
With their already minimal freedoms further diminished by the pandemic and their isolation growing, the domestic workers are unflinchingly using TikTok to tell the world how they are being treated even though it could be dangerous to do so.
Some women use the posts simply to blow off steam. Others are seeking to spread the word of their often dire working conditions, frequently with a fatalistic sense of humour. Their audience, many of them also foreign workers, say that scrolling through funny videos is a way to ease loneliness and can provide a brief respite from stress, anxiety or depression.
“Many here are suffering,” said Merygene Cajoto, 35, a Filipino worker in Saudi Arabia who posts to more than 18,000 followers. “The way they express their depression, their stress from their work, is through TikTok. Friends send me videos and advice. It’s a kind of help line.”
Dama started posting on TikTok about a year ago, documenting the travails of workers like her in the Middle East. Before the Don’t Got It video went viral, she had fewer than 20,000 followers. After it came out, that number jumped by about 5,000 within days, and she now has more than 32,000.
Her videos, often tinged with sarcasm, dissect some of the weighty problems facing domestic labourers in the Gulf.
In another video, Dama dons a headscarf to mimic her Saudi employer. Her boss accused her of stealing money because she “comes from poverty back home,” according to Dama.
While it’s difficult to determine exact numbers of domestic workers using TikTok, Marie Kretz Di Meglio of Uplifters, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit that offers online education to migrant workers, said she had noticed an increase after the pandemic started.
“All of a sudden, they were all using it,” she said.
Many of the workers use humour or dramatisation to present the difficulties of their day-to-day lives.
Last year, Nieza Tunacao, 27, created a scripted series in which she acts out problems faced by housekeepers. She titled it OFW Diaries – a common abbreviation for overseas Filipino workers.
She films fast-paced vignettes, often set to melancholy piano music, in her room. In one, she depicts an employer confiscating a worker’s phone, while in another her family is relieved when she is finally able to call home. She posts them to her 1.2 million followers.
After moving to Kuwait in 2018, Tunacao said, she forged virtual friendships with many domestic workers on TikTok. Each episode in the series is based on their real experiences and her own.
“When overseas workers see my videos, they smile. They can relate. They say I am their happy pill,” she said in a telephone interview, laughing.
Many on the app have created educational videos explaining to followers how recruitment agencies and contracts work and encouraging those working in the region to share their experiences.
In some instances, women risk not only their jobs by posting on TikTok, but also their safety.
Sandigan, a Kuwait-based organisation that campaigns for domestic workers’ rights, was contacted by about 70 women seeking help for problems related to posts on TikTok and Facebook Live since late 2019, according to Ann Abunda, a founder of the group. Most had been reprimanded by employers and were asking for guidance, and a few had been deported, she said.
In some parts of the Middle East, taking pictures or videos inside an employer’s home, particularly of children, and posting them online without permission could lead to criminal charges or deportation.
“They’re showing private moments to the public,” Abunda said. “They need to be careful.”
Both Cajoto and Tunacao said that their employers were aware of their videos and tolerated them, knowledge that provided a degree of job security and safety from physical harm. But for many other low-paid housekeepers working in foreign countries, life is not as secure.
In recent years, a number of countries have passed domestic-worker labour laws. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia stipulate that employees are obliged to protect the secrets of their households. Such workers will often be asked to sign employment contracts with similar wording on arrival in the country of employment.
Because the language is broad, the contracts and labour laws can be used against domestic workers who have minimal power, said Rothna Begum, a senior women’s rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch.
For Dama, things took a turn for the worse last year. Early one July afternoon, she said, she headed to her employer’s empty veranda during her break to record a TikTok video. While she was in the middle of filming it, her employer walked past.
“My madam acted shocked,” and asked me “‘What are you doing? You’re here to work,'” Dama said. “She could act rudely sometimes, but after she was shown my TikTok videos, it became worse. She could insult me like an animal – like I was not even a human.” Two months later, Dama left to work elsewhere.
As her Don’t Got It video grew in popularity, she also started to receive a torrent of online abuse. Commenters from the region accused her of lying and told her to go back to her country.
The bullying is tough, she said. But she refuses to delete her videos, because domestic workers frequently flood her profile with messages of support. When she feels loneliness creeping back in, she said, their words keep her strong.
“You feel like you have company,” she said. “Our phones are our best friends.”