Ask an average Cypriot to name some ethnic minorities that are growing in number on the island, and chances are they will soon mention the ‘Filipinezes’. This term, strictly speaking, Greek for Filipino woman, actually encompasses a wide range of (mostly) female domestic workers from South East Asia – predominantly from the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Nepal, that live and work on the island. Since the 1990s, they have been arriving in their hundreds to provide domestic services, an umbrella term which can mean: cook, cleaner, nanny, carer for the elderly, gardener, and anything that qualifies as a need in a private household. Today in Cyprus, a small European island nation of less than a million, 18,522 residence permits for foreign domestic workers are active, most of whom, as mentioned above, are female. Apart from these formal statistics, estimates say that the island hosts an additional 30,000 undocumented domestic workers.
Female migrant domestic workers statistically form the biggest group of foreign residents in Cyprus, but their status is regulated in a most peculiar way. For one, the legislative framework under which they live and work has clearly not been conceptualised with any consideration as to their access to services, education and the labour market, to say nothing of their human rights. Instead, a slapdash mix of rules, essentially geared towards broad employer powers and protection of employer property has been given priority. With the low salaries (even keeping in mind that domestic workers pay no rent or utilities, their monthly earnings tally far below what is considered a minimum wage in Cyprus) and effectively being tied to their employers (their contracts must name the employer, with whom migrant domestic workers almost always share premises) it is obvious that their wellbeing is not a prime concern for legislators and policy makers. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of female migrant workers from developing countries who seek to come to Cyprus, and, inevitably, often attempt to prolong their stay past the visa-sanctioned six years. Do these workers not deserve the full protection of the law?
This presents, in a nutshell, Cyprus’ view towards migrants, or rather poor migrants who do the manual, ‘dirty’ work. While other third country nationals, such as high net worth individuals from Russia and China are given the warmest of welcomes, with an entire local industry currently flourishing to provide services related to passport via investment schemes (ie. ‘citizenship for sale’), economically disadvantaged migrant workers are marginalised, with little access to basic amenities and rights.
The Cyprus government persists in its refusal to formulate a comprehensive, holistic, human rights-based migration and integration policy. The refusal is supported, and further compounded, by a national anxiety around the possible dilution of the national identity, through legitimising a significant number of the ‘other’ as citizens. The desire to preserve Cypriot identity, which is inextricably linked to patriarchal notions of womanhood, results in clear discrimination against female, migrant domestic workers. As a result, the state chooses to treat these women as temporary workers who do not deserve their full human rights, while reality and history shows that migrants are here to stay.