What does Islam say about the rights of domestic workers? Muslims are given explicit instructions on how to treat servants, workers, and the help.
By Amal Al-Sibai
We have all heard stories of housemaids working without rest until after midnight and rising early with the sun, or those working for months on end without pay; their wages being withheld from them. One girl accidentally broke an expensive vase and was forced to repay the family for the vase; which was equivalent to half of her monthly salary. Worse yet, we read shocking reports of domestic workers brutally beaten by their employers.
What does Islam say about the rights of domestic workers? Muslims were given explicit instructions on how to treat servants, workers, and the help.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “They (servants) are only your brothers. Allah has placed them in your care. So whoever has a brother under his care, then let him feed him from what he eats himself, clothe him with what he clothes himself. Let him not overburden him with that which he cannot bear. And if he overburdens him, then let him lend him a hand.”
This Hadith applies also to female servants of course.
One companion, Abu Dharr, upon hearing the Prophet’s words, never again insulted or spoke harshly to a slave or servant. He was seen walking in the markets with his servant, and the servant boy was wearing the exact same ornament on his clothes that Abu Dharr himself was wearing.
Abu Dharr was careful to treat the servant as he would treat his own children. Prophet Muhammad said, “When your servant prepares food for you and lays it for you, while he has suffered the inconvenience of heat and smoke when cooking, you should ask him to sit down and share the meal.”
As for delaying wages, which is not uncommon today, that is an injustice and is impermissible in Islam.
“Pay the labourer his wages before his sweat dries,” Prophet Muhammad said.
What a telling metaphor! A housemaid who has scrubbed, cleaned, washed, ironed, cooked, and toiled should see the fruits of her labor as she wipes her brow after a day or week or month of hard work, whichever time period was agreed upon between the employer and employee.
For her, the salary that she sends to her family each month is a smile on her child’s face or medicine for her elderly parents or payments for a house she is building with her husband or school books for her children.
None of us would ever want to go against our Lord or have His anger descend upon us. However, we are risking just that when we harm our servants.
The Prophet explains that Allah on the Day of Judgment will be angry with and will be the opponent of the person who “employs a laborer and takes full work from him, but does not pay him for his labor.”
The help, just like us, will make mistakes; we are all human. The housemaid may accidentally burn a dress while ironing it, spill coffee on the rug, or break a crystal glass. Patience, pardoning, and forgiving are called for.
The Prophet’s wife, Aisha, said, “The Messenger of Allah never struck a woman or a child or a servant.” (Sahih Muslim)
Anas bin Malik was a young boy when he started working in the Prophet’s household. Anas worked for the Prophet for ten years, and not once did the Prophet strike or even reprimand him.
Anas said, “I served the Prophet at home and on journeys. By Allah, he never said to me for anything which I did: ‘Why have you done this?’ or for anything which I did not do: ‘Why have you not done this?'” (Sahih Bukhari and Muslim)
Once, a man came to the Prophet and asked, “O Prophet of Allah! To what extent should we forgive the mistakes and faults of our servants?” The Prophet remained silent and when the man repeated the question for the third time, the Prophet replied, “Seventy times a day.” (Al-Tirmidhi)
The Prophet was so affectionate and caring towards Anas that he used to visit Anas’s mother and aunt and share a meal with them. Anas’s mother asked the Prophet to make a prayer for her son. So, the Prophet asked Allah to bless Anas and give him wealth and children. The Prophet’s prayer was answered. Later in his life, Anas acquired wealth, had children and grandchildren, and became a man of knowledge, transmitting 2,000 sayings of Prophet Muhammad.
It is unnerving how some women actually boast about how many rules they have imposed on their servants. A friend of mine visiting me was baffled that my housemaid was speaking on her cellular phone non-stop while cleaning up. She attaches her phone to a head piece and she works while chatting with her sisters. My friend gave me a scornful look and advised me to forbid such excessive use of the phone.
As long as the house is clean and she helps me when I need her, my housemaid can talk on her phone. I will not ban her from using her phone, but I may share some scientific research with her on the link between excessive use of cellular phones and several health problems, because I am concerned.
Islam is not just what we write on our passports in the space for: Religion. Islam is a belief held in the heart, enforced by the words and manner in which we speak, and finally it controls the actions of our entire body; our limbs, eyes, what we eat, and what we listen to.