Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Domestic workers in Lebanon: Employed or enslaved?

WASHINGTON—“Exotic, gorgeous, and fabulous” are three words most tourists would use if you ask what they think of Beirut City in Lebanon. But, to someone like Sina,* “exotic, gorgeous, and fabulous” are definitely not the adjectives she would use to describe her life in Beirut City. Rather, the three words to describe her life in Beirut are oppressive, exploitive, and painful.
Sina traveled to Lebanon from Nepal to become a housemaid a few years ago. When her employment agent reached out to her in her impoverished rural community, the agent told Sina that a housemaid job in Lebanon would not only enable her to support her siblings but also help her pay for her mom's hospital bill. Sina thought that the opportunity seemed to be too good to pass by. Therefore, she immediately packed her belongings and flew to Lebanon.

Upon her arrival in Lebanon, Sina quickly discovered that her work situation was quite different from what she had imagined. After confiscating Sina’s passport and identification, the employers wanted her to work fourteen hours a day, seven days a week.  They gave Sina only bread and tea to eat each day. For months, the employers also demanded that she work at their relatives’ houses.
Employers never mentioned anything about her salary, which she had not received.  When Sina finally confronted her employers about the unpaid salary, the employers became physically and verbally abusive towards Sina. They also locked her in a room every night so that Sina could not escape from the employers’ house.
Today in Beirut City, Sina’s story is all too common to ignore among foreign housemaids. Some housemaids also face sexual abuse by their employers and have no legal recourse or other ability to protect their rights.
Lebanese authorities have turned a blind eye to the problem of abused foreign housemaids for far too long. Under Lebanese laws, a foreign housemaid faces challenges when attempting to change her workplace, regardless of abuse by employers. A regulation called “Tenazul” forbids a foreign housemaid from working for another employer without the consent and release from her former employer. It also requires the former employer or sponsor to pass legal responsibilities to the second employer.
Under this legislation, someone like Sina becomes an illegal migrant the minute she decides to either escape from her abusive employer or choose to work for another employer without her current employer’s consent. Also, many employers often use a threat of deportation in order to control their foreign housemaids because of Tenazul.

Experts also point out that Lebanese law provides employers the legitimate grounds to justify their abuse. For instance, the 2005 General Security communiqué, 'Housemaids: Rights and Obligations stipulates following duties of a housemaid:
1. Respect Lebanese laws and regulations
2. Respect the members of the family whom she is working for
3. Be committed to the nature of her work as a housemaid and protect the contents of the house she is working in and not expose family secrets
4. Adapt to the family and its way of living
5. Not leaving her employer’s house and without their prior approval or in accordance with the “work contract”
6. Signing the wage slip after the collection of her salary as receipt
7. Not to work outside of the employer’s house or in another domain other than that of a maid
8. Not to get married (to a Lebanese or a foreigner) during her stay in Lebanon (she has the right to get married after leaving Lebanon and return again according to the applicable laws of such case).
Experts argue that stipulation number 5 provides a reasonable ground for any employer to falsely confine a foreign housemaid. It also allows an employer to justifiably confiscate his maid’s passport and identifications.

One human rights advocate reported that at least four domestic migrant workers committed suicide after enduring workplace abuse in year 2007. Yet, according to one NGO’s report in 2010, the suicidal incidents in 2007 neither changed the workplace abuse by many employers nor the unfair Lebanese legislations to protect these housemaids’ rights.

International human rights advocates need to speak up for these workers’ rights. Otherwise, these housemaids will be left in the shadow.
Sina* is a pseudonym.

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