Monday, January 31, 2011

No Magic Wand for this Cinderella

By MyraLana:

They clean your house, but can never leave it; cook your food, but can never eat it; raise your children, yet can never speak to their own; and live under your roof, but can never call it a home. However, such unfair living conditions can be considered minor, and represent only a small part of the harsh reality migrant domestic workers in Lebanon have to face every day.  Migrant domestic workers are dying at a rate of more than one per week, reported the Human Rights Watch. This alarming one-digit number has been gone unnoticed, or maybe purposely ignored not only by the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Justice, but also by the Lebanese society. High rates of suicide among these women and running away from households highlight the need to further investigate the underlying causes for ill treatment of employers and the neglect by Lebanese laws in protecting their rights.

Beaten, bruised. Battered, abused. 

Over 250,000 domestic workers, mainly from Ethiopia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, and Nepal play an integral role in our society, as they travel great distances leaving behind their homes only to enter those of strangers.

They are hired through agencies based on a contract, yet little do they know that the basics of the working agreement can easily be breached and exploited by their employers.
“The exploitation and discrimination against migrant domestic workers ranges from the simple things such as not allowing her to cook her own food to sexually and physically abusing her, as our reports tell us that more than 80 percent live in slave-like conditions,” said Farah Salka, coordinator of the Anti Racism Movement in Lebanon.

What comes in between the two extremes is a list of deprivations and invasions of their human rights, such as: withholding salaries and underpayment, working more than 12 hours a day, not having a regular day off or even being allowed to leave the house, verbal and physical abuse, and being locked away. One of the main violations of their rights is the confiscation of their passports, which implies that many lose the right to freely leave their working and habitat environment the moment they set foot in their employer’s house.

“It is illegal under international law for a person to hold or confiscate another person’s passport. Every human has the right to freedom of movement, which confiscating a passport violates. 90 percent of Lebanese employers confiscate their worker’s passport,” said Jane Rubio, an activist working with HRW and the International Labor Organization (ILO).

It is no surprise that most workers feel that committing suicide or running away is their only escape with the harsh conditions they are forced to live under and the discrimination they receive.  At times, suicide seems like “a better option than running away, because of the Kafaal (sponsorship) system, where the law states that the minute the worker leaves the employer’s household for any reason, she directly loses her right to live in Lebanon and is considered an illegal immigrant,” said Salka.

If any employee in Lebanon were to leave their job occupation, their employer would consider it resigning. “Yet, if a migrant worker risks deportation or detention and chooses to break free and leave the household, the first thing her Lebanese employer would do is say she ‘fled’! Why is it not the same for her?” said Salka.

But the worst part is yet to come, after a migrant worker leaves the employer’s house, a series of accusations of jewelry theft, large amounts of money, and other valuable items would drop on her. The law suit she is supposed to file against the abuse and unjust treatment of her employer turns against her. Yet, the employer is not the only one to be held accountable for such discrimination, the failure of Lebanese justice system to protect migrant domestic workers is the prominent reason behind the skyrocketing suicide numbers and runaway attempts.

Aimee Razanajay, a previous migrant worker from Madagascar who first came to Lebanon 13 years ago hoping to work in order to support her family has been a community leader and a role model for many desperate and devastated workers.

Aimee, a community leader to many migrant workers

“If she were to runaway, she’ll be faced with charges she has not committed, and no one will be willing to stand by her side, she is on her own. Employers will never be charged because the justice system is corrupt and rights of migrant workers don’t exist in a country like Lebanon,” said Aimee.
According to HRW’s last report, the courts consistently rule in favor of employers.

Because of delayed justice, discrimination in the courts, and the solid fact that no law in the Lebanese Labor Laws exists for migrant workers works against them. “They have very little or no possibility for success when bringing charges against Lebanese employers,” said Rubio.

The need for direct action cannot be ignored any longer, as HRW and several nongovernmental organizations such as Kafa, Caritas Migrant Center, and Nasawiya along with the Anti Racism Movement (ARM) continue to exert pressure on the Ministry of Labor to take immediate measures. However, activists are warned by authorities not to raise awareness and spread alarming suicide facts in order to preserve Lebanon’s reputation. Concerned organizations claim that the Ministry of Labor is only showing slow progress.

For example, they have developed a hotline, offering services in English and Arabic only, two languages that many migrant workers find hard to comprehend. The hotline service is available from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., making it even more difficult for many workers who don’t have access to phones to contact it at times of an emergency.  More importantly, the hotline has yet to ring, as “none of the migrant workers are aware of it, because its phone number has not been advertised at airports, agencies, or mentioned during contract negotiations,” said Salka.

The rising deaths of Ethiopian migrant workers compelled the Ethiopian Embassy to take drastic measures banning any Ethiopian from coming to Lebanon to work at homes. Such strict decisions indicate the significance of the hundreds of deaths, all of which go uninvestigated and unreported.  Many of these suicides are botched escape

After falling from the seventh floor of her employer›s home, the body of 28-year-old Theresa Seda from the Philippines lies in a Beirut street under the rain for hours before medical workers arrived. Photo by Mathew Cassel, KAFA Association

attempts, hidden murder cases committed by employers, or the only escape from a life marked by daily abuse and discrimination. While many migrant workers are turning to a lethal refugee, others runaway only to end up at the overcrowded and despicable Detention Center, at the General Security Department in Adlieh.

“The detention center is not home, it is just a waiting room, but I’m just glad I’m out Madame’s house. She called me many names and beat me when she was upset. I didn’t leave the house for two years, until I ran away, and now waiting to go back home,” said Chandrika, a migrant domestic worker from Sri Lanka.

For every 10 Lebanese women, there is one migrant domestic worker in Lebanon. She is a woman who traveled long distances in order to support her family and try to make a decent living, expecting nothing but respect and a fixed salary, two things that some Lebanese families find too much to ask for.
“The Lebanese authorities and society need to open their eyes,” said Aimee, “migrant workers are not different than the people they work for. They are also mothers, daughters, wives, sisters, and friends of many whom they are leaving behind. And for what?” she said.
“For $ 150 dollars a month,” Aimee responded sadly.

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