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The Migrant Workers

Foreign Female Domestic Maids in Lebanon
  1. Preface
  2. Chapter one
  3. Chapter two
  4. Chapter three
  5. Chapter four

Brief on Foreign Female Domestic Maids in Lebanon
Dr Ray Jureidini and Nayla Moukarbel
Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences
American University of Beirut
December, 2000


Human rights abuses against temporary foreign domestic workers are being increasingly revealed around the world. From the early 1990s, there has been a particularly large influx of African and Asian women into Lebanon, serving primarily as domestic labour in private households, particularly from Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government, as with other countries, has actively encouraged the 'export' of domestic labour as it has become the largest single source of foreign revenue for the country. As part of the international phenomenon of trafficking in human labour, both the employment relations and social status of these women leave them extremely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Most domestic employees fall under the category of 'contract slavery', given the legal and employment conditions which they face. A survey of 70 interviews with Sri Lankan women in Lebanon reveals their living conditions, how they are treated by their employers, and how the legal and social arrangements of these workers have facilitated the poor conditions and entrapment which many encounter. The study looked exclusively at Sri Lankans because they are the largest single group of foreign domestic workers in Lebanon.

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1-Contract Slavery

In his book Disposable People, Bales (1999: 19) identifies three types of modern slavery; 1) 'chattel slavery' - where slaves are either captured, born or sold into permanent servitude; 2) 'debt bondage' - where servitude is ensured against the loan of money and where the length and nature of that servitude is indeterminate; and 3) 'contract slavery' - where contracts are 'legal fictions' rather than legally binding employment agreements, and thus conceal what are in reality conditions of slavery.

It is the form of contract slavery which best describes the conditions and arrangements of Sri Lankan, and other foreign female domestic worker (maids) in Lebanon. It is suggested that Asian and African female domestic employees in Lebanon are caught up not only in contract slavery, but also to some extent, debt bondage. For example, the rights of freedom are denied to live-in workers by their sponsors (employers) because they consider it appropriate to safeguard the 'investment' which they made through up-front costs of airfares, agency charges, visas, work permits and residency permits. The withholding of passports and restriction of movement are deemed to be justified by these indirect 'debts' that the employer has incurred on behalf of the employee. Moreover, the migrants themselves often contract a debt in Sri Lanka to pay for the Sri Lankan agent's fees and initial visa costs to enable them to travel to Lebanon. As for contracts, these are often written in Arabic and rarely understood by the employee. When contracts are arranged through the Philippines or Sri Lankan embassies, contracts issued in Lebanon are usually written in English or both Arabic and English, respectively (but this is a more recent development).

The employment contracts which domestic workers accept mislead employees into believing they are entering into a legitimate contractual relationship with obligations and responsibilities on both parties and backed by legal authorities. In reality, he says, it is merely a ruse: "an enticement to trick an individual into slavery" (Bales,1999: 20). In the survey of Sri Lankan women, 71 per cent did not sign a contract in Sri Lanka, nor in Lebanon. Thus, in the case of domestic migrant workers in Lebanon, the existence of a contract as a ruse is not entirely applicable. It is worse, because they have entered into an employment relation without conditions. Those who do have contracts written in their own language do not have the means to enforce the conditions or challenge violations.

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2-Foreign Nationals in Lebanon

The preference by Lebanese employers for foreign workers is threefold. First, they tend to work for less wages than Lebanese nationals (usually below the minimum wage); second, they do not register them with social security, nor pay for health insurance; and third, they are more easily exploitable in the sense that they tend to be more compliant, work harder and for longer hours. It may be added, that the political and economic acceptance of cheap foreign labour into Lebanon was also seen as one measure to contain inflation (United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 1997 A Profile of Sustainable Human Development in Lebanon).
The types of jobs that foreign workers usually undertake are the traditional dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs, characterized by the secondary labour market. Particularly since the civil war (1975-1990), Lebanese nationals have been less likely to undertake such jobs because they have been 'tainted' by the low status of foreign workers in the country and also because they are less prepared to suffer the indignities of degrading work, low pay and insecurity. They are also better able to claim social security benefits through legal channels, particularly through their unions.
Temporary foreign workers in Lebanon have no recourse to unions (they are not allowed to form or join unions). Nor are they covered by Lebanese labor law, or by ILO Conventions. The only legal provisions rely upon either criminal law or international conventions ratified by the Lebanese government. The national Codes and Obligations of Contracts do not provide adequate remedies.
Domestic service workers in Lebanese household prior to the war, were mainly young Lebanese females from poor rural families, or from Syria. Some Palestinians and Egyptians were also engaged. They often entered the household anywhere from the age of 10 upwards, and usually left when it was time to get married. Parents of the maid would visit sometimes as rarely as once a year to collect her salary. Both during and since the war, however, such positions have come to be seen by Arab women as degrading and unacceptable. Since the influx of foreign women from Africa and Asia, the position of domestic maid has become one which carries with it a particularly low status, not only because of the servile nature of the tasks, the conditions of work and low wages, but also because there is now a racial element to domestic service.

There is virtually no documented information about Asian and African domestic workers during the period of the civil war (1975-1990). There is some evidence that migrants from Sri Lanka and the Philippines were entering Lebanon in the late 1970s. The first agency in Lebanon to open its doors to Sri Lankan migrants was in 1978 (L'Orient Le Jour, 30/7/98). Most, it may be assumed, came from 1993 onwards. Table 1 shows the number of work permits issued to various foreign nationals from 1993 to 1999. The largest groups are clearly Sri Lankans and Egyptians. Our concern here is primarily with Sri Lankans who comprise the largest number of domestic maids currently in Lebanon. From unpublished data of the Population and Housing survey in 1996, it was shown that from the 11, 358 Sri Lankans in the sample, 95 per cent were female, and 88 per cent worked in households as domestic employees. The table below indicates increasing numbers of Sri Lankans between 1993 and 1995, decreasing in 1996 and rising again the following year after which the numbers stabilized. The decline in 1996 was due to a dispute between the Lebanese and Sri Lankan governments, when the Sri Lankans had restricted the insurance of Sri Lankan nationals in Lebanon to particular approved companies. The issue was resolved, the number of entries substantially increased in 1997, and in February 1998, a Sri Lankan embassy was opened in Beirut.

The second largest group of domestic maids come from the Philippines (Indians include are larger proportion of males who work in various occupations, including many agricultural labourers). In November, 1996 the Republic of the Philippines opened an embassy and consulate in Beirut. The number entering from the Philippines have been significantly smaller than those from Sri Lanka, partly because Lebanon had been previously banned by the Philippines government because of reports of abuse. It is estimated that currently around 95 per cent of Filipinos in Lebanon are female domestic service workers (McDermott, 1999 Afro-Asian Migrants in Lebanon Report of the Committee on Pastoral Care of Afro-Asian Migrant Workers, Beirut).

3-Table 1. Work Permits Issued to Selected Foreign Workers: 1993-1999

  1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999


5,053 2,502 1,056 834 1,061 691 530


358 357 354 449 460 358 350


246 477 429 384 507 565 495


7,704 15,557 11,602 8,972 10,788 20,083 18,051


622 546 313 266 278 259 230


299 298 129 105 100 79 103

Other Arabs

214 203 91 122 139 148 139

Total Arabs

14,496 19,940 13,974 11,132 13,333 22,183 19,898

Sri Lankans

10,136 13,274 14,253 12,552 23,668 23,516 22,917


2,833 3,689 4,344 4,304 5,501 5,315 5,788


3,329 3,727 4,659 4,758 6,881 6,974 7,196


164 2,269 2,218 2,187 3,138 3,610 4,348

Total Asian

16,462 22,959 25,474 23,80 1 39,188 39,415 40,249

Total Foreign

33,268 45,530 41,969 38,043 60,547 71,732 74,909

Source: Ministry of Labor, Central Administration for Statistics (1998, 2000)

The number of work permits issued, however, is not an adequate measure of the number of these foreign workers employed in Lebanon. They include new and renewed permits, but do not include those who entered the country illegally, or the 'illegal' employment of those whose permits have expired and not been renewed, those who are working with only tourist visas, and those who are unemployed. There are no reliable figures.

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4-Types of Domestic Maids in Lebanon

Housemaids in Lebanon may be classified into three types with different living and working conditions. A housemaid may either be a "live-in", a "freelancer" or a "runaway".

"Live-in" workers reside within the employer's household (usually for a period of 3 years). She can be brought through an agency or by a sponsor directly. The sponsor is responsible for all the financial costs of her stay (ie. papers, health insurance, clothing and food). Her presence with the employer renders her living conditions harder, as she is on call 24 hours a day, and conflicts can arise more frequently when living in common. The employer can (and usually does, as our study shows) control and limit her freedom of movement, her contact with others including her family, the quantity and quality of her food, her hours of sleep and so on. The employer usually also keeps her passport and other papers, making it impossible for her to leave the country. It is up to the employer to renew her work and residency papers as well as her medical insurance each year. If he/she doesn't, she would be staying in Lebanon illegally and if apprehended by General Security or the police, she can be imprisoned and deported at a later stage. The housemaid cannot change employers, unless the employer agrees and the Lebanese authorities allow for the "release" to take place. She is also obliged to finish her contract even if she no longer desires to work. The employer who has acquired the services of an agency has the luxury of changing his/her mind and changing maids within the first 3 months of the contract. This is the agency's "guarantee".

With "freelancers" the living and working conditions are much less controlled. The main difference is that they live on their own (either renting, or staying in a room in exchange for services rendered) and work on hourly basis (around $ 4 per hour) for different employers. They have the freedom to withdraw their services as they wish. Some freelancers entered Lebanon on live-in contracts. However, when the contract finished, they decided to remain in Lebanon and to be in control of their own labor. Others came initially to work as freelancers using the name of a sponsor who had agreed, in return for a fee, not to be their employer. To remain within the law, the freelancer must have a sponsor. Some Lebanese men have taken advantage of this as a prosperous business, charging up to $ 1200 to act as sponsor for an individual migrant worker. There have been a number of cases where this sponsorship money has been taken, but no papers arranged and the passport not returned. To our knowledge, none of these men have been prosecuted. It is important to note that in most cases, the freelancer cannot prove that she had given money to get her papers regularized as these "acting sponsors" rarely give receipts. In such cases, the migrant is usually too scared to go to the police because of her "illegal" status and the risk of arrest and deportation. Moreover, they generally do not have access to legal representation.

"Runaways" are the third category. It is a term widely used and in itself represents the conditions of slavery. These women are live-ins who have decided for various reasons (mainly abuse and withholding of payments) to leave the house of their employer. They take refuge in embassies, NGOs and sometimes with their compatriots. As soon as she leaves her sponsor, the housemaid is automatically rendered as an illegal alien. The employer usually notifies General Security for otherwise, he/she would be responsible for her as long as she is in Lebanon. The runaway is left with two choices. She either goes back home or finds a new sponsor. In the first option, she must succeed in retrieving her passport from her employer (who sometimes "sells" it to her) or she must get a laissez passer from her embassy. In the second option, she usually has to "buy" her release to work for someone else.

Thus, it may be said that live-in and runaway migrant workers are "unfree labour" in the sense that they do not have the right to choose an employer without express permission from the state authorities. Nor do they have the right to withdraw their labour from their sponsor/employer without being rendered illegal and thus liable to arrest, imprisonment and deportation. By contrast, while many freelancers are bonded to a formal sponsor, in reality they may considered more as free labour and much less vulnerable to abuse and exploitation if they are free to work for others. If a freelancer is apprehended by the police or General Security, and she can show that her papers are in order in that there is a formal sponsor, there is no problem as long as no questions are asked regarding who her actual employer is. However, most freelancers do not have their papers in order as they cannot find a sponsor and work illegally and tenuously, which leaves them vulnerable to being apprehended by police or General Security if caught.

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