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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

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5-Conditions of Slavery in Lebanon

From the survey conducted, the experiences of Sri Lankans (and indeed other foreign domestic workers) in Lebanon include 3 major aspects which combined are sufficient to categorize their status as one of slavery as has been suggested. These are:

(a) Abuse or violence or the threat of abuse or violence

(b) Denial of freedom

(c) Exploitative Working Conditions

Abuse or violence or the threat of abuse or violence in Lebanon

In the case of modern contract slavery of domestic workers, violence, or the threat of violence, is the means of social control by which employers dominate employees. The vulnerability of particularly unskilled foreign female domestic workers in Lebanon is not confined to abuses by men. In our study of Sri Lankan women we find that probably most of the direct abuse, including physical, emotional and psychological abuse, is perpetrated by Lebanese women - the 'madam' of the household.

If maids are not physically violated, they may be psychologically or emotionally abused. Demeaning or degrading treatment is a particularly insidious form of abuse. Aggressively delivered orders, shouting and constant belittling criticism contain an underlying threat of violence or may be seen as violent in themselves. Abuse may also include withholding of food, not allowing the worker the freedom to prepare her own food and relying on the 'handout' of the madam, which may be leftovers from the family meal. Employees may be belittled on a daily basis, such as being called names (Hmara, or "donkey" is the most common term used).

Another form of violence and threat of violence comes from recruitment agencies. Employees who are procured through these agencies are usually 'guaranteed' by the agency and will be replaced if she is deemed unsuitable. However, it is common knowledge that if an employer returns the maid to the agency, there is a strong likelihood that she will be punished in some way as a disciplinary measure. Reports of serious physical abuse by agencies, bordering on torture, have been reported.

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6-Denial of freedom

Domestic workers are often denied freedom of movement. They are effectively incarcerated in the household, sometimes locked in, but mostly forbidden to go out without express permission. Constraints on freedom of movement also means that employees cannot associate with others, to develop friendships and other forms of social relations outside the employment relationship. Without physical or telephone contact with the world outside the house, many are restricted to speaking to other domestic workers from the balconies of the apartments. "Balcony talk' has become a social phenomenon in itself, but many employers simply do not allow it. Cases were reported where doors and windows leading to the balconies had key locks and were secured whenever the maid was left alone in the house.

The issue of being denied possession of one's passport is not only illegal by all international standards, but serves as a means to restrict movement. Regular checks may be made by police or General Security in Lebanon on individuals who look foreign. Without regularized papers in her possession the migrant worker may end up in detention and interrogation until her papers can be retrieved, or her sponsor goes to have her released. The generally accepted argument is that the employer is responsible for her by law, and so withholding the passport is to minimize the risk that the employee will run away. Recruitment agencies themselves strongly advise sponsors to not only hold the passport, but also to keep maids confined to the house unless accompanied and to lock them inside if left by themselves. Indeed, some agencies require these as unwritten conditions of their guarantee of the maid. Such obligations legitimize human rights abuses by employers. Of great concern is that there seems to be a general normative understanding, even by human rights activists in the field, that confiscation of the passport and restrictions of movement are acceptable until a rapport of trust has been established.

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7-Exploitative working conditions

With regard to exploitative working conditions, almost all the interviewees in the study said that they did "everything" in the house: that is, cleaning, taking care of the children, walking the dog, taking out the garbage, some cooking and some also clean the homes of their employer's relatives. Most work minimum hours of between 14-16 hours per day which are excessive by any standards. And further, it is likely that many are "on-call" throughout the day and night.

For those who do not have their own room, some sleep with the children, some in the living room, some in the kitchen or even on the balcony. Most use a small mattress or fold-up bed. Again, not having a proper place to sleep may be regarded as part of the slavery-like practices conducted against these women, as not having a private space contributes to high levels of insecurity. The size and quality of the rooms for those who have them are very poor, even in newly built luxury apartments, and they often double as laundries. Therefore, many who have their own room have to share it with a washing machine and dryer.

In the study, almost 60 per cent of interviewees were denied their wages at some time or another. Most of those interviewed who had run away at some time during their stay in Lebanon, did so either for having been abused, for the withholding of payment, or for both.

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8-Recent Reforms
In the past 2 years or so, during the period under Salim Hoss' Prime Ministership, a number of positive changes were introduced. For example, the internal trafficking of domestic maids has largely ceased since the banning of 'release' arrangements which allowed one sponsor to transfer sponsorship to another (usually with an exchange of money). A more serious complaints procedure was implemented, resulting in government intervention into some cases of abuse (when formally brought to their attention), recovery of unpaid wages and the recovery of passports. The government also computerized the records of sponsors and employees enabling ready access to information to locate employers, previously a difficult and sometimes impossible process. It may be pointed out, however, that while these are positive measures, from the point of view of foreign maids and the industry generally, these changes have not addressed the major conditions of slavery covered in this report.

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In this brief report, it has been suggested that the administrative, legal and most working conditions of Sri Lankan (and most likely many other) foreign domestic workers in Lebanon can be described as a contemporary form of slavery (contract and debt slavery). The existence of abuse, violence and the threat of abuse and violence; denial of basic freedom of movement; and exploitative working conditions contribute to this definition. Their lack of freedom along with the necessity to earn money for their families back home render them extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. It should be noted at the same time, however, that the circumstances in Lebanon are not unique, as almost identical practices have been shown to occur in many other countries, with Sri Lankans and other migrant workers from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. Without the political and moral will in Lebanon, to ensure their basic human rights under both local laws and international conventions, the practices of slavery will continue.

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