Wednesday, January 21, 2009
New form of slavery in Lebanon - maid for sale
Beirut: An Ethiopian housemaid lies bandaged in a government hospital after falling from a 12th floor balcony. She says her Lebanese employer pushed her off. "Madam asked me to hang the clothes. Then she came and pushed me from behind," the 25-year-old woman said. Too frightened to let her name be published, she said her employer had frequently threatened and abused her. "Madam would tell me, 'I will spill hot oil on you', so I hid the oil. She would take a knife and threaten to kill me. She would beat me with shoes, pull my hair to the floor," the injured woman said, her face still bruised a month later.
According to the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), nearly every week one of an estimated 200,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon dies. Suicide, falling while trying to escape their employer and untreated illness are the main causes of death. The employers are rarely prosecuted.
Live-in housemaids are like fixtures for well-off Lebanese families for years. They often do everything from heavy housework to nannying and helping with children's homework. Many get no days off, work for up to 18 hours and are locked indoors. Employers, who routinely confiscate their passports to deter them from running away, promise to pay maids $150 to $250 a month depending on their nationalities. But many employers don't pay as agreed. Some verbally and physically abuse their workers.
Women from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Ethiopia migrate to Lebanon legally, but often find themselves in conditions of forced labor, through unlawful withholding of passports, non-payment of wages, restrictions on movement, threats, and physical or sexual assault. During the armed conflict in July 2006, Sri Lankan domestic workers reported being restricted from leaving the country by their employers.
Sri Lankan women are usually recruited to work overseas by local agents who promise riches in exchange for jobs abroad. Those who respond to the offer are then required to pay a fee to the local agent -- up to $500, an overwhelming sum for most. At the other end of the labor migration chain are various Lebanese agencies constituting an unregulated -- and highly lucrative -- industry. At a cost ranging from $1,500 to $3,000, a Lebanese family can "buy" a Sri Lankan maid whose monthly salary will range from $100 to $150. The agency draws up a contract committing the maid to her employer for two or three years. Since the contract and negotiations are in Arabic, the Sri Lankan woman usually has little understanding of what she has committed herself to. The contract stipulates that the agency's responsibility for the woman expires after three months. The employer and the employee must then resolve any problems. If a dissatisfied employer brings the maid back to the agency, she will likely be beaten to render her "obedient."
Many abused women feel they have no choice but to escape. "Running away' evokes the era of slavery," said lawyer Mirella Abdel Sater. "You leave your job, but you run away only when enslaved." (…) Many employers report runaway maids to the police as thieves in order to track them down. "The employer cannot report that their maid has run away. It is not illegal for her to do so," Abdel Sater explained, "so they tell the police she stole something."
The police have not been helpful to Sri Lankan maids escaping abusive employers. Many police officers have demonstrated blatant racism when it comes to protecting foreign women seeking their assistance. "I had a case in which a Sri Lankan maid was raped by her employer," said Abdel Sater. "I immediately sent her to the police. When she got there, however, she learned that they already had a warrant for her arrest because her employer had accused her of theft.
In the U.S. State Dept Trafficking in Persons Report (June 2008) this issue has been summarized as follows:
“The Government of Lebanon does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. Nevertheless, Lebanon is placed on Tier 2 for its failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat trafficking over the previous year, particularly in the area of law enforcement against trafficking of domestic workers for forced labor and trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation. Although it reported 17 prosecutions last year, the government failed to convict or criminally punish anyone for trafficking offenses, despite ample evidence of conditions of forced labor. In addition, the government continued to lack victim protection services or a formal system to ensure that victims are not punished.”
Even if rights groups persuade the Lebanese government to improve the legal framework for domestic workers, they face a tougher task in changing attitudes among many Lebanese who refer to their maids openly in conversation as "slaves" or "liars and thieves". "The way a large number of Lebanese deal with them is like a new slavery," said HRW's senior researcher Nadim Houry.
Human right groups now hope for an increased public awareness about this topic that might enhance the pressure on Lebanon’s government and encourage its population to end the abuse of housemaids. For further info please see:
(This video summarises the whole issue quite well.)
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