The Lebanese homes that "buy" Asian maids
Youssef Bazzi - 14/12/2005
For economic, political and personal reasons it had become increasingly difficult to employ the Egyptian, Palestinian and Syrian maids of pre-war years, and Asia provided a ready solution to the problem. For a number of reasons - the low cost of employing Asian maids, the Lebanese fondness for the trappings of social prestige and the increasing employment rates amongst married Lebanese women- the demand for Asian maids shot up. Previously the preserve of the aristocracy and upper middle class, even modestly off families started employing maids, perhaps to fend off accusations of poverty.
When we look at how these women are brought over to Lebanon, the conditions for their employment and their quality of life, we find what can only be described as a form of trade, akin to modern slavery. The situation is exacerbated by the profound cultural and linguistic gulf that lies between the employer and the maid. The majority of these maids are Sri Lankan: neither Muslim nor Christian, unable to converse in Arabic, French or English, and raised in rural poverty they know nothing of the modern world, equipped to do little more than arduous domestic work. Moreover, they are employed on immoral and inhumane terms with no laws to govern their working hours or the relationship between the employer and the employee.
Ray Gridini, Professor of Sociology at the American University in Beirut, explains: "It's part of the worldwide phenomenon of trading in human labour, both legal and illegal. Legal and administrative provisions leave foreigners who work in the domestic service industry in a position of weakness and vulnerability when it comes to mistreatment and exploitation. Such temporary contracts for foreign labour are the same all over the world, but when we're talking about maids in the Middle East and elsewhere who live where they work, the relationship between the employer and the employee is similar to slavery.
In Lebanon, and throughout the Middle East in general, there is a lack of the legal, political and civil structures designed to deal with the human rights violations practiced against many of these female workers." Many of these women from the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia are tricked into believing that they will get a work contract and favorable terms of employment. When they get to Lebanon, however, their passports are taken away, their movement heavily restricted and they work long hours in terrible conditions in violation of the never-applied international treaties and laws. By shedding light on a few select cases, this article aims to show the legal obstacles that confront domestic workers: the terms of their employment and their ability to demand compensation for abuses they suffer at work.
But first of all, a few observations on their employment contracts. The Sri Lankan and Filipino governments have devised officially sanctioned work contracts for expatriate workers in Lebanon and the Arab world. It is worth taking a look at some of the explanatory and provisional paragraphs contained in these contracts. The contracts, entitled "A work contract for Sri Lankan domestic assistants in the countries of the Middle East" and written in English and Arabic, were sanctioned by the Sri Lankan government in Lebanon in 2000, but only a few hundred have been signed since then. This means that the majority of the 80,000 Sri lankan domestic workers employed in Lebanon are operating under a different contract, or no contract at all.
The sanctioned contracts serve to highlight what is otherwise never mentioned. For instance, the employee is able to terminate the contract without giving prior warning to the employer for any one of the following reasons: mistreatment of the employee by the employer or family members; breaking the terms of the contract; failure to pay the employee's salary; physical molestation or abuse of the employee (paragraph 10b). In the section entitled "special articles" (paragraph 12), the contract also stipulates that "the employer treat the employee fairly and humanely, and that under no circumstances should the employee be subjected to physical violence." These paragraphs are significant because they suggest that such unacceptable practices do take place. In other words, the mistreatment of--and violence towards--domestic workers was so widespread that it was necessary to require the employer to sign an agreement to refrain from abusing, upsetting, molesting or physically assaulting the maid, despite it being common knowledge that practices such as these are criminal acts in the eyes of the law.
As part of the legal procedures to obtain permission for the maid to work and reside in Lebanon, both the employee and employer are required to sign a contract sanctioned by a notary and written in Arabic. The employees rarely understand the details of the contract and even when it is translated, this tends to be into English rather than the employee's native tongue. The contracts hardly ever define the nature of the work, choosing instead to emphasize that the employee be dedicated, honest, upright and devoted to her obligations. Contracts for employment agencies vary from one agency to another and most of them are not written up in cooperation with the embassies for these workers' countries of origin. Most of the contracts are based on pre-2000 contracts and modified as requirements dictate. It is not clear to what extent they are drawn up with help of Lebanese lawyers and notaries.
One such contract bears the name and signature of the employer, and the name and thumbprint of a Filipino woman. The first paragraph states that the woman agrees "to work as a domestic helper or any other position asked of her by the first party, and at any place or time of his choosing." The contract is for two years with a monthly salary of $200. After 3 years the employee is entitled to a 30 day holiday, after which the employer is obliged to pay the costs of her return home.
The contract also contains the following clauses:
1 - The work includes washing and ironing clothes, managing household affairs, washing the bathrooms and the dishes, cooking, cleaning the carpets and furniture, looking after the children and all other domestic tasks.
2 - The second party [the domestic helper] is not allowed out by herself or to mix with the opposite sex, whether she is related to them or not. She is only permitted to go to markets, banks or public places when accompanied by the first party and his family. She may not make telephone calls or answer the phone except when specifically asked to do so. She also agrees that she has no rights to a weekend.
3 - Working hours: there are no set working hours. The employee has a responsibility to be fully prepared at all times, day and night. She has no fixed hours of relaxation other than time spent sleeping, eating or at prayer.
In practical terms, these are the conditions of slavery. The following story is a good example of this:
In October 2001 two Lebanese men and two Sri Lankan women attended a closed hearing in the Palace of Justice, where judge heard a lawsuit brought by the women against the men (their employment agents). The men had sent the women to Syria to work as house servants. The women said that on their way back to Lebanon the men confronted them, threatened them with weapons and stole their funds--almost $4,000--and their jewelry. When they appealed to the police they were told their papers were not in order and were detained for 9 months before being released to raise their case before a judge.
The hearings lasted for 2 months and solved the problem by mediating an agreement between the two sides. The men initially agreed to pay $500 to each woman in addition to the cost of the travel documents needed to return to Sri Lanka. The women's lawyer, appointed by the Sri Lankan embassy, protested that the amount in question was not enough, and that the men should return both the amount they stole (i.e. $2,000 to each woman) in addition to the cost of the travel documents.
Over the course of two or three hearings the lawyers for the two sides negotiated in front of the judge, but were unable to reach an agreement. In December 2002, all four individuals were summoned to one of the General Security stations (the body responsible for all foreigners in Lebanon) in order to resolve the dispute. The two men were required to pay $500 to each woman, $500 in taxes for their work permits and the cost of the travel documents. In exchange the women officially withdrew their case against the two men. The women returned to Sri Lanka and the men were granted an at least temporary immunity from prosecution to return to work.
The case is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is to say the least peculiar that although the men had been accused of criminal aggression (armed assault) they were released from detention after only one night, while the women remained under arrest for more than 10 months.
Secondly, instead of carrying out a criminal investigation the primary goal of the court case was to reach a financial settlement, thereby exempting the men from taking any responsibility for their other actions. It was also assumed that the financial compensation and travel to Sri Lankan would be enough to satisfy the two women.
Thirdly, at no point during the legal process was an Arabic-Singhalese translator provided, and the final agreement itself was written in Arabic. Finally, the settlement was drawn up in the absence of the women's lawyer or any representatives from the Sri Lankan embassy. The absence of their lawyer raises suspicions, unfounded though they might be, that improper pressure was brought to bear to resolve the matter as quickly as possible.
In this context the important precondition of free-will looks distinctly shaky. In a recent case a female judge presided over a hearing in which two foreign employees for Madagascar brought a case against their employment agent. Amongst their accusations were the charge that he had illegally confiscated their passports and restricted their freedom of movement, thereby contravening article 12 of the International Treaty for Civil and Political Rights. In her report the judge wrote that it was only natural that their passports be retained to prevent them from running away without compensating their agent for the expenses he incurred hoping to benefit from their services. Elsewhere in her summary the judge erroneously terms the two litigants as "the two defendants", inadvertently revealing her inability to conceive that two foreign maids from Madagascar could bring a case against a Lebanese man rather than the other way around. The women appealed but the verdict was upheld.
So far in Lebanon not one case has managed to bring a halt to the practice of confiscating passports as a way of preventing the employees from fleeing. The "guarantees" provided by some agencies against employees leaving are often little more than the requirement that the employer confiscate their passports and prevent them leaving the house unaccompanied by a member of the family. Researcher Ulia Al-Zoghby offers the following comments on this widespread practice: "In any case, the women realize the hell they've been consigned to once they've emigrated and started work. Many factors prevent them from escaping. They start to rely almost completely on the agents who've arranged their emigration due to their ignorance of the language, their lack of control over their wages and the fact that they don't possess papers that allow them the freedom to move about as they would like or do anything on their own initiative.
Alongside these difficulties, they don't know enough about the law or have any real trust in the authorities. Feelings of fear, shyness and isolation characterize lives dominated by the whims of their agents and employers. Employment agencies, traders in human flesh, play a central role in the lives of Lebanon's foreign female workers." In this context in it impossible to play down the abuse practiced by families against their servants. In the building where I live, I was compelled to help a Sri Lankan maid escape her employers who would keep her permanently locked up in the house. They locked the fridge so she could only eat what they gave her and forbad her from watching television. Without a room of her own she slept on the kitchen floor. The husband and wife paid her no wages and would beat her regularly. Sometimes they would attack her together. On one occasion they got it into their heads that she was intending to jump from the kitchen's balcony so they fixed metal bars across it. They also barred her from using the phone. I used to see her all the time, standing naked in the freezing cold and washing the family car. After her escape I found out that she'd committed suicide in one of the houses she'd escaped to. Statistics for the period 2000 to 2002 state that more than 51 Sri Lankan women committed suicide as a result of this maltreatment (often the suicide bids are exceptionally violent: self-immolation or jumping from balconies). These figures have provoked various media and human rights campaigns, which have reduced, but not eliminated, the problem. It is worth noting that such maltreatment is widely practiced against Sri Lankans in particular, and only rarely affects Filipinos and Ethiopians. Naila Kabeer, a researcher at Britain's University of Sussex, explains the phenomenon as follows: "The culture of submissiveness is stronger amongst Sri Lankan women; domestic violence from husbands and fathers is widespread in Sri Lanka meaning that these women are more vulnerable than others to violence and domination."
Another contributory factor is the predisposition of Lebanese housewives to be excessively cruel and inhumane in controlling their domestic help, something not helped by the absence of any legal protection for these women. According to Lebanese author Ayman Hamidan: "The maid is always expected to transform the wishes and whims of the housewife into reality, but on the condition that the maid changes none of the customs and traditions of the family. She wants her to be a little magician who comes into her house and sorts everything out, without ever feeling her presence, hearing her footsteps or being subjected to the sound of her voice, speaking a strange language that the housewife doesn't understand. She wants her to carry out her orders automatically without disturbing the family and without leaving the slightest trace of the smell of her body and her funny foreign food. The maid musn't even leave one of her hairs in the sink. The lady really needs her; she needs this little brown sorceress, but she doesn't want to see her." This desire to have a servant around but on the condition that she shouldn't be seen can be better understood by looking at the habit that Lebanese women have of talking about "My Sri Lankan," "My Filipino," or "My servant" without ever mentioning her by name, as if by dropping their real names, or even denying their existence, they are better able to deny the humanity of their servants, and making it all the easier to distance them and turn them into possessions. Youssef Bazzi