The sad plight of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon

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Mar 29 2007

by Yaman Salahi

Sushar Rosky, born 1987, hanged herself from the balcony of the apartment in which she worked as a maid for only 20 days in Sidon, Lebanon. She hung herself with bits of clothe carefully tied together in 2005. No investigation was conducted into the circumstances leading up to her death.

Almost ten years ago, Lina Abu-Habib wrote one of the first reports for the journal Gender & Development about female domestic workers from Sri Lanka in Lebanon. At the time, a little less than 20,000 work permits were granted for Sri Lankan domestic workers in Lebanon. Abu-Habib described the dehumanizing process of maid-selection as "catalogue shopping for maids" who would then be transported from Sri Lanka to Lebanon by intermediary agencies profiting off the exchange. She writes that "If the employers do not 'like' their new maid for any reason, or if she happens to have any health or other problem, she may be 'returned' to the employment agency, who will ensure that she is quickly 'replaced.'" This is a process that one might use to describe buying a computer or kitchen appliance through the mail. A report one year later by Reem Haddad likened the situation to slavery.

And, sickeningly enough, this is how maids in countries like Lebanon, Syria, and throughout the Arab world, are often treated. Detailing instances of rape, abuse, and overwork, Abu-Habib lamented the fact that almost no organizations existed on the ground to provide social and legal support for maids whose rights had been violated. According to her, there was an unwillingness on the ground to treat this as an issue worthy of attention--in fact, she opens her article with an anecdote of a woman from a self-described progressive political party complaining that she and others were being "treated... as if we were Sri Lankans!" As if this depraved "treatment" she complained of was one befitting a Sri Lankan.

Ten years later, little has changed. According to some reports, the number of such domestic workers in Lebanon from Sri Lanka alone has risen to around 80,000 people who come to the country to earn money for their families back home. In many cases, they have even left children behind. Their plight still tends to be overlooked by international human rights organizations, and their abuse or death is rarely given more than a few lines in the Arabic press.

maid-protests-with-employer.jpg
A Lebanese "freedom" demonstrator brings her maid along with her and asks her to hold the Lebanese flag--a flag which has done little to protect her rights.

Ironically enough, a number of these subjugated maids became features at the "freedom" rallies in Lebanon following the withdrawal of Syrian forces. These servants-for-freedom were commanded to hold signs and flags in demonstrations following the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, while they themselves were denied basic freedoms. Reports abound that these maids often have their passports and identification confiscated by employers so that they cannot travel freely, and risk being detained and deported by authorities if they leave their employer's home due to abuse. In many cases the employers arbitrarily decide to withhold payment from the worker.

This impossible situation has driven many maids to the tragic end of suicide. Perhaps the most shocking case yet is that of Sushar Rosky, a young Sri Lankan girl born in 1987 who committed suicide by hanging herself from a balcony in Sidon in 2005. What makes this case so distressing is the means by which Rosky decided to hang herself: barely even 18 years old, she hung herself with bits of cloth tied together from the balcony of her employer's home for the entire neighborhood, and now the world, to see. She had been in Lebanon for less than one month and had been employed for only 20 days. One wonders what message Rosky was trying to send to the society that had driven her to this humiliating end. Was it the memory of her family and her home that kept her mind busy as she strung that makeshift noose together? Or, perhaps, this was her modest way of finally rejecting the brutal way she was treated as a slave. Here are your fucking bedsheets, Madame. I will not be cleaning them today.

sushar-rosky-2.jpg
Sushar Rosky hanging, her unforgettable message shocking a neighbor who looks on from a nearby balcony.

Lebanese blogger and professor of political science As`ad AbuKhalil, who posts frequently about abuse of maids in the Middle East, wrote an unforgiving elegy for Sushar Rosky at the time of her death: "Don't expect the US State Department to comment on her death, the freedom loving president of yours will not call for an investigation, and Kofi Annan... will not call for a special meeting of the security council. This foreign domestic worker was not a billionaire, and her death will go unnoticed.... The Nation magazine... will not publish special tributes to her. No western government will express alarm about her plight. This will be a death that will be added to the many deaths that go on regularly in Lebanon without any fanfare or press releases: these are the deaths of people that have no lobbies behind them, and no powerful government.... Arab satellite stations will not send a team to interview her family in Sri Lanka, and no Lebanese newspaper will send a team to investigate the circumstances behind her death."*

And nearly two years after her death, AbuKhalil's predictions couldn't be closer to the truth. A Google search for Sushar Rosky's name returns less than a dozen pages, none of them belonging to the mainstream media or the various human rights organizations working in the Middle East.

This international silence is even more disturbing because Rosky's death by no means was an isolated incident. In the first three months of 2007 alone, at least four more domestic migrant workers in Lebanon have been driven to commit suicide. On January 17, Sri Lankan maid Sina Tanri Sutha, age 22, hung herself in her employer's home in Jummayzah. Three days later, al-Mustaqbal reported the suicide by hanging of Ethiopian maid Sila Mawit Jabr Madhin Hila, age 27, in Ba`aqlin along with report of the rape of a Sri Lankan maid. And once more three days later, 22-year-old Barakti Amadi Kasa from Ethiopia fell to her death as she tried to escape her employer's home from the balcony. On March 6, 2007, Alima Nuraya from the Philippines committed suicide by suffocating herself in the bathroom of her employer with the fumes of a coal heater. She was 26 years old.

As these abuses continue unabated, the response to the growing problem has remained slow. A 2006 documentary called "Maid in Lebanon" and produced by Carol Mansour was one of the few domestic attempts to bring light to the severity of the problem. According to an al-Jazeera report on the documentary, the narrator of the film reports that "on signing the contract, we almost become property of the employer and will work three years without a day off."*

According to the same summary, the documentary is filled with the candid reports of maids in Lebanon, many of whom requested anonymity when they were filmed for fear of reprisal. One woman anonymously reported that she had been raped regularly by a teenager living in the household she served. Even in these cases, the legal system does not work in the favor of foreign workers whose rights have been violated by their Lebanese sponsors. Reem Haddad explained in her report that lawyers and other activists in Lebanon working to support abused domestic migrant workers observed a severe reluctance on the part of the abused to entrust themselves to the legal system.

Lebanese lawyer Mirella Abdel Sater told Haddad that "when it comes time to go to court, they just don't want to face their employers." And with good reason too. Tina Naccash, a human rights activist who is also mentioned in Haddad's report, explained that embassies set-up by the migrant worker's country of origin could play almost no role in protecting their citizens: "what can an embassy do if the Lebanese government, the legal system and the police don't want to protect these women?" Haddad's report details a number of cases where abused maids who had fled the homes of their sponsors were arrested by police and returned after their employers filed bogus charges of theft in order to have them detained. In circumstances like these, it is no wonder that many of these foreign domestic workers have given up on the legal system and sought sanctuary in places like embassies or in charitable safe-houses.

In countries like Lebanon and Syria, where connections are everything and the legal system is rarely reliable even for indigenous citizens, it would not be realistic to leave this problem to state infrastructure to sort out. The decade that has passed since questions were first raised about the treatment of migrant workers should attest to the failure of existing systems to deal with this important issue on their own. Even the migrant workers origin countries have found it difficult to protect the rights and interests of their expatriates. During the Israeli assault on Lebanon in summer of 2006, at least 5,000 migrant workers from Sri Lanka alone applied for paperwork to leave the country and return home. In some cases this was because they were abandoned by their employers, and in others, out of sheer fear for their lives in the chaos. Regardless of the circumstances though, the Sri Lankan embassy, like others, was ill-equipped to deal with the issue: "the whole block around Sri Lanka's embassy [became] a temporary refugee camp with thousands of women sleeping in the open or bedding down in basements at the embassy and neighbouring buildings."* The international community was similarly unprepared to help those who tried to escape: "the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which aids the repatriation of people caught up in emergencies, is short of funds.... [and] has asked donor governments to give $12m urgently."*

To be sure, abuse of domestic workers is not exclusive to Lebanon or even the Middle East. Complaints are commonly aired in even the most developed of countries, like the United States, regarding the exploitation of migrant workers, who in some cases cross borders without proper documentation. Caught in a position of being outside the law because they don't have papers (in Lebanon and surrounding countries, these papers are confiscated by the employer), they cannot resort to the law to protect themselves. The plight of those vulnerable workers is given attention in the media in some places more than others--though it might not go so far as to touch on the root causes that force the workers to migrate in the first place--in order to discourage such abuses. But in Lebanon, at least, stories of suicide or abuse of domestic laborers by Lebanese citizens rarely take up more than a line or two in the newspapers, and are almost never the subject of a thorough investigation in the popular press.

And yet, popular attention to the issue is the best that exploited and abused migrant workers can hope for at this point, because the legal system is in shambles and the problem itself is not perceived as a problem by many. Attention to not just the suicides and abuses, but to the long process that leads up to that tragic end starting in the country of origin and ending at the destination, is absolutely needed in the international and regional press alike. Until the issue has been popularized into one that has a prominent place in the public consciousness, it is unlikely that the situation for these migrant workers will improve in the Middle East.

Until then, you may "order above worker" as you would a piece of cargo from catalogues on Internet outfits like Maids-Online.com. It's no coincidence that these profiles have listed even above their names a "Reference" number that looks more like a model number for a blender or a prisoner's ID number than anything that could meaningfully identify a human being.

Sources

Note: I have tried to link to the sources of quotes within the text. I have reproduced those links below, and have also posted information regarding the source of other important information and references. This is hastily put together so if you have questions about a specific citation or number, please contact me.

Lina Abu Habib, 'The use and abuse of female domestic workers from Sri Lanka in Lebanon', Gender & Development, 6:1, 52-56 (1998)

Reem Haddad, 'A Modern Day 'Slave Trade': Sri Lankan Workers in Lebanon', Middle East Report, Summer 1999, 39-41 (1999), http://www.merip.org/mer/mer211/211_haddad.html

"Lebanon: Female migrant workers face uncertain future"
http://www.peacewomen.org/news/Lebanon/May06/migrants_uncertain_future.html

"Thousands of overseas maids caught up in conflict face long struggle to get home"
http://www.guardian.co.uk/syria/story/0,,1827483,00.html

"Lebanon's Lankan maids tell their story"
http://english.aljazeera.net/English/archive/archive?ArchiveId=22069

"Lebanon's domestic workers clamour to escape"
http://www.theage.com.au/news/world/lebanons-domestic-workers-clamour-to-escape/2006/08/08/1154802889392.html

"Sri Lankan maid hangs herself from balcony"
http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=1&categ_id=1&article_id=17771

Photograph of Lebanese maid accompanying employer to a protest
http://angryarab.blogspot.com/2005/03/freedom-for-sri-lankan-maids-in.html

"Sushar Rosky--lest she dies namelessly" with photographs of hanging
http://angryarab.blogspot.com/2005/08/sushar-rosky-lest-she-dies-namelessly.html

The Angry Arab News Service by As`ad AbuKhalil, who has done a commendable job of reposting the stories about maids in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Gulf whenever they arise. The links below to stories in Lebanese newspaper al-Mustaqbal were gathered from his posts.

"Suicide hanging of a Sri Lankan woman inside the house of her employer"
al-Mustaqbal, Jan 17 2007, p. 9; about Sina Tanri Sutha

"Ethiopian woman commits suicide by hanging"
al-Mustaqbal, Jan 22 2007, p. 9; about Sila Mawit Jabr Madhin Hila

"Death of a servant lady while fleeing"
al-Mustaqbal, Jan 25 2007, p. 12; about Barakti Amadi Kasa

"Suffocation of a Filipino woman by a coal heater"
al-Mustaqbal, Mar 7 2007, p. 9; about Alima Nuraya

(Cross-posted to my personal blog)

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East