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Maids 'held prisoner' in Lebanon

On November 19, 2007

Zeina Karam recently reports the following incident from Beirut:

BEFORE she escaped, Chandra worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week, cooking, cleaning and running a household for a family of six in Lebanon. The only time the Sri Lankan maid was allowed to leave the home was to throw out the rubbish. If she complained, she was told to stop being "stupid."

Then she found the key to the cupboard where her employers hid her passport.

"One day, while madam was on the telephone, I opened the front door and just left. Sleeping on the street was better than being in that prison," she said, giving only her first name for fear of retribution.

Chandra, 27, is one of thousands of foreign domestic workers in the Arab world who face abuse at the hands of their employers, human rights groups say.

Though long considered an issue in the oil-rich Gulf countries, the abuse of foreign housemaids is gaining attention in Lebanon, where there are an estimated 150,000 foreign domestic workers, mostly from Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Ethiopia.

In a report released this week, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticised the Gulf states and Lebanon for failing to curb the abuses and not protecting Sri Lankan migrant women workers, who number about 80,000 in Lebanon, under employment laws.

Nadim Houry, Lebanon researcher at HRW, said the Lebanese government exposed foreign housemaids to abuse by refusing to guarantee them a weekly day of rest, maximum daily work hours and freedom of movement.

"The Lebanese authorities aren't investigating and prosecuting those who break the law by abusing ... domestic workers. And domestic workers who do lodge a complaint against an abusive boss will often find themselves accused of theft or some other crime."

The report said some housemaids worked 16-21 hour days, seven days a week, without holidays or sick days - often for less than a 15p an hour. Their wages were often withheld and passports confiscated, the rights group said.

The group listed reports of forced confinement, physical and verbal abuse of the housemaids, as well as sexual harassment and rape by employers.

In Lebanon, the predicament facing many migrant workers was highlighted during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, when employers reportedly denied scores of workers the right to return home even though their embassies organised evacuations for them. Some were even left to fend for themselves under fire while their employers fled.

Upeksha R, a former domestic worker, is quoted in the report as saying: "They didn't allow me to come home during the war. My employers said 'If we are going to die, you are going to be with us.'"

The Lebanese government refused to comment yesterday.But Tarrad Hamadeh, Lebanon's labour minister, has previously acknowledged that the country's employment laws are outdated.

"You are facing a formidable Mafia made up of employment agencies, some foreign embassies and our embassies abroad. The only way to fight this is through modernising laws," said Mr Hamadeh, who submitted his resignation last year for political reasons but still technically holds his post because the government has not accepted it.

One of the main causes of this abuse is the "sponsorship arrangement" whereby the employer is held legally responsible for the migrant employee and for everything she or he does.

Samir Yammine, the owner of an employment agency, said many Lebanese took away their maids' passports to protect themselves: "If she [a maid] gets into trouble, the sponsor is held responsible."

Chandra, the Sri Lankan who escaped her employers, said she was very happy now, despite having lost all the money she made in the past two years.

"I now work in a supermarket in the morning, and in homes in the afternoon. All the people are very nice to me," she said.

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