Lebanon's slaves, Lebanon's shame

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Dec 4 2007

Nadim Houry writes on the Daily Star Lebanon:

Over a month ago, a French documentary, "Liban, Pays des Esclaves," harshly criticized Lebanese society and the authorities for their treatment of migrant domestic workers. But instead of being outraged by the behavior of their fellow citizens, many Lebanese expressed outrage against the filmmaker who dared to sully their reputation in France. One group even organized a petition against the documentary on Facebook, Lebanon's latest craze.

Following the documentary, Al-Jarass magazine, a Lebanese tabloid that usually limits its pages to the exploits of aspiring pop artists, decided to defend Lebanon's honor through an article entitled, "Don't buy a slave without a stick." A jumble of cheap and racist generalizations, the article accused foreign maids of being thieves and even suggested that the use of violence against them was justified. Luckily, a number of Lebanese NGOs and journalists publicly responded to the article in protest.

Controversies can be useful in focusing attention on a certain topic. And in this case, they surely helped to stir the pot. But we need to move beyond the media controversy and acknowledge the underlying outrage: the serious mistreatment of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, a nation that has sent so many migrants across the world, and our failure as Lebanese to put an end to it.

Two weeks ago, Human Rights Watch released a report based on interviews with 100 Sri Lankan migrant domestic workers who had returned to Sri Lanka after working in the Middle East, including many in Lebanon. They tell a disheartening tale of ill-treatment by their employers and official indifference on the part of the Lebanese authorities.

Lebanese employers routinely confiscated the passports of the migrant domestic workers and confined them to the workplace 24 hours a day. In many cases employers refused to allow them to telephone their relatives or friends. Some employers also withheld wages for months to years at a time.

"I had no freedom to leave, day or night," said Krishnan, a 42-year-old Sri Lankan woman who had worked as a maid in Lebanon. "When they went out, they locked the house and took the key with them, and I had to stay inside."

For anyone living in Lebanon, this news won't come as a surprise. What may be surprising is the fact that so many Lebanese think that they have the right to retain an employee's passport. According to a 2005 telephone survey by Caritas Lebanon, 91 percent of Lebanese employers interviewed claimed that they had the right to retain a domestic worker's passport. In fact, in some cases employers have intentionally confiscated passports to hold workers against their will, effectively subjecting their maids to forced labor.

Other Sri Lankan maids described how they were forced to work very long hours in Lebanon, sometimes in multiple homes. Some employers even subject their maids to physical or sexual abuse.

However, when migrant workers seek justice, they face a system where accusing their employer of violence means that they are likely to face counter-accusations of theft. This was the case of a 26-year-old Sri Lankan maid who complained she was owed $2,600 for two years of unpaid work. Her Lebanese employer falsely accused her of theft on her last day of employment. She was imprisoned for two years before finally being acquitted of the crime.

For Lebanese who seek solace in the idea that our country is "better than its neighbors," the research does not hold good news. Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon face the same abuses that they face in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or the United Arab Emirates. And Lebanese labor law, like the law in these Gulf countries, explicitly excludes domestic workers from its basic protections. When it comes to respect of labor rights, Lebanon is hardly in good company.

To pre-empt some critics, we must acknowledge that not all Lebanon employers mistreat their domestic workers. Many workers enjoy their stay in Lebanon and manage to save money to help their families back home. However, just because not everyone mistreats domestic workers, this does not mean that Lebanese are doing enough to stop the practices of those who do.

The Lebanese authorities need to do their part and a recent Human Rights Watch report outlines many recommendations that could be followed for Lebanon to meet its international obligations. But we as a society should do more. If we see that an employer mistreats a domestic worker, we should confront him about it. If we hear a domestic worker screaming behind a neighbor's door, we should call the police. If we don't want to be shamed as a society for our treatment of domestic workers, we need to confront Lebanese employers who abuse the rights of domestic workers. And we need to make clear to the world that we don't think such abuse is acceptable.

An incident a couple of weeks ago gave me hope that maybe not all is lost yet. A Lebanese woman called our office to report an agency that she suspected was holding domestic workers against their will. Sadly, the authorities failed to act. But this woman's gesture was an indication that something is stirring. Such acts of citizenry need to multiply.

Until then, we all share in the shame of the continuing abusive practices committed against migrants who came to work for us.

Nadim Houry is Human Rights Watch's researcher for Lebanon. He wrote this commentary for The Daily Star.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East