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The dreams of foreign maids in Lebanon turn into nightmares

On December 25, 2009

The following is a translation on an article that appeared in the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat last week.

The dreams of foreign maids in Lebanon turn into nightmares

The rise of suicide rates to one case a week due to maltreatment, and humanitarian organizations ring the alarm bells

Friday, 18 December 2009
Issue No. 11343
Middle East Newspaper
Beirut: By Caroline Akum

Rinoka, a young woman from Sri Lanka, decided to head to Lebanon in search for work and money. In 2005, her wish came true and she started working in one household. She spent two and a half years working without pay and without being able to contact her family. She used to spend her days as a prisoner inside the house. When she tried to ask for her rights, she was severely beaten until she surrendered to the reality awaiting the day when she will return to her family. This day however, which was supposed to be in 2008, never came, because the head of the household simply thought otherwise.

When asked about her situation, Ronika eagerly relates her story full of fear, stuttering on her broken Arabic: “when I informed my employer that I wanted to go back home, she refused. She even renewed my residency without my knowledge. When I threatened to go to the embassy, she hit me with a glass plate, and my face was bleeding, and she kicked me out of the house. I remained waiting outside because I did not know where to go. When her husband came home and asked me to come in, I refused, for fear that he would kill me, and I preferred spending the night in the car. The next day, he took me to the office after I refused to wash my face so that the blood would be evidence for what his wife has done to me. I stayed at the office waiting for him to bring my passport, which he took away, as well as the money he owed me. But the waiting lasted for days until one day, I sent a letter to the Caritas Society that was taking care of me and handling my case for a year.”

Then there was the story of Katia, a young woman from Benin who came to Lebanon seven years ago. She dreamed of working and sending the money she earned to her family back home. But after seven years of bearing torture and pain for the sake of achieving her dream, Katia decided to depart, leaving her story in the memory of one Lebanese woman who had helped her escape from Lebanon once and for all without coming back.

Katia worked in five homes, and in each home she had a story to tell. At the first home, she had to work all day and a few hours at night on her own in a house that required the effort of three maids to clean. In spite of this, the housewife did not set a place for her near the kitchen where maid normally sleep, but rather placed her in a small room on the roof where she locked her in at night and released her in the morning. One day, Katia refused to lift the heavy kitchen table on her own, and her employer beat her up and sent her home before she could come back once more in search for another job elsewhere. But the second place she went to was not better than the one before. The lady of the house used special instruments for beating her and the least of them was a shoe. The third household belonged to a French woman who let Katia sleep next to her dog so that she would be next to him and take care of him all night. She even left her in the house with the dog during the July War and ran away. When she came back, she refused to pay her and kicked her out and filed a case against her at the Public Security Office on the charge of escape.

Following this, Katia moved to another house to work for a blind woman and her husband who treated her with kindness and warmth. However, the husband took advantage of his wife’s situation and sexually harassed Katia. She then moved to Saida in the south of Lebanon and her mental state was a bit better. Her physical and humanitarian state however, was the opposite. Most of the work required of her in the two story household was to take care of animals, and also sleep in a room under the staircase with her two other co-workers. Katia was fed up and decided to run away and live with friends of hers illegally in a rented house to work from one house to another for $5 an hour. She used to pay a large percentage of what she earned to the person who claimed to protect her from the law and take care of her situation with the police. But it was inevitable for her to make the decision of going back home and giving up her dream once and for all before she walked in the footsteps of friends of hers who ended up committing suicide.

The story of Rinoka and Katia is not unique. Human Rights Watch rang the humanitarian emergency alarm and demanded the Lebanese government to take action and clarify the reason behind the return of foreign maids working in Lebanon to their homes in coffins. This demand came after the said organization declared the month of October a deadly month in Lebanon, when eight foreign maids died under mysterious circumstances. Four of the cases were categorized by the police and the embassies of the deceased as suicide, three others resulted from accidents at the work place, and one of them as a result of a heart attack, taking into consideration that six of the deceased either fell or jumped from a high altitude, while one of them hung herself from a tree. Four of the cases are from Ethiopia, two from Nepal and two from Madagascar. This outcry was preceded by a report released by Human Rights Watch last August declaring that the death rate among housemaids coming to Lebanon exceeded one case per week.

Such a tragic humanitarian reality that portrays a full picture surrounded with mystery and violation that commence the minute the maids set foot in Lebanon and sign a standardized work contract that grants them some rights on paper in the absence of any follow up from the state, followed by augmenting problems in the homes of their employers where no legal or humanitarian impediment passes without physically, mentally and verbally abusing these housemaids and sexually harassing them. Nadim Houry, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, attributes the situation of foreign workers in Lebanon to the lack of rights within the law for these workers. He sees the necessity of amending this law in accordance with human rights, forming a committee of inspectors to monitor the extent to which the provisions of the standardized work contract are implemented, and designating a hot line for receiving complaints. He says that the conditions set forth in this contract are not subjected to monitoring, and hence they are violated, taking into consideration that many issues that occur within households are not addressed in this contract, such as the employer confiscating the maid’s passport or not allowing her to leave the house and locking her inside the house when she is left alone.

In a study conducted by the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies, Lebanese researcher Dr. Ray Jureidini states that foreign housemaids in Lebanon are divided into three categories: maids who live and work in the same place, where the employers confiscate their passports and deprive them from leaving the house or their right to work under humane circumstances; maids who are contracted and live in a place other than their workplace, and most of them obtain leaves and residence through a sponsor with whom they establish the contract and work at their own expense provided that they give him a sum of money on a monthly basis; and illegal maids who most of them left the homes where they used to work and live either because of their will to change the place of their work, or for personal reasons, or because they were subjected to inhuman treatment.

Houry points out that embassies are also responsible for this situation because they do not play their role properly, and therefore, it is possible that the number of maids who died in Lebanon is higher than the declared number, since some consulates do not announce the death of their citizens, unlike embassies that take charge of transferring the body of the deceased. In addition, some countries don't have embassies or consulates in Lebanon.

Grace, who works in an office receiving foreign maids, states that the work movement at this time is nonexistent. She says that “after the Philippines prevented its citizens from coming to Lebanon, today, Nepal and Madagascar are treading in its steps, and the main reason behind this goes back to the mysterious death of citizens of these countries.” When Grace points out that “some offices bring women from the Philippines illegally,” she points out that “most agencies started to avoid bringing maids from Sri Lanka considering the strict rules imposed by the Sri Lankan embassy in Lebanon, following the many death cases, on the provisions set forth in the signed work contract so that the embassy is continuously in touch with its citizens to help them with any problem they may face. This situation decreased the number of death incidents that occurred to maids from other nationalities. In addition, maids from Sri Lanka started earning a higher salary that reached $180, despite the fact that they only know the language of their own country, while the salary of maids from other nationalities does not exceed $150, with the exception of maids from the Philippines, who receive a salary of $200.”

One official who works at the embassy of Sri Lanka in Lebanon assures that Sri Lanka did not prevent its citizens from working in Lebanon, but the agencies are trying to spread this false information because the embassy is strict about following up on its citizens.

Grace does not deny the violence that maids are confronted with within households, but at the same time, she also blames maids who, on many occasions, are disobedient to an unbearable point. In this case, owners of some agencies might want to “teach them a lesson” by beating them up so that they obey the orders of their employers. She says that “if problems arise between the maids and their employers, we try to solve them, and if we fail to do so, we assign a new sponsor for the maid because if she is uncomfortable at her workplace, she might attempt suicide.” Concerning follow up on the situation of maids and the way of applying the conditions set forth in the work contract, Grace points out that the office speaks with the employer if it discovers that the conditions set forth in the contract are not being followed. The office however, is not in any way responsible if the maid runs away, and it is the responsibility of the sponsor to inform public security about the escape. In the case of death, "our office coordinates with embassies, informs the parents of the deceased and sends them the money from the insurance company."

It seems that the outcry of Human Rights Watch drew the attention of the Ministry of Interior and the judiciary in Lebanon. The Lebanese judicial system has taken a positive step towards justice, and in the beginning of this December, issued a ruling convicting a Lebanese citizen and imprisoning her for a period of 15 days and obliging her to pay the Filipino maid who used to work for her the sum of $7,000 as compensation, taking into consideration that the ruling was issued when the plaintiff was out of the country. Prior to this step, Ziad Barud, the Minister of Interior and Municipalities declared that the ministry plans to take practical steps to ensure complete respect for human rights, provided that follow up occurs at the departments of public security in coordination with the judiciary, in order to facilitate the expatriation process, in addition to strictness in investigating each incident to which house maids are confronted with, ensuring the principle of equality before the law. Also, documents pertaining to maids shall be inspected for accuracy and legality and that each maid has the right to file legal cases at concerned authorities.

Nadim Houry believes that the step taken by the judicial system is an important one, especially since the Lebanese judiciary plays a main role in protecting foreign maids and applying the law without discrimination or favoring employees, especially since Lebanon is a member in the United Nations and signed several treaties pertaining to human rights, none of which is being applied. Houry attributes the lack of cases similar to this one to the difficulties confronted by maids when they file complaints and their fear of not being able to work in Lebanon if their sponsor or employer abandons them. If one of them files a complaint, she would be sent back home and no one will follow up on her case after this. He added that “one of the embassies in Lebanon informed us that it filed 50 complaints to the Ministry of Labor but did not receive a response to any.”

Attorneys Anton Al-Hashem and Nematullah Milan, who handle the cases of foreign maids at Caritas Lebanon did not see anything new in the judicial ruling that was issued recently, and believe that this ruling was preceded by other rulings that were not given any attention. Concerning Human Rights Watch’s monitoring of the situation of abused foreign workers, Houry states that “most cases investigated by the police are not seriously handled and do not receive the necessary follow up from concerned departments and the judiciary. The investigation is very shallow and restricted to interrogating the employer alone without the neighbors or the surrounding environment, and even if the autopsy report includes an unusual point, the investigation stands there and the file is closed and the cause of death is announced as suicide or work accident.”

While Al-Hashem and Milan do not deny the discrimination in the approach to legal cases presented by Caritas that are handled by a special lawyer, and other legal cases for which the court appoints a lawyer to defend the abused maid, which are sometimes prolonged and neglected, yet they consider the Lebanese judiciary to be responsive within specified boundaries centered around the right of foreign maids to obtain their wages, which are handled by public security, despite the fact that it is not its responsibility, while the criminal court handles assault cases in all its forms. Other rights however, such as end of service compensation and arbitrary firing are far-fetched since the Lebanese law does not stipulate any provisions that grant fairness to maids in such issues. At first, the Caritas lawyer plays the role of mediator between the maid who approaches the society and the employer. If the attempt fails, the file is transferred to public security, and in this case, the maid is deported home or the case is transferred to the attorney general’s office and then to the judiciary if it was proven that the maid has committed a crime. They add that “the more distinctive reasons behind these problems is the existence of gaps within the labor law and because the Ministry of Labor and Public Security do not follow up on the situation of maids and monitor the system of their residency and situation, especially when it comes to the exploitation they are confronted with from beating, working over 12 hours a day, being deprived food and being locked inside the house for months.”

They also draw attention to the spread of networks of imaginary sponsors who take advantage of maids, especially the ones who run away, because they work at homes and are paid on an hourly basis. Husun Sayah is the project coordinator for providing protection and support to foreign maids in Lebanon. This project gathers thousands of abused foreign maids who had turned to the organization requesting protection. Sayah states that “the maids come to us in a deplorable psychological state as a result of the physical, mental and verbal abuse they have been subjected to. They also suffer from social problems that are the result of the nature of their poor life in their own countries. Our role in handling such cases is focused on providing these maids with the necessary mental, social and health support in coordination with their respected embassies as well as raising their awareness about their rights and duties. We provide the same support to prisoner foreign maids who are arrested on the charge of robbery or because they do not have the necessary documents or because they work outside the homes of their sponsors in Lebanon.”