Lebanon's army of foreign maids organise to fight exploitation
Despairing of any real change coming from the government, or the lobbying of sympathetic NGOS, they have finally taken matters into their own hands and created their own trade union.
Women deprived of all forms of social protection wake up in our houses, without us having the slightest concern for their wellbeing.
Silent and industrious, they spend their days washing, drying, ironing, cooking, pressing, chopping, mincing, scrubbing, child-minding - answering "I'm fine" because there's no other response to give, though we know nothing of their past or of their story, of the children they left behind to come and work in Lebanon.
|The first union for domestic workers in the Arab world was founded in Lebanon on 5 May.
There are more than 200,000 of them in Lebanon, from various countries including the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Cameroon, Ethiopia and Nepal.
"If you took a cross-section of all the floors at this moment", says Rose, the vice-secretary of this new union, pointing to a tall and wide building, "you'd see that there are girls inside who are not even allowed to stand at the window and look at what is going on outside.
"We are the ones on the outside, who can fight for them. If we don't, who will? That's why I joined this movement."
This year, the Mayday celebration took on a new dimension for the domestic workers of Lebanon.
It marks the formal creation of their trade union. It was established on 25 January, with support from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITC) and the National Federation of Workers and Employees' trade unions in Lebanon (FENASOL).
Domestic workers are, for the first time in the history of this country, the spokespeople for their own demands. Up until now, they have been spoken for by Lebanese NGOs.
Rose arrived, aged 45, from Cameroon about fifteen years ago. She was lucky enough to begin working for a "very respectful woman" who gave her a lot of freedom.
"I'm one of the privileged ones, in comparison to the others, and this freedom allows me to listen to my colleagues, to welcome them into my home," she said.
"That's how I became the leader of my community. Before the trade union was set up, I didn't know who I should go to with all the complaints I was receiving.
"It's good to make sure there's a space where someone will always listen to you. It helps to alleviate the suffering of the workers, but it is legislation that we badly need. It's the only way of protecting our rights we have. If there were laws in place, I'm not sure that people would allow themselves to behave in the same way."
She explained that many women arrive in Lebanon without really knowing what to expect.
"You're promised work in Lebanon, then you discover the conditions here. You get caught in the system. All we are hoping for in creating this trade union, is to gain visibility, to show that we exist. Lebanon should ratify the ILO convention."
However, in the absence of institutional recognition, the suffering created by servitude remains an open wound.
The Ministry for Work refuses to legalise the trade union, ignoring their request sent in January.
Farah Salka, the General Coordinator of the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM), condemned the perceived contempt of the minister, Sejaan Azzi, who, she says, "greets us with insults and verbal attacks, despite the fact that as the minister, he is supposed to defend the rights of employees".
"He terrorises them. I don't understand his reluctance. It's in his interest to respond to their demands because the trade union exists, whether he likes it or not."
But this minority of active and engaged domestic workers may find it hard to connect with the silent majority, who sometimes suffer from isolation to such an extent that it has a profound effect on their mental health.
Suicide rates are increasing; the embassies of the domestic servants' countries do not support their citizens; some women are deprived of food, beaten and sexually assaulted for months by their employers.
One young woman saved by the Kafa association was sexually exploited by her boss, who sold her to various men.
Other women are unjustly accused of being thieves, allowing their employers to avoid having to pay for their return ticket at the end of their contract. And when they experience serious health problems, they have no access to healthcare whatsoever.
Some women are subjected to entirely gratuitous humiliation and overwork in tasks that are exhausting and sometimes pointless. Deprived of any privacy, some do not have their own bedroom; they sleep in the kitchen, in the living room, on folding beds or on minute balconies turned into "maids quarters". The toilet is the only place with a closing door.
|The current minister greets us with insults despite the fact that he is supposed to defend the rights of employees...
Rose initially refused my invitation to have a coffee at the terrace of the cafe opposite. We stayed standing on the pavement.
"You know why I avoid going into cafes?" she asked me at the end of the interview.
"When I hear "hiye shou bidda?", which means 'what does she want to order?', it really irritates me. I don't care about the rest, you can spit on me in the street. I can wash that off with water. But when people talk about me in the third person, it really annoys me. I can't stand hearing the word 'hiye' (she) any more."
Dehumanised and objectified, these workers are often forbidden from having any kind of private life.
When questioned, the argument often put forward by the families who stop them from going out alone is the fear "that she might get involved with men and bring home diseases".
Social scorn trumps racist contempt. In addition to being saddled with the most overused cliches of being ugly or dirty, the employee is denied any form of sexuality, so as to avoid contact with inferior social classes and risk being judged "unhealthy".
Another racist and paradoxical rule: access to swimming pools and private beaches is forbidden, because of fear that they might "dirty the water", even though they are the ones who prepare food and feed the children.
The kafala system legalises this system of enslavement.
"Things cannot go on like this", says Farah Salka. "If their 'sponsor' becomes abusive, the victim cannot lodge a complaint against him or her."
Labour laws in Lebanon, which have not been amended since independence in 1943, are in desperate need of reform, said Salka.
"They don't cover these 200,000 female immigrant workers. Lebanese labour law is not the world's best - but at least it covers some of the fundamental points, including restrictions on working hours, annual holidays, maternity leave and the right to resign."
Further from Beirut, workers find themselves even more isolated, almost held as prisoners. For those who have the "luxury" of internet access, social networks have provided social contact for those most vulnerable.
Tabel, who was suffering from tuberculosis and had been locked in the dustbin room of the recruitment agency while coughing up blood, was able to alert a friend thanks to text messages sent from a mobile phone.
It is in an effort to combat this isolation that the Migrant Community Center (MCC) is preparing to open a branch in Jounieh, and another in Saida.
|Access to swimming pools and private beaches is forbidden, because maids might “dirty the water” even though they prepare food and feed the children.
Confronted with total disinterest on the part of the embassies, the MCC, set up three years ago in partnership with ARM, provides a space for training, language classes, workshops of all sorts (music, yoga, sewing), and organises meetings, birthdays and wedding ceremonies.
The centre is also setting up excursions, and some migrants who have been living in Lebanon for more than 10 or 20 years are just now discovering towns other than the capital.
I ask Rose to talk to me about her plans for the future. She takes a deep breath and answers without hesitation: "Go back home and see my grandchildren grow up."
Sacrificing their own family lives and abandoning their own children to go and bring up those of others, these workers bring a certain kind of balance to Lebanese couples. Lebanese women today are refusing to perform domestic tasks, but men feel emasculated when asked to help out.
Having a housemaid is one solution to the tensions that arise in couples over these basic issues.
As this is a domain traditionally managed by women, and one that becomes blurred with the unpaid, exhausting work required to maintain the house, domestic arrangements are managed by the women.
The violence that female employers inflict on their employees is just as heavy-handed as that which men inflict on their wives in Lebanon.
A version of this article was first published by our partners at Orient XXI.