Meeting Lebanon's slaves

Meeting Lebanon's slaves
In-depth: Slave labour remains common practice among migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, whose death rate has doubled as a result of suicides or attempted escapes, reports Alessandra Bajec.
10 min read
25 July, 2017
ILO Convention 189 guarantees rights for domestic workers. Just 23 countries have ratified it [AFP]

News of a young Ethiopian woman who died a few weeks ago while trying to escape from a seventh-floor balcony east of Beirut prompted outrage across social media, including this post from a group named the Anti-Racist Movement: 

"Because the conditions are suffocating? Because she hasn't been paid for x number of months? Because she has no possible legal way of quitting this job? Because she hasn't spoken to her family in how long? Because the door of the house is locked perhaps??? Or why else?"

Based on figures disclosed to the IRIN news agency by Lebanon's General Security department, migrant domestic workers are dying at a rate of two per week in Lebanon.

The latest statistics reveal the rate of deaths has doubled since a 2008 report by Human Rights Watch. The bodies of no fewer than 138 women houseworkers were repatriated between January 2016 and 16 April of this year. 

In many cases, these deaths are suicides or escape attempts, in which migrant women jump off buildings, fleeing their abusive and exploitative employers.

KAFA, a Lebanese women's rights group, is the only NGO actively counting these deaths, relying on local news reports to map cases.

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Ghada Jabbour, head of KAFA's exploitation and trafficking in women unit, suggests that numbers may be even higher, as they rely on officially reported cases to make their tragic tally. 

"The working and living conditions of these women, and the journey they take to Lebanon play a big part in such deaths," she said, referring to the widely condemned recruitment practices of migrant domestic workers in their countries of origin.

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Ruby is a 27-year-old maid from the Philippines. "They treat us like animals," she said. "After one month in the job, I was begging my madame to let me leave but she wouldn't [let me go]." It was her first experience of work outside her home, now many thousands of miles away.  

The young Filipina was not shown a work contract by the recruitment agency in her country, nor from the Lebanese agency. She was told her wage would be $400 per month on a two-year contract.

But when she arrived in Lebanon in May 2013, Ruby's female employer told her she would be paid just $250 a month on a three-year term. 

I was forbidden to cook my own food. I asked my boss to buy me food and deduct money from my salary; she didn't want to

And instead of working at one household, the employer would pass her around other houses too. She was not allowed to keep her passport, nor hold her salary. Every time she needed to send money home, she would have to ask her employer to do it for her.

"I had to be available at any hour of the day; there was no day off, and I could only call home once a month," Ruby told The New Arab. "I was forbidden to cook my own food. I asked my boss to buy me food and deduct money from my salary; she didn't want to."

After a year, she could no longer handle the tough conditions. In July 2014, she called her friend who was near the house to meet her outside, found the front door unlocked, packed her stuff and ran away.

Since then, Ruby is performing non-live-in domestic work on a part-time basis without papers. As a "runaway", she risks getting arrested and deported at any time. She now wants to go back to the Philippines with her one-year-old child.

Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are today bound by the kafala sponsorship system which ties workers, mostly women, to one employer - and does not allow them to change or quit jobs, let alone leave the country without the employer's consent.

Employers also have the power to cancel the maid's residency visa, forcing her to either stay in the country illegally or leave by means of deportation - often spending time in prison before being shipped out of the country.

"Foreign domestics" are excluded from labour legislation - meaning no right to a minimum wage and no days off. They are vulnerable to labour exploitation and abuse and the hands of their employers. The Lebanese government has not implemented the 2011 ILO Domestic Workers' Convention 189.

Non-payment of wages, overwork, denial of movement, lack of food and emotional abuse are common. Salaries are typically lower than workers had been promised in their home countries, averaging between $125 and $250.

These women are dying at a crazy rate and nobody is questioning why

Farah Salka, executive director of ARM, said there was no sign that the government wanted to change the migrant labour system.

"We have 300,000 female houseworkers in this country with zero legal protection, and [the government] don't understand this is serious," the director said. "These women are dying at a crazy rate and nobody is questioning why."

Mekdes Yilma did not have a day off in three years
[Alessandra Bajek]

The Ministry of Labour has even refused to recognise Lebanon's domestic workers' union, formed in 2015 by workers across the country to protect their rights.

"I will never work again as a live-in maid," swore Mekdes Yilma, from Ethiopia.

Driven out of her country to earn money and support her family, the 25-year-old applied through a local job agency in 2008 to end up with a family of four in Lebanon on $150 monthly pay.

Her employer's husband frequently offended and cursed at her.

"He hurt me a lot, thinking I was dirty because I'm black, and telling me bad words.

"He used to tell their three-year-old girl to sneeze in my clothes and hit me," she said through tears. "I was facing all this because of my skin colour."

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She did not have a day off for three years; locked inside the house without going out. She was taken to a public phone to call her family once a month.

"The girls are dying here and no-one cares," she sobbed.

Despite everything, she stayed for five years and spent the last period with the two children after their parents divorced. It was too much for her to deal with the eldest daughter, growing up as a difficult teenager, while taking full responsibility for the house.

Now working illegally as a domestic at three different offices, she has faced potential detention and deportation every day since 2013.

Mekdes' boss said the young woman could break her "contract" with a $4,000 payment - likely a coercive tactic to make her stay. She refused to pay.

He used to tell their three-year-old girl to sneeze in my clothes and hit me... I was facing all this because of my skin colour

Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon lose their legal status if their employer terminates their contract, or if they decide to leave their employers - regardless of the legitimacy of their reasons to quit.

If the worker breaks the contract, she may also be fined or forced to pay debts to the recruitment agency.

The exploitation begins the moment they arrive, when their passports are seized by airport security staff - who hand them directly to their employers. Although it is illegal, employers in Lebanon customarily withhold workers' passports, presumably for fear that their maids would leave.

"I found myself in an airport basement with a bunch of other foreign women, waiting for several hours until my name was called," said Myrna, a 50-year-old Filipina who arrived in December 2004. "Then my madame came to pick me up."

Ruby, Myrna and Virgie's exploitation began the moment they arrived in Lebanon [Alessandra Bajek]

Having been told she would receive $400 a month by the agency before departure, she too discovered her wage would be $250 once she arrived in Lebanon. The employer failed to process her legal papers for five months.

Following a three-month probation, if satisfied with the work performance, the employer is required to take the worker to a notary public and get her to sign a standard contract in Arabic – without an English translation. The worker is then issued a visa and work permit.

"I was expected to get up at 5am every day to start working - but because everyone was still in bed, madame would be very annoyed if she heard any noise."

During meal times, she was asked to stand beside the family to pass things around whenever needed. No time off was permitted. For sustenance, she was allowed a box of 12 chicken wings or burgers that was meant to suffice for the whole week.

Shaking her head, the maid said she did not know why her boss was constantly angry watching her back.

"One day, I was in the kitchen when my employer suddenly came and beat me from behind," she said. "I asked why she did that, she insulted me, I answered back - then we had a fight."

That morning, Myrna decided she would escape. After asking permission to go and buy something quickly, she left through the back door, jumped in a taxi and never returned.

Although she claimed her passport back, her ex-boss refused to let her leave the country even during Israel's 2006 attack on Lebanon, when the Philippines embassy was evacuating citizens.

Working part-time, still illegally, today she plans to go home and stay with her 13-year-old son. He was just over one when she left for Lebanon.

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Since employers hold the worker's passport, changing jobs is impossible unless a new sponsor is found. Once a worker is eventually released by her madame, she is left without papers and with little chance to secure another employer except via recommendation - or if her prior boss provides a reference.

Virgie, a 62-year-old Filipina domestic worker, first arrived at the end of the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war. Hired directly by a friend of her aunt's employer, she was offered a $200 monthly stipend. After the contract ended, her boss got rid of her before she could find a new employer. When she returned to Lebanon in 1995, Virgie found a part-time job, yet her madame had still not sorted her papers, so over a year later she left.

No food was provided, I and the other maid used to eat leftovers from whatever the family ate... We were treated like dogs

Looking worn out, Virgie remembered how hard her first job was. While paired with another Filipina, she would work all day long in a large villa with four children to nanny, from 6am until 1am.

"I was cleaning all the time, with kids running around. My boss would always check the floor and furniture to spot any small mark and complain, saying I didn't clean," she said.

"No food was provided, I and the other maid used to eat leftovers from whatever the family ate. We tried to get the driver to buy food as they wouldn't let us out for a day," she said. "We were treated like dogs."

If there were any issues with the children, the madame would systematically take their side, accusing the two maids of being liars and verbally abuse them.

"One day, their small son took a bird shotgun from the storeroom and told us both to stand in a corner pointing the weapon at us," she recalled. "We screamed, terrified: 'Don’t shoot, or we will die!'"

Since 1996, Virgie has works as a freelance, covering odd hours whenever there is demand. Living on modest earnings and with little saved up - and with no legal papers - she realised it was not worth continuing to stay in Lebanon.

She has not see her family for 22 years.

"Our life here is uncertain. Being un-documented means we may be stopped at any street or checkpoint," she explained. "We keep hiding like rats."

More than 250,000 women from the Philippines, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are employed by private households in Lebanon to carry out household tasks such as cleaning, washing, cooking, and nannying.

The death toll is a shocking indicator of the urgent need to improve their working conditions.

Rights organisations have been advocating for better protections for years. Among them, Insan Association providing protection services; AMEL promoting social and labour rights; the Migrant Community Centers working on awareness-raising to increase public support for non-discrimination, better legal protection and the abolishment of the kafala system; and KAFA doing advocacy work and providing support.

Despite the growing activism, there has been no policy shift at a governmental level. Salka says there is "no serious will" from anybody - governmement, police or local media - to change the fates faced by these women, nor to document or investigate the deaths.

"The problem is deep-rooted, the whole system needs to be changed," said Jabbour. "The hardest part is getting a law that reflects that change."

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Beirut. Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec