Domestic workers migrate to Lebanon from all over Africa and Asia. They are part of the street scene of Beirut. And part of an abusive system. This is a story about Karen, the maid of my green grocer, her colleagues, those who fight for their rights, and those who fight against.
BY ANNE KIRSTINE RØNN
On the corner from my apartment in Beirut, there was a little green grocer. Its owners, a couple in their 50s, had a young African housemaid working for them. I often saw her in the morning, organizing vegetables in plastic boxes on the shelves outside of the shop.
The streets of Gemmayzeh, the wealthy Christian neighborhood, where I lived, were full of domestic workers; walking dogs, carrying laundries and groceries, picking up children from school. All of them migrants, either Asian of African, and all dressed in those old-fashioned cotton uniforms with aprons. There are approximately 250,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, according to the International Labor Organization, ILO, and it seemed to me that a great part of them was to find in this area of Beirut.
Maltreatment of housemaids is a phenomenon which most Lebanese are aware of. In fact, the sector is known as an area where human rights are ignored, and where violence and physical abuse is widespread. According to the law, migrant workers have the right to one full day of rest per week. However, a study by the ILO has showed that half of the workers never get off. Since there is no minimum wage for domestic workers in Lebanon, many are paid less than $200 a month. And since there is poor control with employers, some let their maids live under conditions that lead them to commit suicide.
A life inside the home
While learning about the conditions of domestic workers, I could not help wondering about this African girl at my green grocer. I became curious to know her story, and as I passed by the shop one day, I seized the chance to talk with her.
I found out her name was Karen, and that she came from Kenya. Back home she was studying at the university, but could not afford to continue. Hoping that a few years of work abroad could pay the rest of her education, she signed up for an agency that facilitates contracts with Lebanese households. We had a short chat. After a minute or two, I asked if I could write her story. An optimistic move, I knew. And I was hardly surprised when she looked at me with an expression saying my chances were low. She did not have much time to talk, she explained. When not working in the shop, she was cleaning the house of the family and preparing dinner.
I realized that my only option was to ask the shop owner for permission. He was quite eager to talk about Karen. He told me how he hired her through an agency and it seemed like a smooth and easy process. He and his wife had received a document with pictures and profiles of different girls. They picked Karen, the agency fixed the visa, and she arrived in the airport shortly after. The contract was to last for two years, but Karen was both nice and hardworking, so the shop owner would soon offer her to stay longer.
My chances of an interview with Karen under four eyes, however, were poor. The shop owner did not allow her to talk to strangers in privacy. He told me there were cases of housemaids who had run away with Lebanese men, and he would not take any risk. Therefore, wherever the family went, Karen followed: Holidays, trips, family visits. They barely left her out of sight.
Keeping housemaids in close line is normal procedure among employers in Lebanon. Part of the reason is a safeguard they pay the agency of between US$ 2,000 and US$ 3,000. This money is lost if a domestic worker runs away. Many maids are restricted from leaving the house. ILO also reports that around 95% of employers keep their housemaid’s passport, and that one of five even lock them in behind closed doors.
The poor power of the law
Lebanon’s government has long been aware that the country’s agencies do not meet international standards. About a month ago, the Ministry of Labor took action and revoked the licenses of 171 out of Lebanon’s 700 domestic worker recruitment companies. Another 23 were suspended and will have to change their standards to reboot their permission to match foreign workers and Lebanese families.
Still, the agencies can find their way around the rules in many ways. Some countries like the Philippines, for instance, have introduced a ban against travelling to Lebanon for domestic work. Nevertheless, agencies overcome this hurdle by charging a fee to cover the cost of smuggling workers through the Arab Gulf countries.
In fact, there are not many laws that apply to migrant workers at all. The Lebanese government has refused to ratify the International Labor Organization’s Domestic Workers Convention, which states that workers “recruited or placed by private employment agencies” should be protected “against abusive practices”.
In addition, the system itself, which migrant workers are employed under, excludes them from Lebanese labor laws. The system is called “Kefala” and is used around the Gulf and Levant. It requires that all unskilled workers have a sponsor in the country they migrate to, who is responsible for their visa and legal status. Usually the sponsor is the employer. Besides being outside labor laws, the sponsorship makes workers totally dependent on the people who hired them.
Most violations remain in the shadows, as a secret between the employer and the worker. There is not much the government can do. The Ministry of Labor can inspect the agencies, but they cannot step into all private work spaces of the 250,000 maids. All the Ministry of Labor did when the licenses of agencies were revoked, was to appeal the employers to treat domestic workers in a respectful manner, and to fully safeguard their rights.
Seeking to the informal sector
A fair question to ask is; does the closedown of agencies make any difference? Even if the leisure time was enforced, and the minimum wage obeyed by the formal sector, some would seek towards the informal sector for alternative work to supplement payments. There is still a demand for housemaids, there are still many women in seek for labor, and there are still many informal networks, that can connect the two.
Like my next-door neighbor’s Filipino maid. I often took the escalator with her, and on the way to the sixth floor, we had our small chats about topics like the weather and the food we would cook for dinner. One day, she asked me if I had any friends who needed help to do their laundry or cleaning. She had her weekends off from my neighbor’s place.
Or like the Ethiopian girls I saw, when I was on a ride with my friend. They were walking in and out between the cars, wearing miniskirts, and heavy makeup. “These are housemaids,” my friend said. “They prostitute themselves when they are off from work.”
It makes me wonder; would Karen too seek for a second job, if she had more time off from the green grocer at the corner from my apartment?
Why change is hard
The scale of abuse of domestic workers in Lebanon is unknown. There are no accurate statistics.
NGO’s and Lebanon’s domestic workers’ union mostly does documentation of abuse. The union was established in January 2015, after the Lebanese Ministry of Labor had rejected it for a long period.
In fact, the government had done a large effort to prevent the formation, because Lebanese law denies foreign workers the right to form their own unions. It had even threatened to use the Security Forces to break up the establishing conference.
Today, almost two years after its establishment, the fight between the government and the union continues. Earlier this month, two Nepalese domestic workers and activists, who were among the founders of the union, were arrested. One of them, Roja Limbu is still detained in prison and has been refused access to lawyers.
The signatures of the petition to release Roja are close to 40,000. Nevertheless, the great support is not reflected in the member statistics of the union. Only few hundred domestic workers attend the demonstrations and meetings. The women, whose rights are to be claimed, never leave the houses they work in and are impossible to mobilize. Perhaps this is the greatest problem of all.