Put yourself in her shoes

On Labor Day 2008, Human Rights Watch calls attention to Lebanon's domestic workers who are still denied the most basic rights. With the slogan, 'Put yourself in her shoes,' the NGO hopes to enlist the support of the Arab media in order to better the lives of Lebanon's nannies and housemaids.
Domestic workers in Lebanon. © Simba Ruseau / arabimages.com
Elsa and her Madame: there are close to a million foreign domestic workers taking care of 4 million Lebanese. © Simba Russeau

BEIRUT, May 1, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Wednesday's press joint conference by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Lebanon's Insan Association and Caritas was entirely in Arabic. A deliberate choice, explained Human Rights Watch's Nadim Houry.

"The press conference was specifically geared towards the Arab media as an appeal to Lebanese employers, recruitment agencies and the Lebanese government to ensure that these women are protected by law," said Houry.

"We have to find some allies in the media to help change mentalities through the way they cover the issue of migrant workers."

Domestic workers' wages in Lebanon average between $100-250 per month. They work up to 110 hours a week with no off days. 

"In two years no day off," said Amelia Cortez, a 25-year old domestic worker from the Southern Philippines.

"I ran away from my Madame because she's not good. She locked me in the house. Every night she locked the door and every day she watched what I am doing. She didn't want to give freedom to me."


Traditionally, Lebanese households employed young Lebanese women – mainly from poor rural areas –, Palestinians, Syrians or Egyptians as domestic workers. These days, such work is rarely done by Arab women, who view it as degrading and instead leave it to the migrant workers who often have to accept poor working and living conditions and low wages. 

16-year old Elisa is from Ethiopia. Her mother died last year, and 6 months ago she came to Lebanon to work and send money home to her family. Awakened daily at 5.30 a.m., she was subjected to 18 hours of backbreaking labor without any time off. For $100 per month, she maintained five houses every day.
"When I started work with this family I was sexually abused all the time by the father of my employer," says Elisa.

"The kids would beat me everyday and I would try to explain to Madame but she wouldn't do anything. Sometimes the father would come to sleep with me and threaten that if I refused he would beat me. So I left the house."

In Lebanon, labor laws generally do not cover migrant workers because they are considered servants not employees. 

Instead they are covered under the Kafala or sponsorship system, which states that women must have a legal sponsor for the duration of their contracts. One result of Kafala is that the migrants become completely dependent on their employers and vulnerable to abuse. 

"For those women who face abuse it's tough because they carry the pain with them and keep working," says Linda from Nigeria.

"It helps if you have employers who understand the pain in leaving your families."

Passports confiscated

Lebanese employers typically spend up to $3000 in fees to recruitment agencies in order to secure a domestic worker from Sri Lanka, the Philippines or Ethiopia.

Once the domestic workers arrive in Lebanon, a new agency usually substitutes the contract signed in the workers' home country with a new one in Arabic. Unable to read the new contract, the newly arrived migrants often sign away their rights without being aware of it.  

"Now we are working to create a unified contract that is clear for both the employee and the employer and which has to be signed by both parties. One is in Arabic and the other is in the language of the worker," said migration lawyer Roland Tawk.

"We have these agencies that take money and this money is what creates this problem of poor working and living conditions."

Upon arrival in Beirut the employer typically confiscates their maid's passport and other identity papers, which are returned only when the employee is "released" at the end of their contract. 

"Employers confiscate the passport in order to protect the money they've invested," saidTawk. 

With the slogan, "Put yourself in her shoes," Human Rights Watch is specifically targeting the Lebanese employers in the hope of erasing the concept of the master-servant relationship from their minds.

"Many Lebanese themselves have been forced by wars and hardships to emigrate looking for a better life," said Houry.

"We hope that they will see the parallels with the experience of these migrants that came from far away to care for Lebanese families."

If Human Rights Watch has chosen to target the employers directly it is in part because of the failure of the Lebanese government to address the problem.

"The Lebanese government has failed in protecting the rights of these workers. We have seen official steering committees for the last two years debate a proposal but they are not getting anywhere," said Houry.

"We can't wait for the current political situation in Lebanon to clear before we start addressing this issue."

Also read:

- From HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: "Exported and Exposed: Abuses against Sri Lankan Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates," November 2007.


Fighting racism, one child at a time
Posted on 04/28/2008 - 17:19
One in five people in Lebanon today is a domestic worker from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia or the Philippines. Simba Russeau organized a media workshop at a school where their children mix with those of Iraqi and other refugees. Using interview techniques, she tried to get the kids to overcome their prejudices against each other. Lebanon, Children of Domestics.jpg