Lebanon's foreign domestic workers fight back at abuse

Posted at 01/28/10 11:08 AM

BEIRUT - Abused, humiliated and deprived of the most basic rights, foreign maids in Lebanon are starting to fight back against their employers in court and, in rare cases, they are winning.

Nanda, from Sri Lanka is one of the few to break the silence.

The 22-year-old arrived in Beirut in 2009 to work as a housekeeper, hoping to help support her eight-year-old daughter and soldier husband back home with her meager monthly salary of 180 dollars (127 euros).

Instead she found herself trapped in an abusive household with no way out.

Nanda's employer confiscated her passport and forced her to work seven days a week, although her contract stipulated eight-hour workdays and a recent decree adopted by the Lebanese government that calls for domestic workers to be given one day off a week.

"I worked from 5:30 in the morning until midnight, non-stop and without pay," she recalled. "And what's worse is I was never allowed to call my family."

Nanda was particularly shocked when her employer's six- and 12-year old children took to beating her when she did not cater to their whims.

"I did not understand Arabic and now I know I was often being treated as a 'sharmouta'," the Arabic word for whore, Nanda said, fighting back tears.

"For my first two months in Lebanon, my boss gave me one slice of bread a day to eat because she said I was too fat, and sometimes leftovers. I was always hungry," she told AFP, sitting in a shelter at Caritas Lebanon, a charity group that offers refuge to victims of domestic abuse.

But today, Nanda has joined a growing number of foreign workers who are filing lawsuits against their employers in a bid to improve their lot.

"We hope that justice will find her," said Dima Haddad, a social worker at Caritas which is giving Nanda legal assistance.

Haddad said she especially hopes Nanda will repeat the success of 29-year-old Filipina Jonaline Malibagu, whose employer was sentenced in December to 15 days in prison by a Lebanese court for abuse and ordered to pay 7,200 dollars (4,950 euros) in damages.

"Another worker who had not received her salary for years also managed to win compensation in court in 2009," Haddad said.

Many of the estimated 200,000 foreign domestic workers in Lebanon hail from the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia.

The Philippines, Ethiopia and Madagascar now ban their citizens from travelling to Lebanon due to the tiny Mediterranean country's poor labour rights record.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday that Middle Eastern governments were failing to improve their human rights records, including for the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers.

The HRW World Report 2010 highlighted the poor treatment of workers in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Jordan, where they face "exploitation and abuse by employers, including excessive work hours, non-payment of wages and restrictions on their liberty."

But there are signs, albeit small, that the Lebanese state and society are waking up to the problem.

In January 2005, Lebanon's immigration authorities agreed to grant Caritas the right to house abused workers and provide them with medical and legal counsel.

And last year the government issued a decree that requires employers to abide by a set of rules including paying workers their salary in full at the end of each month and giving them one day off a week.

But advocacy groups say few employers respect these conditions.

"These rules stipulate one day off a week, but many employers still refuse to allow their housekeepers to leave the house," Haddad said.

"The issue is definitely becoming more visible," said Nadim Houry, HRW senior researcher in Beirut. "But many workers still do not dare complain because of fear, or because they have no papers."

Houry said widespread abuse, and sometimes rape, has caused an alarming number of suicides.

HRW estimates that one domestic worker commits suicide in Lebanon every week on average.

"When you're cornered, suicide becomes a real option," said Nanda.