Domestic workers are slaves in Lebanon
Domestic workers are slaves in Lebanon
Will shaming employers on social media bring justice for Lebanon’s domestic workers? Roshan De Stone and David Suber write from Beirut.
A Filipino worker in a Lebanese house shows a picture of her daughter. She hasn't seen her for years. Credit: Matthew Cassel
‘I’ll give you a good young girl, so you can be sure she listens to you,’ the Lebanese recruitment agent tells us. He is looking through the pages of a big black book filled with photos of women. All their details are there: religion, height, weight, age and country of origin. ‘She will never need to leave the house without you,’ he says.
We said we were looking for a maid and we walked into a recruitment agency in Beirut. The agency is busy. Lebanon has a population of six million and it has more than 250,000 migrant domestic workers. More and more Leban¬ese families rely on the foreign workers. Most are women. But Lebanon’s employment laws are not regulated. This allows abuse.
Lebanese employers are important for the foreign workers to stay and work in the country. This means the Lebanese employers can control the foreign workers. There are warnings of the dangers the workers will find in Lebanon but many workers, often from East Africa and South Asia, believe the false promises of a better future. Lebanese recruitment agencies work with smugglers and travel agencies in the home countries (eg the Philippines) to bring the workers to Lebanon, where they introduce them to their madame.
When they go to their employers, they are open to abuse. Lebanese law may give them rights to sick pay, for example, but not many migrant workers receive it. The Legal Agenda is a local NGO working to defend workers in court. It says 54 per cent of Lebanese employers do not give days off, and 23 per cent lock their maids in when they go out.
Challenging the abuse is almost impossible. This is mostly because workers become ‘illegal’ if their employment ends for any reason – even if the employer does not pay wages or is abusive. So abuse is part of the system and two domestic workers die every week.
For years local activists and solidarity organizations have protested against these conditions with demonstrations, general strikes, and street rallies. International groups such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have made protested and they say the system is like modern-day slavery. They are trying to make Lebanon’s government change the law. Camille Abousleiman is the Minister for Labour. He says he will change the labour law to start ‘treating foreign workers with respect’. But he has done nothing yet.
A Filipino worker cleans a kitchen in Lebanon. Credit: Matthew Cassel
‘This is Lebanon’
This is Lebanon is a small volunteer organization in Canada. Its idea is to name and shame abusive employers on social media.
Dipendra Uprety started the group. Dipendra says. ‘When we receive complaints of abuse, we first contact the employers privately. We ask for their story first. If employers do not reply, or do not show they paid wages, or do not allow the workers to leave the house, we put their names on social media.’
At first employers ignored this. But when This is Lebanon’s Facebook page got more popular, it became more effective. ‘We have success with about 50 per cent of cases of abuse without Facebook,’ says Dipendra. ‘But sometimes we have no other choice.’
For example, Halima is a Filipino domestic worker. She began working for her Lebanese employer in 2007. Her family heard nothing from her after she arrived in Lebanon. So they tried to contact her employers through the Philippine Embassy and the local recruiting agency, but with no success.
For 10 years Halima’s family received no news because her employers stopped her from leaving the house or using a phone.
The family contacted This is Lebanon and they ran a socia-media campaign against her employers and asked for her release. The campaign got the attention of international media and the family allowed Halima to return to the Philippines but with no payment for her 10 years as a slave.
‘We have rescued 41 migrant domestic workers from abusive employers and we are working on 95 other cases,’ says Dipendra. ‘1,492 workers have contacted us for help in the last two years. We receive more than five messages from workers on our Facebook page every day.’
A Madagascan domestic worker outside the apartment she shares with other women. Credit: Matthew Cassel
Dipendra was once a migrant worker in Lebanon. Now he lives in Canada under permanent protection status. The police kept him for six months in Lebanon after he challenged his employer for not making his residence legal. ‘I went to the police and reported my employer. The police called him in but they took me to prison.’
Dipendra says This is Lebanon only exists because migrant workers have no access to the country’s courts. But This is Lebanon have made some of the Lebanese public angry. They say This is Lebanon accuses employers unjustly and gives Lebanon a bad name. Tony Khalife is a Lebanese television presenter. He said This is Lebanon is a ‘mafia-style gang and uses blackmail to get money from people’.
Dipendra says that it is not blackmail when they try to stop abuse or get money which is not paid. Naming and shaming without a judicial verdict is a problem if they make false claims. But Farah Salka, executive director of the Anti-Racism Movement in Beirut, says this is not a reason to protest against This is Lebanon.
‘Critics should first look at how Lebanon’s legal justice system fails with migrant domestic workers,’ she says. ‘Are all the cases on This is Lebanon’s site 100-per-cent accurate? I don’t know… But how can we get evidence of all the abuse in the houses around us in this country if the government does nothing?’
The Lebanese have tried to stop This is Lebanon. They told Dipendra that they asked Interpol for his arrest after This is Lebanon reported the abuse of a maid working at the home of an important official.
They have blocked This is Lebanon’s website many times and now you cannot contact it in Lebanon. ‘The authorities have tried to close down our Facebook page,’ says Dipendra. ‘But when we explained to Facebook what we do, they put it back.’ The cybercrimes bureau contacted Dalal Mawad, a journalist and a supporter, a few days after he shared a This is Lebanon Facebook post. It talked about abuses by the son of a powerful local politician in Beirut. They told her to remove the post or the employer would sue her.
And Mawad is not alone. Three other people told us the same story.
The calls by the cybercrimes bureau are illegal. Wadih Al-Asmar is director of the Lebanese Centre for Human Rights in Beirut. He said that the cybercrime bureau can call people for investigation only if Lebanon’s attorney general asks for it. ‘They cannot ask people to remove social-media posts before a judge decides if it is illegal or not.’
Farah Salka says, ‘If anyone has a better suggestion for bringing justice to domestic workers, then let them please come and do a better job than This is Lebanon.’
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