BEIRUT — Every year, promises of steady employment and wages higher than in their home countries draw hundreds of thousands of women from Africa and Asia to the Middle East for jobs as domestic workers. While they come to better their lives and those of the families they leave behind, many are met with a different reality: withheld paychecks, backbreaking hours, basic living conditions, confinement, and verbal, physical and sexual abuse. In Lebanon, abuse has been so prevalent in recent years that Ethiopia, the Philippines, Madagascar and Nepal — all major sources of domestic workers for the country — have set bans on their citizens traveling here for employment. While many of Lebanon’s estimated 200,000 domestic workers do encounter such abuses in the households where they are employed, there are also moves by organizations to address the problems facing domestic workers. On a recent Friday night, migrant workers from Africa and Asia joked with one another in English as they filed into a sparse, freshly painted room decorated only by a flat-screen TV playing a muted Bollywood film. They were arriving at one of the first meetings for Beirut’s new Migrant House, a Lebanese-funded, migrant-worker-run gathering spot in the city’s suburbs. “We wanted a safe, migrant-friendly place where migrants can simply meet and use the space as their office and headquarters to organize themselves with the help of Lebanese activists,” said Ali Fakhry, a spokesman for the Anti-Racism Movement, the Lebanese group of social activists responsible for funding the Migrant House. The ambition is to create an independent center where migrant workers can meet and organize in a country where foreigners are barred from unions and syndicates.
The Migrant House will not only be open to migrant domestic workers — an almost exclusively female group — but also to migrant workers who are men, many of whom come to Lebanon to work as laborers. To end abuses though, headway needs to be made in changing the mindsets of some in the Lebanese population toward domestic workers in a country where many refer to them as Sri Lankans no matter where they are from and negative stereotypes and prejudices still prevail. “It is very hard to change their mentality,” said Priya Subedi, coordinator of the Migrant House, herself a former domestic worker from Nepal. “Even if they are educated — even lawyers and doctors — the girls in these houses are mistreated.” Mr. Fakhry said, “The highest percentage of racism against the migrants is based on ignorance: They don’t know their culture, they don’t know their food, they don’t know their music.” A number of organizations in Lebanon have introduced campaigns aimed at Lebanese employers to raise awareness against abuse and to break down cultural barriers and negative stereotypes. Arabic-language children’s books created and distributed to youngsters by the International Labor Organization feature a young Lebanese girl who takes nocturnal educational trips in her dreams to the countries where domestic workers are from. Other booklets produced by the nongovernmental organization Caritas translate common words from Arabic into languages domestic workers speak and provide cultural information about their home countries. For those domestic workers who are treated fairly — and allowed to leave their employer’s residences on days off — working in Beirut can offer some comforts of home. On weekends, domestic workers flock to Dawra, a neighborhood where restaurants sell cheap bowls of curry and stores carry everything from injera, the spongy Ethiopian flatbread, to the latest Tagalog-language films from Manila. The Ethiopian pop star Teddy Afro plays sold-out gigs in Beirut, and his visage appears on many hats and T-shirts worn by domestic workers. Churches in the capital hold services in a number of languages spoken by domestic workers. Days off are still a luxury rather than a standard for domestic workers here, however. Most domestic workers legally employed in Lebanon are brought into the country by recruitment agencies and live in Lebanon under a sponsorship system. To hire a domestic worker, employers pay agencies high fees to bring them to the country and cover theirimmigration papers in addition to paying the workers a monthly salary. Critics of the way the domestic worker industry operates in Lebanon have said that the initial high fees that employers pay can sometimes result in the employers feeling that they can grant fewer rights to the domestic worker. “There’s no freedom; you can’t speak to your employer,” said Aida Sabuero, 30, a domestic worker from the Philippines who has been working in Lebanon for nine years. For the first three years of her contract, she said, her employer did not grant her a single day off. Withholding salaries, keeping the passports of employees and restricting their movements are all tactics that have been used by some employers to exert control over domestic workers and “protect” their overhead costs. “Many employers of domestic workers say, ‘We pay a lot of money and we want to protect our investment,’ holding domestic workers hostage, by not allowing them outside,” said Simel Esim, a gender specialist working with the International Labor Organization in Beirut. “It may be true that they do pay a lot, but if one compares what percent of that money actually goes to the worker and how much goes to the agencies, then it is not hard to conclude that the sponsorship system, as is, is functioning as an unfair business that is largely unregulated and needs to be critically reviewed and substantially revised.” A survey conducted this year by Caritas found that 70 percent of employers limit the freedom of movement of the migrant workers they employ. The survey also found that nearly 98 percent of employers retained possession of their employees’ passports. Although the companies that bring in domestic workers are often criticized regarding the abuses that occur, Hicham al-Borji, president of the Syndicate of the Owners of Workers Recruitment Agencies, said the lack of government legislation on domestic migrant workers was a key problem. “Our laws in Lebanon don’t give us any power to follow any abuse cases,” Mr. Borji said. Mr. Borji criticized companies that operate outside of his syndicate — which has signed a memorandum of understanding with Caritas to promote working standards — that do not respond to cases of abuse or hold employers to standardized contracts. “The biggest problem is this group of agencies working in a very bad way and the impact of their work is very bad for us — and the countries of the workers,” Mr. Borji said, referring to the bans imposed by several countries on sending workers to Lebanon. In Lebanon, the domestic worker industry is much more transparent than in some other regional countries, like Saudi Arabia, which has a far higher migrant domestic worker population. While multiple African and Asian countries have placed bans on their citizens working in a number of Middle Eastern countries, the number of domestic workers in the region continues to rise. Despite this relative transparency and initiatives under way to address the problems facing domestic workers here, reform is still in its infancy and for many any change would come too late. Marcy, 24, is a Kenyan domestic worker who was lured to Lebanon by a $200 per month salary. Instead of saving money as she had hoped, she said, her employer withheld her pay and overworked and verbally abused her. Today she waits in a shelter for abused domestic workers as the legal tangles that resulted from her decision to run away clear so that she can return home. She said that the agency that recruited her in Kenya neglected to mention the problems that domestic workers can face in the Middle East. “They said Lebanon is good,” she said. “But when I got here, I found that all they said were lies.” http://www.nytimes.com