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Female migrant workers face uncertain futures

“I pray to God you will have a good madam,” said Nirosha’s mother, as her 18 year-old daughter was set to leave Sri Lanka to work as a domestic servant in a Lebanese household. “Maybe she’ll even let you prepare Sri Lankan food.”

The scene, from the recent documentary “Maid in Lebanon”, sums up the hopes and fears of the hundreds of thousands of female migrant workers, mainly from Asia and Africa, who work overseas as maids or nannies. “Women leave the country in search of a better future,” said the film’s director, Carole Mansour. She pointed out that an estimated 600,000 Sri Lankan women currently work overseas, remitting some $100 million back home every year.

But while many end up working for respectable families, many also end up being mistreated and abused. “In Sri Lanka I visited a special hospital that cares for women who have returned – abused and penniless – after working overseas,” said Carole Mansour. “One woman had just come back from Saudi Arabia with burns all over her body.”

According to the Ministry of Labour, there were more than 100,000 registered migrant workers in Lebanon by the end of 2005, roughly 40 percent of whom were Sri Lankan nationals. The rest consisted of Filipinas, Ethiopians and people from other Asian and African countries. This number is expected to increase further following a recent government decision to lift a ban on Ethiopian workers, in effect since 2004.

Providing refuge

Najla Chahda, head of the Beirut-based Caritas Migrants Centre, however, suggested that the real figure for migrant workers is much higher, given the high number of unregistered workers. Founded in 1994, the Caritas centre’s mission is “to strengthen and protect the human rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Lebanon”, explained Chahda. Among other things, the centre offers legal counselling and medical help to migrant workers, while also trying to raise awareness of workers’ rights.

“Over the last 10 years, we’ve made enormous progress,” said Chahda. “People have become more aware of migrant workers’ rights, and the government has been more active.” Despite these achievements, however, Chahda added that “too many people still think they literally own their maids, and can have them work 24 hours a day”.

In June 2005, the centre carried out a survey on Lebanese perceptions regarding the rights and responsibilities of female migrant workers. After questioning 600 employers in the Greater Beirut area, the survey found that 90 percent felt they had the right to retain servants’ passports; 54 percent said they had the right to lock servants inside the house; and 31 percent said they had the right to physically hit servants.

Rape and abuse

In “Maid in Lebanon”, three female migrant workers tell their stories. Two of them had been physically abused by “madam” and her husband, while a third was raped repeatedly by her employer’s 17-year-old son.

In an indication of their often difficult circumstances, a handful of female migrant workers commit suicide every year. Many others, if given the chance, will simply run away if faced with abuse. To deal with such cases, Caritas has created a number of “safe houses”, where frightened and abused foreign maids can find sanctuary. Caritas has also established a telephone hotline for migrant workers or concerned neighbours to call in the case of suspected abuse.

“The problem is that most employers keep maids’ papers to prevent them from running away,” said Chahda. “As a consequence, runaway servants are technically illegal in the country, and can be subject to criminal investigation.”

Most arrested migrant workers end up at the Adlieh detention centre, which currently houses some 550 such women. Caritas, however, has been allowed to establish a centre inside the prison that provides legal and medical assistance.

Calls for Justice

In 2003, one employer was sentenced to 15 days imprisonment for beating and burning her maid; another was ordered to pay a $1500 fine for damages and repatriation expenses. Such cases, however, remain exceptions to the rule. “Court cases take years, making it very expensive, and cases are hardly ever won,” said Chahda. “Instead, cases are generally settled by giving the girl her papers back so she can go home.”

In January 2004, the government, for the first time ever, issued a decree aimed at regulating the working methods of local recruitment agencies. The new legislation obliges such agencies to register with the authorities and forbids any kind of physical abuse.

Despite such legislative progress, though, critics point out that Lebanon has yet to sign the International Convention on the Protection of Migrant Workers.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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