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LEBANON: Maid To Serve

Simba Russeau

BEIRUT, Apr 15 2008 (IPS) - Adam, 32, left his wife and newborn daughter in northern Nigeria five years back to seek employment in Lebanon. He had a contract offering him 200 dollars a month to work in a cell phone shop in Hamra, Beirut.

One in five people in Lebanon is now a temporary worker from outside, mostly Africa. That means close to a million, for a Lebanese population of four million.

It’s a struggle for these workers, but not everyone is complaining.

Adam works in the shop, and also looks after a building by gathering the trash, mopping the floors and tending to residents’ needs.

“I have a good boss,” say Adam. “Most employers take your papers when you arrive in Lebanon but I was given all my papers back because my boss says this belongs to me.” Sitting in his small apartment enjoying his day off, he shows his Nigerian passport.

Last month, the company that employed Adam closed down due to financial difficulties and the political instability in Lebanon. Adam’s employers found him another cell phone company to employ him, and renew his work visa.

Adam also received a ticket to visit Nigeria and three months salary since he had six months remaining on a two-year contract.

“I am lucky. Every day after 5pm and on the weekends, I am free. No one bothers me. But when I hear stories about how the women are treated here it makes me want to cry.”

“Madame would beat me, and one day she forced me to cut off all my hair,” says Chandra from Sri Lanka. “I didn’t even have a room. I used to sleep on the floor in the kitchen.”

But women workers still want to come to Lebanon. Since the 1970s oil boom, domestic work has become one of the main avenues for female migrants seeking employment in Lebanon and the Gulf States due to a rising demand for household services.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the number of women migrant workers among all migrant workers has more than doubled since 1965.

Around 1980, large numbers of Filipino women began arriving as domestic workers. By the late 1980s Lebanese recruiting agencies began to bring mostly female domestic workers from Sri Lanka and Ethiopia.

Domestic workers’ wages average between 100-250 dollars per month. They can work up to 110 hours a week with usually no off days.

“In two years no day off,” says 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.” So she finally left. “I am free now.”

In most Arab states, labour laws do not cover domestic workers because they work in the household, which is not considered a workplace. They are considered servants, not employees.

Rights groups like the New York based Human Rights Watch have released reports documenting widespread abuse, unpaid wages, confiscation of passports and forced confinement.

But not all employers are bad, nor all workers unwilling, or even unhappy. Most middle class families hire domestic workers to lessen the load of daily household care.

“Basically it’s a big house and we’re a big family,” says Beirut resident Basma. “Also my mom has been sick with an infection in the blood that makes her very weak, so we needed help caring for her.”

Less than a year ago they hired 18-year-old Alumnesh from Ethiopia. Standing in the kitchen as she takes a break from preparing vegetables for the evening meal, Alumnesh watches her favourite television show Star Academy.

“I want to save money so that I can go back to Ethiopia and study arithmetic and Amharic at the university,” says Alumnesh.

Alumnesh assists Basma’s mother with cooking, cleaning and grocery shopping. Unlike most domestic workers in Lebanon she has her own room, and for 100 dollars per month (close to 1,000 Ethiopian Birr) Alumnesh is able to support her family back home.

“My mom treats Alumnesh as a new daughter and asks her to call her mom,” adds Basma. “She left her family in Ethiopia and now we are her family for as long as she stays with us.”

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