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LEBANON: Lucky to be Just ‘Ugly’ and Slapped

Mona Alami

BEIRUT, Oct 14 2008 (IPS) - “My maid is extremely ugly, I can’t fight the urge to slap her when I see her early in the morning,” boasts a Lebanese trader from Ain Anoub village just outside Beirut. He laughs.

It gets worse. A recent report by Human Rights Watch disclosed that at least 95 migrant domestic workers have died in Lebanon since January 2007. About 40 of the cases were classified suicides. And 24 were described as workers falling from high-rise buildings, often in an attempt to escape their employers.

Having Sri Lankan, Philippine and Ethiopian workers at home is a matter of social status in Lebanon, and very much the norm. Most earn less than the 300 dollars monthly minimum wage.

A 2006 survey of 600 domestic workers in Lebanon by Dr Ray Jureidini from the American University in Cairo reported by Human Rights Watch found that 52 percent of domestic workers were verbally abused. More than 55 percent of the workers interviewed worked more than 12 hours a day, with more than 21 percent working more than 15 hours a day.

The study showed that 34 percent of respondents did not have regular time off; 42 percent had one day off a week; 4 percent had time off every two weeks, and 2 percent once every four weeks. Many were not allowed a minimum degree of privacy, with 9 percent sleeping in the household salon and 6 percent in the kitchen.

“While one of the less frequent violations is employers not providing housekeepers with a space of their own, the most common is retaining their wages or delaying salary payment, followed by forced confinement,” says Nadim Houry, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

In one reported incident of abuse in May this year a couple living in Koreytem – one of the capital’s most affluent neighbourhoods and the scene of intense fighting – locked their housemaid in their apartment with only a few days’ supply of food while they fled to safety.

Karunawati Welagader, a Sri Lankan domestic worker, says her sister, employed in the household of a government official, was constantly on the verge of depression until she returned to her home country. She was locked up and not allowed to make phone calls.

“My sister’s case is not unusual in a country like Lebanon; her living conditions were probably much better than other workers, who besides being locked in are often not fed or clothed properly.”

Lebanese children with Asian maids are a common sight in Beirut at restaurants, classy beach resorts or on way to school. Lebanese women seem to trust domestic workers when it comes to their children, but not when it comes to property. This may explain why the passports of an estimated 85 percent foreign workers have been confiscated by their employers. They are held to prevent a housekeeper stealing and running away. Houry says physical abuse is another violation, though less frequent, and one that sometimes leads to molestation and rape. The study found that the female employer hit her domestic helper in 61 percent of cases, followed by the male employer (23 percent) and children (11 percent).

In the Jureidini study 14 percent of respondents admitted to being abused. About 7 percent declared they had been sexually harassed. “This figure might, however, be higher as many cases go unreported,” says Houry. In 64 percent of the cases it was the male employer who harassed his hired help, and in 21 percent, the son.

In Verdun, another rich Beirut neighbourhood, a teenager at one of the foreign schools jokes about his friend prostituting his parents’ Sri Lankan housekeeper. “My friend offers his maid’s services for a given price. Most of his friends have had a sexual experience with the housekeeper at one time or another when the parents were out.”

Foreign domestic workers in Lebanon have almost no protection. Under Lebanese law, foreign domestic workers are not entitled to minimum wage, and are excluded from labour laws and regulation. “Domestic workers are dying in Lebanon at a rate of more than one per week,” says Houry.

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