BEIRUT, Sep 13 2007 (IPS) – Driven by poverty and conflict in their home countries, women from Africa travel to Lebanon only to find themselves hungry, abused, raped and subjected to conditions akin to slavery.
Amira is 25 years old. She comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “One time, Madame found dust on the furniture. She told me that the house was dirty like my skin.”
For four years Amira has been confined to the apartment of her employers – only leaving to take out the trash. She came to Lebanon as a domestic worker on a six-year contract due to ongoing conflict in her country. Awakened daily at 5.30 am, she is subjected to 18 hours of back-breaking labour without time off.
“Even the dogs are allowed to go out, but we're stuck,” she says from across the balcony. “We're like slaves here.”
Amira is among the over 30,000 African domestic workers in Lebanon. Mainly from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Nigeria and Sudan, they provide the bulk of household and cleaning services in Lebanon.
Traditionally, households would employ young Lebanese women, mainly from poor rural areas, Palestinians, Syrians or Egyptians as domestic workers. These days, Arab women rarely do such work in Lebanon – viewing it as degrading or unacceptable – leaving it instead to migrant workers who take on poor working and living conditions and low wages.
“Sometimes they don't feed me. If they provide lunch then it is only bread and cheese,” says 19-year old Aisha from Nigeria. “If I run away and the police catch me without papers, then I will be arrested.”
The employer confiscates the maids service passport and other identity papers, which are returned when the employee is “released” at the end of the contract.
“Confiscating passports is seen as securing their investments,” says Najla Chada, director of the Caritas Migrant Centre. “Domestic workers are not under the categories of workers, so they are not covered under Lebanese labour laws. They are considered servants.”
Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are covered under the Kafala or sponsorship system, which states that women must attain a legal sponsor for the duration of their contracts, forcing migrants to be dependent on their employers, and vulnerable to abuse.
Sixteen-year old Elisa is from Ethiopia. Her mother died last year, and six months ago she came to Lebanon to work and send money home to her family. For 100 dollars per month she maintains five houses a day.
“When I started work with this family I was sexually abused all the time by the father of my employer. The kids would beat me everyday and I would try to explain to Madame but she wouldn't do anything. Sometimes the father would come to sleep with me and threaten that if I refused he would beat me. So I left the house.”
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), there are currently over 20,000 Ethiopian women working as maids service in Lebanon. Before leaving Ethiopia the agency told Elisa that if the employers beat her then she would need to call the Ethiopian embassy in Beirut.
Ethiopia has yet to establish an embassy in Lebanon due to political relations between the two countries, which leaves an understaffed consulate with the overwhelming task of protecting the interest of Ethiopian migrants. Many women enter into debt to pay the agency fee in their home countries for sponsorship abroad. Although Elisa fears taking on a new employer, she says she still wishes to stay in Lebanon to work.
“Maybe I will have the same problems with my new employer but because I have problems to take care of in Ethiopia I will have to take a chance.”
Although Lebanon is a member of the advisory committee to the UNHCR, it has not signed the 1951 Geneva Convention dealing with migrant workers. Lacking the normal rights of citizens to access public forms of assistance, migrants are faced with the option of running away and becoming illegal, or coping with the daily abuse. Despite pressure from labour organisations, the Lebanese government has done nothing to address the issue.