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Lebanon’s maid trade is modified slavery

Despite frequent abuse, immigrant domestic workers in Lebanon are denied protection under the law

March 26, 2015 2:00AM ET

When I checked in online recently for a Lufthansa flight to Beirut, a pop-up window prompted me to confirm my compliance with two important Lebanese entry regulations. The first was that “holders of passports containing any Israeli visa or stamp will be refused entry” — understandable, given Lebanon’s acute Israeli spy problem.

The second was that “maids must ensure that their passport includes a departure stamp issued by the country they departed from.” This regulation targeting maids (or, as we call them in polite conversation, domestic workers) highlights one of Lebanon’s many social afflictions: the relegation of a substantial portion of the population to an inferior tier of existence.

According to the International Labor Organization, there are more than 250,000 female immigrant domestic workers in Lebanon, a country that had a population of just 4 million before the recent influx of displaced Syrians. These refugees have now joined immigrant laborers, sanitation workers and others on the lowest rung of Lebanese society.

The female domestic workers — who hail from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Nepal and elsewhere — operate under kafala, a sponsorship system that Lebanon shares with the Gulf monarchies. Under the kafala system, immigrant workers are sponsored directly by employers, with no recourse to Lebanese labor law or other state protections.

Reports abound of pervasive abuse by sponsors — including beatings, confiscated passports and withheld wages, not to mention the practice of holding employees hostage inside locked houses. Suicide is rampant; there is no shortage of reports of domestic workers plunging off balconies.

Architecture of abuse

The direness of the situation, however, barely registers in Lebanon. Perhaps one reason is that premature death is more familiar in this conflict-plagued nation than it is elsewhere.

But the lack of concern is better explained by the dehumanization of immigrant workers, who have been incorporated as accessories into many well-to-do Lebanese households — and some not-so-well-to-do ones. Maid’s rooms, a common feature of residential architecture, are often indistinguishable from closets.

The relationship between employer and employee can be likened to that between human and microwave oven. If the latter malfunctions, there’s no reason not to smack it. And if for some reason it falls from the balcony, the only problem is having to replace a lost investment.

In an attempt to combat their degradation, domestic workers in Lebanon are pushing to form a union, and several hundred attended an inaugural congress in Beirut in January. As might be expected in a country of institutionalized injustice —where it’s normal for beach resorts and pools to bar maids from swimming and for kindergartens to reject kids of mixed Lebanese-African heritage — progress has been slow.

A recent statement signed by more than 100 nongovernmental organizations calls on the Lebanese government to recognize the union. But the government, which has long fostered an atmosphere of employer impunity, remains less than enthusiastic. The Labor Ministry denounced the whole idea of a union as “illegal” and threatened to unleash police on the January congress.

Maid to order

To get a better sense of Lebanon’s maid trade, I visited a couple of housemaid recruitment agencies in Beirut, pretending to be an elite refugee from socialist Venezuela, home to a large Lebanese community.

In a tiny country where an entrenched ruling class maintains power through sectarianism, it’s easy to see how fostering divisions perpetuates elite domination.

At the first agency, House of Maids in the Corniche al-Mazraa neighborhood, Khaled Shmaitelly gave me the rundown: A two-year contract for an Ethiopian maid would cost me $2,200, including airfare and paperwork. A Kenyan maid would set me back $2,300; a Bangladeshi, a mere $1,500. None of this money went to the worker.

I would pay a monthly salary directly to the maid: $200 for Ethiopians and Kenyans, $150 for Bangladeshis. Ethiopians who speak no English or Arabic get the Bangladeshi fee. There are no mechanisms, government or otherwise, to enforce the payments.

When I asked in my best whine if I was required to give the maid a day off, Shmaitelly assured me I was not, though Kenyans and Ethiopians are allowed to phone home once every 15 days. If my maid proved defective within the first three months, he would exchange her for free.

My next stop was Yes Madam in nearby Mar Elias, whose brochures depict black women pushing baby carriages and holding vacuum cleaners. Here Filipina workers were an option ($4,500 for an open-ended contract, plus a monthly salary of $200 to $250 and annual residence permit renewal fees). Africans were cheaper than that but more expensive than at House of Maids. Days off were necessary only if I was feeling magnanimous.

The clerk informed me that the company does its best not to recruit maids who are prone to depression or are otherwise problematic. One rule of thumb is to avoid anyone who has worked in other Arab countries, “where they treat maids like slaves,” the staffer said.

The class card

The fusion of racism and classism in Lebanon has become so complete that a certain nationality or physical appearance is often enough to determine your social rank and profession in the eye of the Lebanese beholder. For example, the very term “Sri Lankan” serves in Lebanese jargon as a synonym for domestic worker.

The only way out of such pigeonholes is to flaunt superior socioeconomic credentials. As a young Lebanese-Thai man explained to Lebanon’s Al Akhbar newspaper last year:

I realized that one can fight racial hierarchy with social hierarchy. When I go out with my friends for lunch, we sometimes pretend that I’m the son of Thailand’s ambassador in Lebanon, and suddenly everyone treats me differently … with more respect.

Lebanon isn’t the only place on earth where money talks. But in a tiny country where an entrenched ruling class maintains power through political sectarianism, it’s particularly easy to see how fostering additional divisions can help perpetuate elite domination.

And although Lebanon’s poor masses can’t afford to buy domestic servants, they can still participate vicariously in the Lebanese superiority complex. As in the U.S., popular anti-immigrant attitudes can distract poor Lebanese people from the real causes of their plight.

Closer inspection might reveal that poor folks have more in common with other poor folks — regardless of national origin — than with the guys running the show. But these are messes that will require some thorough domestic cleaning to sort out.

Belén Fernández is the author of “The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work,” published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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