“I was forced to stay in a tight one metre by two metres attic for three years, sleeping on a cramped bed next to a hot-water tank that would leave blisters on my feet,” Patricia, from the Cameroon, suffered abuse while working as a migrant domestic worker in the Lebanon, she told 7D News.
With a brittle voice full of sadness, Patricia said: “I was forced to eat standing up so I don’t waste time. I was abused both physically and sexually.”
On the daily struggles facing domestic workers in Lebanon, she noted that “getting sick is forbidden,” adding that panadol was the only form of medical attention she received when she was not feeling well.
“In their eyes, we simply do not deserve to visit of a doctor,” added Patricia.
In a nutshell, the migrant maid described working conditions under her employers in Lebanon as a “living hell.”
Lebanon, according to human rights campaigners Amnesty International, hosts more than 250,000 registered domestic workers from countries in Africa and Asia, the vast majority of them women. The workers come primarily from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.
After sitting with a number of housekeepers, nannies and maids in Lebanon, appalling human rights abuses were discovered to be actively and regularly exercised against the workers away from home, according to human rights activists.
A number of interviewees relayed experiences of coerced isolation in which employers prevented them from leaving the home in which they worked, or communicating freely with friends and relatives. Others said employers confiscated their passports, deprived them of food, and treated them in a dehumanizing way.
“Hardships faced by domestic workers today in Lebanon is reminiscent of the times of slavery," said Bizu Aaya, an Ethiopian worker, in an interview with 7D News.
In 2014, Bizu travelled to Lebanon, a country where she would work 14 hours a day, face verbal abuse and derogatory racism.
“I once told my employer she was like a mother to me, she later yelled, telling me she doesn’t accept such an analogy and that I should always keep in mind that I was nothing more than an Ethiopian worker,” she said.
Speaking up about having been raped by her employer’s brother got her nowhere either.
“When I said I was going to the police, the employer threatened me, saying I would not be believed and would instead be treated as a guilty liar, my hair would be shaved and I would be tortured,” Bizu, who eventually managed to escape the house without any identification papers, told 7D News.
She now works at one of Beirut’s beauty salons and is collaborating with a local human rights activist group to bring her rapist to justice, and help others who suffered injustice like herself.
“Do you know that some women were killed upon returning to their country because they got pregnant from rape? Are you aware of the countless many who contemplated or committed suicide because of violence they endured? Were there ever investigations into our suffering?” Bizu asked, angry, sad and tired.
“Of course not. To them, to brutal employers, we’re not humans and it doesn’t matter if we live or die,” she said, answering herself.
For Bizu, death was not an option. “I am a human with rights, and I will raise my voice,” she said.
But not all the women who are going through the same anguish come out with the same courage that Bizu did.
Mary, one of Bizu’s friends, arrived to Lebanon in 2013 and has tried ending her own life three times after her employers locked her indoors for a whole year, and confiscated her passport.
Mary recounted how she was constantly beaten and humiliated, and forced to work very long hours.
“I went to sleep hungry and I was deprived of my wage. I was never treated like a human being,” she said.
According to Diala Haidar, a local campaigner at Amnesty International, suicide rates for foreign house help in Lebanon has shot up recently, with nearly three cases of attempted suicide being reported weekly.
The reality for foreign workers in Lebanon is very tragic, said Haidar.
And, Haidar, speaking to 7D News, said that an up-to-date report published by the rights group has covered the stories of 32 domestic women migrant workers who are the victims of "long working hours, unpaid wages, house arrest, starvation, poor healthcare, immoral, physical and sexual abuse, forced labour and human trafficking.”
The testimonies of interviewed women, according to Haidar, prove that they are incapable of attaining justice due to Lebanon’s so-called Kafala, or sponsorship system designed to specifically monitor labourers or domestic migrants.
Domestic workers in the tiny Mediterranean country are excluded from the labour law, and instead obtain legal residency though their employers’ sponsorship under the Kafala system.
“When a worker escapes the employer's house, their legal residency is revoked and they are not entitled to file a complaint. They become fearful of getting arrested, and turned from victim to culprit,” Haidar explained.
On the need for raising human rights awareness among employers, Haidar said: “of course, a culture of human rights is required, but the starting point is enforcing a system that protects these workers.”
Independent Aid Groups
In light of the Lebanese government's refusal to allow domestic workers to establish a labour union, this neglected community has opted to create modest non-governmental groups that provide support to those in desperate need of help.
One of these aid groups is Mesewat. It provides financial and legal support and shelter to underprivileged and abused migrant workers in Lebanon.
However, Mesewat spokesman Samuel Bashah noted that independent groups remain under-resourced compared to the challenge they are trying to meet.
“The organization receives at least five complaints of verbal abuse and seizure of salaries daily,” Bashah told 7D News.
“Not a week goes by without reports of physical and sometimes sexual abuse being made,” he added, explaining that his group refers these types of complaints to rights associations or Lebanese human rights activists.
But things don’t always work out for the best. With great regret, Bashah stressed that “some employers cannot be held accountable if they enjoy a certain financial or social authority.”
‘Their House is My Prison’—Amnesty International Report
Amnesty International has recently published a report entitled “Their House is My Prison,” that urges the Lebanese government to take all necessary measures to amend the shocking situation.
All migrant domestic workers, according to the report, are not only excluded from the Lebanese labour laws, but they are also governed instead by the Kafala system, which ties the legal residency of the worker to the contractual relationship with the employer.
“If this employment relationship ends, even in cases of abuse, the worker loses regular migration status. Moreover, the worker cannot change their employer without the latter’s permission,” it added.
“This allows the employer to coerce the worker to accept exploitative working conditions. If a migrant domestic worker refuses such conditions and decides to leave the home of the employer without the latter’s consent, the worker risks losing their residency status and consequently detention and deportation.”