Nothing says “I love you, Mom” like a discounted African housekeeper

Huh???

Seems like that’s what this Lebanese agency that brings domestic workers into the country wants you to think:

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The image of the SMS above was reproduced today on the Facebook page for KAFA, an NGO in Lebanon that fights to eliminate all forms of exploitation and violence against women in Lebanon. (Mother’s Day is celebrated in Lebanon on March 21.)

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are an estimated 250,000 domestic migrant workers in Lebanon (that’s about 100,000 more than what the Lebanese government says are registered). They hail from Kenya and Ethiopia, Togo, Senegal, Madagascar, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and more….

Filipinas are the preferred domestic worker here, and receive the highest wages. As far as I can tell, there seems to be an assumption about Filipinas being better educated, and they usually speak English, (a sought-after skill for the Lebanese who want their kids to practice English with their nannies). College educated and English-speaking from Bangladesh or Nepal? Sorry, based on your nationality, you’re at the bottom of the pay scale. Kenyans and Ethiopians fall somewhere in the middle.

Shortly after I arrived to Beirut, one Lebanese woman expressed her concern when I told her I’d hired an Ethiopian to help around the house.

“Do you lock the house when you go out?” she asked me.

“You mean, with my worker inside?”

“Yes.”

It took me a second to gather my thoughts, blown away as they were by this casual dismissal of basic human rights.

“I could never lock anyone inside the house. I mean, what if there was a fire, or an accident?”

The Lebanese lady tried to break it to me gently. “It’s for her protection, so that she doesn’t mix with the wrong people.” She paused. “It’s that the Ethiopians aren’t mentally stable.”

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An Ethiopian domestic worker in Beirut. (c) Ester van dan Berg, flickr Creative Commons

According to a recent study by KAFA of Bangladeshi and Nepali domestic workers in Lebanon, “Clear indications of forced labor are found when examining the work and living conditions in Lebanon. About 77% of those surveyed worked at least 14 hours a day and were denied rest periods during the day. The personal identification of 96% were retained by their employers and 90% were prohibited from going out alone, while 91% were denied the right to a day off. Moreover, 50% were locked inside the house, and 43% were not allowed to contact their families.”

Yeah, with those conditions, I don’t think I’d be so mentally stable either.

The dismal report continues, “Domestic workers are also the victims of emotional, physical, and sexual violence exercised by the employers or the placement agencies. The survey showed that 46% of the MDWs were threatened, including threats of physical violence, denunciation to the police, deportation, in addition to being denied basic rights such as access to food, receiving their due salary or contacting people. About 62% were subjected to verbal abuse by a household member, a relative, or someone from the recruitment agency. Over half that amount, or 36%, were subjected to physical violence such as beating, pushing, slapping, hair pulling, stick or belt beating, biting and hair cutting. Moreover 10% of the surveyed claimed sexual violence such as unwanted sexual advances, molesting, or rape. The survey found that 82% of the workers declared that they felt they were forced to work.”

Migrant workers arrive to Lebanon and other Arab countries through a system called kafala, which is a sponsorship program.  According to the ILO, “Employers justify the retention of passports and confinement in the home on the basis of the kafala system, which gives them legal responsibility for the residency and employment of their domestic workers. Their sense of entitlement over the worker is heightened by the significant cash outlay they have made to recruit him or her from another country. In the countries of the Middle East, some of which lack affordable public provision for the care of children and the elderly, even families with very limited financial means are left with little choice but to hire external help… Employers also prevent their employees from leaving by requiring them to pay high fees for their release, withholding their wages as well as personal documents.” This four-minute video by KAFA illustrates how the system functions.

The situation is such that both Ethiopia and the Philippines have banned their citizens from coming to Lebanon as domestic workers. But they arrive anyway, sometimes smuggled in illegally – an act which can result in incarceration.

According to the NGO Caritas International, migrant workers (male and female) comprise fifteen to twenty percent of Lebanon’s total prison population. “Most are charged for irregular entry or stay, escaping from the employer, falsification of documents or theft. However, a large majority of complaints that employers file against their domestic workers accusing them for theft are false, or even abusive.”

At the end of last year I came to realize that all incarcerated female foreign workers are kept at Adlieh: a dungeon of a prison built underneath a highway flyover not far from where I live. Formerly an underground parking lot, this prison was created to house 250 inmates, but hundreds more are crammed in.

According to a 2012 report in the local newspaper, those in Adlieh are not technically prisoners, but ‘administrative detainees’ – trapped in limbo because they cannot afford to buy a ticket home but lack the papers to work and earn money for their ticket, or because they have no identification. Or because they have run away from their employers but require their approval to go home.

Detainees are kept in groups according to nationality and gender. Caritas helps arrange food for the prisoners, and a woman I know helps support this effort. I offered to help out with one meal, and I prepared a vegetarian rice dish, bulgur salad, fruit, juice and cookies for 50 women one day.

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“Would you like to give the meal to the Filipinas or the Bangladeshis?”

I was seriously supposed to choose? “Either is fine. Whoever needs it most.”

“Bless you. Label it for the Bangladeshis then, because the Filipinas receive more support.”

Maybe that’s because the Filipinas earn the most on average, and so can better help their compatriots in prison. My Ethiopian employee told me that at the church she attends, they take up a collection from time to time to pay for plane tickets for those who are entitled to go home but lack the funds. Being at the bottom of the pay scale, it’s no surprise that the Bangladeshis would end up most in need. Heartbreaking.

Certainly not all Lebanese are comfortable with the kafala system, nor with the racism that was perpetuated in the Mother’s Day ad above. In addition to the admirable staff and volunteers of organizations like KAFA, Caritas the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH), the Anti-Racism Movement, and the Migrant Workers Task Force (MWTF), there are thousands of people in and out of Lebanon who would like to see the system changed. (Elie Fares, author of the blog A Separate State of Mind is just one of them – it was thanks to his blog that the SMS came to my attention today.) Let’s join their ranks.

If you’re interested in doing something more than reading about the issue, financial contributions can be made to CDLH to help amplify their efforts, or to the Migrant Community Center to help provide workshops, classes and events for migrant workers in Beirut. Make the donation in your mother’s honor.