Posted by: sean | May 5, 2008

Put yourself in her shoes

I’m a little late for Labor Day, but Human Rights Watch here in Lebanon has begun an awareness campaign for rights of domestic workers entitled Put Yourself in Her Shoes:

The condition of (predominantly women) domestic workers in the Middle East is atrocious. Apparently, the problem is as bad in Israel as it is in Lebanon and even worse in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. According to HRW:

The most common complaints made by domestic workers to embassies and nongovernmental organizations include non-payment or delayed payment of their wages, forced confinement to the workplace, no time off, and verbal, as well as physical, abuse. According to a 2006 survey conducted by Dr. Ray Jureidini of 600 migrant domestic workers, 56 percent said they work more than 12 hours a day and 34 percent have no regular time off. In some cases, workers have died while attempting to escape these conditions, some by jumping from balconies.

…The Lebanese authorities have failed to curb abuses committed by employers and agencies. Lebanese labor laws specifically exclude domestic workers from rights guaranteed to other workers, such as a weekly day of rest, limits on work hours, paid holidays, and workers’ compensation. Immigration sponsorship laws restrict domestic workers’ ability to change employers, even in cases of abuse. An official steering committee created in early 2006 and led by the Ministry of Labor to improve the legal situation of migrant workers in Lebanon has yet to deliver any concrete reforms. This includes a long-discussed standard contract to outline minimum standards for domestic workers’ employment.

Human Rights Watch called upon the Ministry of Labor and other relevant authorities to amend the labor law to extend equal protection for domestic workers and to sign and ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

A few years ago, the Times did a story about Sri Lankan women who go to the Middle East to work as domestic servants.  This picture is of a 20-year-old woman named Thangarasa Jeyanthi who was severely abused in Lebanon. In Lebanese Arabic, the common word for a domestic worker is “Sri Lankan.” At one point, I remember hearing a joke about an NGO that was fostering multiculturalism by doing presentations with people from all over world invited to introduce themselves to the audience. The Egyptian man comes and says he works as a concierge. The Syrian says that he’s a field hand. And then comes the Ethiopian who introduces herself but forgets to say what her profession is. When reminded that everyone has to say what they do, she replies, “I’m a Sri Lankan.”

In the case of Sri Lankan women, the conditions that they live and work in criminally miserable, and their government is actually complicit. There are training programs that teach the women some Arabic and how to do what is expected of them without receiving the beatings that are so common. The government encourages women to go to the Middle East, they provide remittances that help keep the Sri Lankan economy afloat.

An Ethiopian friend of mine here used to work for a big hotel in town, but she wasn’t allowed to be hired directly even though she has all of her papers in order. The hotel insists on going through a middle man, who garnishes half of the wages of the foreign women working at the hotel. A salary of $450 is reasonable (and more than twice the pitiful minimum wage), but when some sleazy profiteer gets to pocket half of your salary, it’s difficult to survive, especially with the increasing price of living (many food items have nearly doubled in price in the last 9 months).

In contrast with Colombo’s policy of encouraging the migration, Ethiopia’s government has taken the decision to ban its citizens from coming to Lebanon in search of employment:

ADDIS ABABA: On the occasion of Labor Day, Ethiopia has officially banned its citizens from traveling to Beirut in search of jobs, the African country’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs has disclosed. Ethiopia passed the bill after it probed the human right violations and domestic violence Ethiopian migrants face behind closed doors in Beirut while employed as maids.

“Suspending work travel to Beirut was the only solution to minimizing the human rights abuses and dangers facing our citizens,” said Zenebu Tadesse, deputy minister of state for labor and social affairs.

During the past few years, a number of Ethiopians have died in Lebanon in questionable circumstances.

According to a report published by Ethiopia’s official news agency, past human right records show that 67 Ethiopian women have died between 1997 and 1999 alone while working in Beirut.

The ministry said it would take strong action against any employment agency trying to send workers directly to Beirut or through a third country.

So for Labor Day this year, I’d like to remind everyone that Sri Lankan is a nationality, not a profession. And I’d like to remind the Lebanese, many of whom go off to Europe, North America and the Gulf in search of work, that they should have a little solidarity with domestic workers here who are hoping to make so money to create a better life for themselves. As my friend Nadim from HRW says about their media campaign: “Many Lebanese themselves have been forced by wars and hardships to emigrate looking for a better life. We hope that they will see the parallels with the experience of these migrants that came from far away to care for Lebanese families.”



  1. […] or hats with Ethiopia’s national colors on them. It was a pleasure to see people who get such a raw deal in Lebanon and throughout the region enjoying a little bit of national pride, especially since most people in […]

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