Maids are a status symbol
by Björn Zimprich, Beirut, May 2011
Björn Zimprich lives in Beirut and work as a specialist for the Forum Civil Peace Service (forumZFD).
In more than a hundred thousand Lebanese households, Asian and African maids slave away for a mere $100 up to $200 per month. Their legal position is precarious. Mistreatment is nothing out of the ordinary. The Caritas is taking care of the most serious cases. A visit to a protection centre in Beirut.
"There were a lot of problems in the family I was sent to. The mister always shouted at me. I had to go out nightly. To go buy cigarettes. When his cigarettes were running out, he would immediately call me names. He always called me ‘slut.’ All day long." Maria stares at the ground as she tells her story. “Sometimes I ate with them, but often I got nothing.”
One day, Maria could not bear it any more. She wanted to leave, but she was not allowed to. "He said I had to first pay $1,000 if I wanted to go. But then he suddenly threw me out: ‘This is not a hotel, go away!’ he screamed at me. I was not allowed to bring my things with me. Even my passport is still there." Maria stops telling her story. She sits quietly at a small kitchen table. The attic flat in which she currently lives is protected by a heavy iron door. This is her refuge, a protection centre of the Caritas Lebanon. Her accommodation for the near future.
Maria is not her real name. Even a photo of her may not be shown. The German visitor had to certify in writing before the meeting that he would secure the woman’s identity. Maria is not alone. The other women from the Philippines, Ethiopia, and Sri Lanka who share her flat are currently undergoing court proceedings. They came as maids to families in Lebanon. But now they seek protection against their former employers. They were abused, beaten or denied salary.
Her refuge lies in Daura, a nearby suburb of the Lebanese capitol Beirut. Daura is a bus station, roundabout and traffic junction rolled into one. The region is not particularly wealthy. Many immigrants from Asia and Africa can be seen on the streets. In the side streets near the roundabout, there are many shops that fulfil the needs of the diverse groups of immigrants. Palm oil for the Africans. Hot spices for the South Asians.
Not all of the migrants living in that area work as cleaners or maids. There are also Syrian construction workers and Sudanese garbage men. However, the majority of women from Asia and Africa work in Lebanese households. Here, worldwide migration shows its feminine face.
The word “Sri Lankan” means “housekeeper” in Lebanese terminology
According to official statistics, over 120,000 foreign women work as housekeepers in Lebanon. This excludes all those who are illegal migrants. In a country of only four million inhabitants, this is a considerable number. Originally, Lebanese women from the mountains scrubbed and cooked for the upper class in Beirut. But then housekeepers from other parts of the Arab world came to Lebanon. These groups became too expensive for the Lebanese, and since the 70s housekeepers from the Far East have arrived.
Owning a housekeeper is no longer limited to the upper class. Even the most middle class households own these so-called “maids.” While employing a cleaner in Germany tends to be embarassing, the situation in the opposite. Maids are a status symbol. In a home’s design, a maid-room, in other words a small bed chamber next to the kitchen, is already an inherent part of the floor plan.
From the beginning, women from Sri Lanka have been involved. Meanwhile, the word “Sri Lankan” has become a fixed word in the Lebanese language. It simply means "housemaid.” Kumari also originates from Sri Lanka. She left her husband and both sons to work in Lebanon.
"Being a housemaid was the only way for me to find employment. I went to an agency, gave them my passport, and asked them to find a job for me.”
An Ethiopian woman earns $170. A Bangladeshi woman earns $150 per month.
"The salaries of the maids depend on the nationality," clarifies Noha Roukoss, the leader of the information campaign at the Caritas. "An Ethiopian woman earns $170. A Bangladeshi woman earns $150 per month. Filipino women receive the most money. They earn $200-250 per month."
The agency sent Kumari to a family in Lebanon. Kumari, from Sri Lanka, earned $180 per month. "The job was really hard,” she says. "I had to wake up at 5:30 am and prepare breakfast, and then came the tidying and the cleaning of the house. Preparing lunch, washing up. Caring for the children after school. Preparing dinner and serving drinks for the family into the night. I could not go to bed until everyone else fell asleep. I was always the first and the last on their feet."
"Actually, this is illegal!" Noha Roukoss throws in. "According to the law, women are not allowed to work more than 10 hours per day. Furthermore, women must be allowed a day off during the week," Roukoss explains. "But in practice, neither of these regulations is enforced. Women have to work almost always work straight through."
Still, Kumari could cope with the work. But one day she got sick. “I had laryngitis, felt weak. I could not work anymore. When I asked for medicine for the pain, they beat me. They told me I would breach the agreement, but I was ill!" Kumari appears astonished when she tells her story, as if she still cannot completely realise what happened.
"I want to go back to Sri Lanka, to my children!" Kumari has fortune in misfortune. Her case is almost complete. "Her papers are nearly finished," says Nirmala, leader of the protection centre in Daura. "We are still waiting for the call that she can go home." Without the help of Caritas, this would never have been possible.
The women’s problem is that they become illegal as soon as they leave their contracted families. Their residence permits are linked to their employment contracts. "If a woman runs away from her employer, she loses her permission to stay,” Roukoss says. Furthermore, employers are retaining the women’s identity papers as a security. According to a 2005 survey by Caritas, 90 percent of Lebanese families keep their maid’s papers. The women are de facto at their employers’ mercy.
The women’s insecure situation makes them even more vulnerable to human rights violations. 71 percent of Lebanese families with that hire maids believe that they are allowed to limit women’s freedom of movement. In 2005, 73 percent stated that they were regulating and limiting the contact between the women and their families.
Granted, only 2 percent of those questioned stated that they are entitled to corporal punishment of their maids. Yet, 31 percent stated, during the same survey, that they beat the maid when she fails to follow their instructions.
These figures show that there is need for action, which Caritas sees. Since the mid-90s, relief organisations have been standing up for the rights of migrants in Lebanon. Roukoss describes the first steps of her organisation: "It began first with the refugees from southern Sudan. In the following years we began to extend our activities to housekeepers.”
Nivien Aoun works as a social worker at Caritas’s headquarters a suburb of Beirut called Sin el Fin. In her work, she deals with many nationalities and organises supplies for those seeking assistance. "We offer the women a place to stay and provide advocacy support. We accompany them to the court and to the administrative bodies until their case has been fully processed,” she describes the most important tasks of Caritas. The organisation functions as a lobbyer and a mediator between the housekeepers, the Lebanese employers and the Lebanese authorities.
"If the women are in the right, we mostly succeed in getting them the salary they are owned,” Nivien concludes. Caritas even sends the owed salaries to their home countries.
Additionally, Caritas calls for attention to the rights of the housekeepers in Lebanon through its information campaign. There are brochures in Singhalese and Tamil for Sri Lankans, Amharic for Ethiopians, Tagalog for the Filipinos, as well as a number of other languages.
The influx of job-seekers continues
In spite of the bad experiences from which countless housekeepers have suffered, the influx of unemployed migrants continues. Following a series of suicides by Filipino housekeepers in Lebanon, the Phillippines imposed a travel ban. Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and other countries followed suit. But it is no use. Women are smuggled across third countries. Maria from the Philippines, for instance, was smuggled across Singapore into Lebanon. “The ban has proven ineffective. It is complicating the situation,” regrets Nirmala, leader of the Caritas protection centre in Daura.
The Philippine Embassy is in negotiations with the Ministry of Labour. They are trying to instate a minimum wage of $400 per month for Filipino housekeepers in Lebanon. Whether this could lead to an improvement of the maids’ situation still remains open. It is more likely that women from the Philippines will be replaced by women from Africa. In recent years, the number of women from Madagascar and Kenya in particular has increased, Nirmala notes.
Meskerem is from Ethiopia. She sits at a small kitchen table next to Nirmala and recounts that many women told her not to go to the Near East. "They said that they had problems and that it was really hard for them.” Meskerem did not believe them. "I saw that they had a lot of money. I thought that they were telling lies. I thought that they do not want me to leave and earn money, as they had." Sitting in the protection centre, Meskerem now knows that the other women were not lying to her. She ran away from her employing family because she had nothing to eat and had not received her salary.
"If I returned to Ethiopia and told my own story that you should not go away, young women would not believe me either,“ Meskerem admits pessimistically.
Because the basic pattern of the labour migration will not change in the next years, Caritas and other aid organisations have diversified their strategies. In addition to measures in some of the maids’ home countries, employers and agencies are increasingly taking the focus. Recently, a union of housekeeper agencies signed a document obligating themselves to inform their clients (the families hiring the maids) more effectively about the rights of the employees. Corresponding information is in progress. In the long term, nationwide information campaigns seek to cause a change of consciousness in Lebanon. Housekeepers should be perceived as normal employees, not as slaves. "We are receiving many inquires – even from schools. We can see that there is a change,” Roukoss reports optimistically. "But it is still a long way.”
Until then, Nirmala, leader of the Caritas protection centre in Daura, will have a lot to do, too. Nirmala herself came to Lebanon as a maid from Sri Lanka. She has worked full-time for Caritas since 2006. She has cared for countless women already. She pulled them out of their bad situations. Because she shares their story, she can help them more sensitively. Unfortunately, however, working hours have not changed for her. "I am a workaholic,” Nirmala says and bursts out laughing. "I work seven days a week for the women in our protection centre. The whole day. When I have a day off, I do prison work. It is important to me.”
Her new job is surely no less strenuous than that of the maids in Lebanon. But certainly more fulfilling than washing dishes and cleaning. "I need this kind of mental peace. It delights me to see the women eating and that they are safe." Maria, Meskerem and Kumari are already thanking her. Many women in future will do so as well.