Domestics in Middle East Face Widespread Exploitation, Abuse

Government complicity heightens an often ignored problem

Kumaree, a Sri Lankan maid in Beirut, was not paid by her Lebanese employer for five years.

"Finally, the man got tired of Kumaree and 'sold' her," says the Rev. Salim Rizkallah, a Roman Catholic priest in Beirut who ministers to foreign workers. "After three more years, I helped her escape and go back to Sri Lanka." Kumaree received no compensation for her labor.

"It was impossible to make a court case because Kumaree had no legal working papers. Also, she had unwittingly signed a pledge to pay for food, board, and health care. Her employer calculated this sum to include all her wages," says Fr. Salim.

It is not unusual for Middle Eastern employers to treat their foreign servants as virtual slaves. Salaries are low, and evidence of mistreatment and cruelty abounds. Women are especially at risk.

"Domestic service is one of the most vulnerable occupations ... [and] women domestics' 'invisibility' offers employers ample opportunity to evade labor legislation," says a 1995 report by the International Labor Organization in Geneva. The most recent survey estimates that there were 1.2 million female domestic workers - 20 percent of the total foreign work force - in the Middle East in 1990.

The 1995 case of Sarah Balabagan, the teenage Filipina maid convicted of murdering her employer in the United Arab Emirates, provoked an international outcry. Ms. Balabagan reportedly killed her employer while he was attempting to rape her.

But despite media attention, the case was not an isolated one. An August 1995 report by Human Rights Watch/Asia says most complaints by Sri Lankan female domestics to their country's labor bureau related to sexual aggression.

There are subtler forms of exploitation. "The woman who employs me rarely lets me out of her sight," complains Josephine Almandes, a Filipina maid in Beirut. "Even when I go out to buy bread she watches me from the balcony. I would like to leave, but she won't let me have my passport back." Ms. Almandes meets with a support group in front of a Beirut church every Sunday. "Talking with them helps me to cope," she says.

How economics drive abuse

In Lebanon, a Sri Lankan social service agency called the People's Movement, as well as other religious and charitable organizations, has been trying to ease the often punishing conditions that foreign workers endure.

Last year, a French human rights group intervened to free the African servant of a Lebanese family in Paris who had not been paid for months and was a virtual prisoner in her employer's home. France fined the family heavily.

Still, Lebanon has no written code to arbitrate problems over domestic workers. And economics can compound the cruelty.

"Lebanese families have often paid up to $2,000 to hire a maid from one of the agencies, and ... this is too big an investment to throw away," says Tina Naccashe, a women's rights advocate in Beirut. "So they usually take away the worker's passport and keep her locked up.

"This, of course, is not legal," says Ms. Naccashe. "But what can we do? We need to win a case in court and have it publicized. But the courts are often not sympathetic and our funding is scarce."

In fact, employers often misuse the legal system, filing trumped-up charges in an effort to retrieve servants who flee. Beirut papers often run pictures of "wayward" servants. The daily As Saffir recently ran an advertisement reading: "Ransa K. ran away, stealing family jewelry. Please report her to the police if seen."

Often, Lebanese employers are interested in getting a servant back to avoid paying the $1,500 to $3,000 it costs to recruit a new one.

Nevertheless, many foreign workers appear to end up in Lebanese jails, often for trivial reasons, where they are subjected to brutal conditions.

"Lebanese often don't consider these workers to be humans," says Mirella Abd al-Sater, a Beirut lawyer who defends foreign workers against former employers.

"Employers often treat Asian domestics like animals," Ms. Abd al-Sater says. One Sri Lankan maid was reportedly made to sleep on a kitchen floor, curled up in front of the stove to keep warm.

Conditions in Lebanon are still often better than those in neighboring countries. Gholam, a Bangladeshi cleaning worker, says that in Syria "they work you like a donkey and beat you if you complain."

Looking the other way - or worse

It often isn't easy to get to the relative safety of Lebanon. Hassan Alaa, a worker from Egypt, complains that he had to bribe Lebanese officials $1,000 to obtain a valid visa.

One civil servant with Lebanon's Employment Ministry, who asked not to be identified, says that some Lebanese government ministers and other political figures "make up to $1,000 a head" for bringing foreign workers into the country.

Groups of foreign workers are often flown in from their countries by organizations that Beirut's Ad Diyar newspaper dubbed the "maid mafia." Upon arrival, they are herded into a corner at Beirut Airport, where they must sit on the floor for hours before being picked up.

Salim, the Beirut priest, says that he has been threatened by some of these "employment bureaus" for meddling.

Salim is also involved in a dispute with Sri Lanka's honorary consul in Beirut, who is Lebanese, over the protection of workers. "These people are in league with the offices that recruit the servants, and ... have little interest in protecting their rights," insists Salim.

But this does not stop the consulate from using Salim when the need arises. "I once had an unconscious Sri Lankan worker dropped on my doorstep by a taxi with a note saying, 'the consulate asks Father Salim to take care of me.' "

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