Lebanon: Interview on Migrant Workers

November 19th, 2008 | Posted in Beirut, Labor

Interview with Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch. Broadcasts from Beirut VIII.

    Photo: Airport in Middle East. Interview produced by Lillian Boctor.

In Lebanon, between 150,000 to 300,000 women work as migrant domestic workers, with approximately 100,000 having legal status in the country. In August 2008, Human Rights Watch released a report covering the period of January 1, 2007 to August 15, 2008 revealing migrant domestic workers had extremely high death tolls due to unnatural causes.

Migrant domestic workers experience harsh working conditions and consistent workplace abuse, and currently many migrant domestic workers can be found sleeping under cars or on the ground surrounding their respective countries’ embassies in Lebanon, searching for assistance for their situations. Nadim Houry is the senior researcher at Human Rights Watch covering Lebanon and Lillian Boctor from Tadamon spoke with Houry about the situation.

Tadamon: So we’ve been hearing some shocking statistics coming from Human Rights Watch in Lebanon about the rates of death among domestic workers. Can you tell me what’s going on?

Nadim Houry: Migrant domestic workers face a lot of challenges in Lebanon. Human Rights Watch in Beirut released research that we conducted over several months into the number of migrants that are dying, and we found that at least 95 migrant domestic workers died since January 2007, a very high [number], this means more than one migrant worker died each week. What’s more shocking is that out of these 95 deaths, most of them are dying unnatural death[s], meaning they are not dying because of sickness or old age. 40 of them committed suicide and at least 24 died while trying to escape from their employers, often falling from balconies or windows. So the statistics are actually quite shocking and we hope we can move beyond the shock and push the Lebanese authorities to improve the conditions of these migrants.

Tadamon: What are the conditions of these migrant workers?

Nadim Houry: It’s very hard to generalize, but the most common complaints we’ve been gathering in two years of research have been either unpaid wages or delayed payment of wages, and forced confinement by the employers. The forced confinement actually has a very significant effect on depression rates and even some of the suicide attempts, because many of these workers are completely cut off from any support, be it their families back home or friends that they may have in Lebanon. Another very common compliant is lack of a day off, and this is actually much more common than people think. Many employers in Lebanon do not let domestic workers go out on their own or have a full day off to do whatever they would like to do. Also we have gathered proof of physical and verbal abuse.

Tadamon: What have you been hearing from the migrant domestic workers who have attempted suicide or who have tried to escape from their employers?

Nadim Houry: You know we spoke to some women that tried to escape from their employers and in the process fell from very high floors and have survived. And this is one of the main reasons that pushed us to say that many of these people that have fallen from balconies are not actually suicide attempts. When we asked them what pushed them to try to escape from the fifth floor from the balcony, their answer was that either they had been locked in, and could not stand it anymore and decided to try their luck.

Another case we found was a domestic worker that had been a victim of abuse, and she decided to try to escape through the balcony. We spoke to another woman who had tried to kill herself by drinking poison and there actually was another problem in her case, namely the financial pressure that many of these women are under. They come to Lebanon and other countries in the Middle East because they want to help support their families back home. Their salaries are very low, and often employers delay paying their salaries, because they think that if they pay the domestic workers’ salaries on time, they might run away. Because of the low and delayed wages, many of these women face situation where they are getting calls or letter[s] from home asking where is the money, saying your mother is very sick, your kids have not gone to school, and at the same time they’re here and they are asking the employer to pay and the employer is saying I’ll pay you next month or the month after, and these kind of pressures are affecting many of the migrant domestic workers.

Tadamon: What options do these workers have when they are in an abusive situation?

Nadim Houry: There are three shelters at the three main embassies, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, and they are actually often full. There is also a shelter run by Caritas, which provides important services for these migrants. In the last few years, services [have] increased, but [are] still extremely limited, and providing services after the problem has been created is only a band-aid solution.

There’s also a prison run by general security that is a facility where migrants are waiting if their status has expired. That prison is located under ground and under a bridge, and is in bad condition. There have been some improvements over the last few years, but it is not ideal. What we need are reforms in the law and in the practices to really stop these violations.

It is also not just about reforming the law. For example, forced confinement, locking someone into your own house, is a violation of the Lebanese penal code, yet we still see that the police [are] extremely reluctant to enforce these laws and go to a Lebanese employer’s house and say, look you have to let the domestic worker leave for a day, she has to be able to communicate with the outside word. As long as these practices are not changed, we are always going to hear tragic cases, we are always going to see women trying to escape from balconies, and unfortunately many of these escapes are going to end in death.

Tadamon: What has the follow-up been by the Lebanese criminal justice system in the cases of death?

Nadim Houry: Usually there is an investigation, which is often incomplete or inconclusive. What happens is that the police go and ask the employer a few questions, and the employer says, I don’t understand what happened, I treated her well, and she died, then it’s classified as a suicide and that’s the end of the story. The police do not cross check the information they get from the employers with neighbors to see if that employee had any problems in the past with her employer.

Secondly they are also not trying to get information from the employees’ family in their home countries to see if there were problems. People don’t kill themselves for no reason. It’s not to say that the employer is responsible for every suicide, but there has to be adequate criminal investigation into every single case. Why are so many of these women getting pushed to be so depressed that they are actually committing suicide, sometimes only a few months after arriving to Lebanon? That question needs to be answered in a broader mandate than simply looking at the criminal aspect.

An investigation and commission should be set up by the state to look at the various reasons that these women are being pushed to despair in such a great number. I suspect that isolation plays a huge factor, and that they often do not know what to expect when they come to Lebanon and other Middle East countries. This will show the responsibility of the sending countries and the receiving countries to prepare these women to be aware of what to expect and let them make an informed choice if they want to embark on this migration or not.

Tadamon: Some countries have actually prohibited their citizens from going to Lebanon to work. Which countries are these and what are the effects of these policies?

Nadim Houry: Currently two countries, the Philippines and Ethiopia, prohibit their workers from coming to Lebanon, and these are two of the three countries that send the most domestic workers to Lebanon.

The reasons have been a mix between the very bad conditions that these workers face here and the lack of recourse they have when facing workplace abuses. Another reason is the political instability, and what happened in July 2006, where many domestic workers were basically left stranded in homes while their employers fled the bombing.

Now the effect is hard to assess because there are still some nationals from these countries coming to Lebanon, just not from the official channels. They often get re-routed via Dubai and then come to Lebanon. This is creating it’s own issues, because when they are here they are afraid of going to their own Embassy if they have any problems, because they came without the approval of their embassy.

But, in a more dangerous way, what we’re seeing is that labour agencies that bring their workers to Lebanon have simply shifted their concentrations away from these countries towards others. So now we see more domestic workers coming from Nepal and Bangladesh and they are facing the same problems here, while at the same time their countries do not even have embassies in Lebanon. They do not have their government to turn to if they have any problems.

We are not against migration, but what we want is a migration that respects the rights of these workers. The Lebanese government has responsibility, but also the countries of these women have the responsibility to ensure that they are adequately prepared for these jobs when they come and that they actually have the recourse to turn to their embassies for counseling and assistance.

Tadamon: How do any of the Lebanese labour laws protect migrant domestic workers?

Nadim Houry: First of all, Lebanese labour law does not protect the migrant domestic workers. When the law was officially enacted they excluded people working in the home from its protection. That has been one of our key demands of the Lebanese authorities, to amend the labor law to include migrant domestic workers, because these protections would include maximum number of hours of work, a minimum salary, and guaranteed rest days.

In the beginning of 2006, Lebanese authorities created a steering committee under the leadership of the Ministry of Labor, tasked with looking into ways to improve the treatment of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. Unfortunately, after almost three years, the steering committee has not yet produced results. Our call at this point, with the new statistics and with our ongoing research, is that the new Lebanese government must show leadership on this issue.

There’s a new Minister of Labour and we hope that he will push the steering committee to adopt some of these proposals that have been lying in the drawers of the commissioners for a while. It’s time to affect real changes by enacting the labor law but also by creating an environment that’s much more friendly to these women. That means creating an environment where the employer will be deterred from confining them to their workplace and not allowing them to go out of the house. This will also mean making it very clear that employers will not be allowed to hold the passports of these women like they often do, and that the passport remains their property of the employee. The government needs to take a leadership role on all these abusive practices.

Tadamon: What response have you received from the Lebanese government?

Nadim Houry: We have met with them in the past, but the response has not been that great. At the same time, I think with our latest press release and research, we’ve been hearing signals that they want to do something about this and we hope to meet with them in the near future to discuss what steps they plan on taking.

Tadamon: Why do you think there is so much abuse of migrant domestic workers?

Nadim Houry: I think it depends on the kind of abuse. I put them in two categories. There is a small percentage of employers, and I emphasize small, which basically are people that are just very bad employers and because they can get away with it, and they do, they overwork the worker, they shout insults at that person, they do not pay her, and these people are basically on a power trip. So for that small percentage of employers, the state has to come in and protect the employee.

Now there is a much larger segment of the employers that are not necessarily bad people, and the problem is rather in how they approach the issue. They are bringing someone to work at their place, a migrant, and they do not even see it as a formal employment relationship. They think that since this person is going to be living with them, they have to control her day-to-day life. And in their mind they think they somehow are protecting themselves by locking her in. We have talked to many of these employers and they often say I cannot let her go out, because if I let her go out she might not come back.

So for these employers we need to do awareness campaigns to explain to them that a domestic worker is like any other employee that you hire. You do not control her; this is someone that you pay for a specific service. They are not servants, they are not at your beck and call and this is not a 24-7 job. This is someone that you pay to do their job, they have a day off, they can have friends, they can go outside, and so forth. We just need to get out of this mentality that somehow these domestic workers are modern-day servants.

Tadamon: What are your next steps in the Human Rights Watch migrant domestic worker campaign?

Nadim Houry: In addition to the research we produced on the death of migrant domestic workers, we are currently working on whether there is discrimination against domestic workers in the justice system. We have taken a sample of a hundred cases where domestic workers were either plaintiffs or defendants and we are looking at how the Lebanese justice system approaches them.

We are also working on a broader awareness campaign mainly addressed to Lebanese employers, started last May 2008, called “Put Yourself in Her Shoes.” The campaign has been about distributing flyers and information in supermarkets and through newspapers and magazines trying to question the common assumptions about what their rights and obligations are vis-à-vis the domestic workers, and we want to show films about the different experiences of migrant domestic workers and encourage debate. The best way to improve the situation is first to have new laws and new practices by the state, but also to push Lebanese employers to revisit their views and perceptions. This will take debating the issue in the media, and even though the Lebanese media now covers this topic much more extensively, we have to keep working on this.

Tadamon: How do you see this within the broader context of the struggle for justice for migrant workers?

Nadim Houry: Awareness and laws have always been the cornerstones of protecting migrants and I think all migrant s are connected. We’ve decided in Lebanon to focus our energies on domestic workers because we find they are the most isolated, because they are often on their own in the employer’s house and don’t have a way to communicate. In a country like Lebanon and others in the region, migrants are often the ones that have the weakest protection. We have seen it for example with construction workers in the United Arab Emirates.

Capital can move freely, labour has started to move freely, but we also need to have protections that come with this movement of labourers. They need to be able to migrate and work in decent conditions. And we hope that Lebanon, which is a country that has itself sent hundred of thousands of migrants throughout its history, will be sensitive to this point. We hope that the Lebanese will be able to make the analogy between when they send their sons and daughters to work overseas, and what they want the working conditions for these sons and daughters to be, to apply to the sons and daughters of others from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and the Philippines that have come to Lebanon to work.

for more information, see Human Rights Watch report summary on migrant domestic workers in Lebanon.

Broadcasts from Beirut is a Tadamon! interview project aiming to highlight progressive voices from the ground in Lebanon.

1 Comment »

thanks for this important interview!

Comment by Nadine Naber — August 17th, 2009 @ 1:48 PM

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