Suffering in silence: Report details exploitation of migrant domestic workers

Foreign migrant workers hold placards during a demonstration in the Central lobby of Taipei Train Station on February 9, 2014. (Photo: AFP-Mandy Cheng)

Foreign migrant workers hold placards during a demonstration in the Central lobby of Taipei Train Station on February 9, 2014. (Photo: AFP-Mandy Cheng)

An article on migrant domestic worker abuse in Lebanon and Jordan, published in Al-Akhbar English in February 2014. 

A majority of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are desperately uninformed of their rights, a study released on Monday by Open Society Foundations (OSF) revealed.

The report, which surveyed 522 migrant domestic workers in both Jordan and Lebanon, shed light on the numerous setbacks which contribute to their isolation and heightened vulnerability.

“Their social and physical isolation heightens their vulnerability to abuse, making it more difficult for them to find out about their legal rights or what to do if they are violated,” Elizabeth Frantz, OSF’s program officer for the Middle East and Asia, said.

“Many don’t know where to turn if their employers fail to pay their wages.”

The vast majority of respondents were not aware of some of their most basic rights before working abroad. While most departure countries – which include Ethiopia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal – have mandatory pre-departure training, only 38 percent said they had completed the program.

Less than half of those surveyed by OSF had signed a contract, and due to issues of literacy and fluency in Arabic, four out of ten had said they did not understand the terms of the agreement they had signed.

As a result, migrant domestic workers, a workforce mainly composed of women, are often uneducated about their rights and the legal protection, exposing them to exploitation and physical and sexual abuse.

Many recruiters and employers take advantage of this ignorance and lack of law enforcement in Lebanon, where an estimated 200,000 migrant domestic workers are employed. While both Lebanon and Jordan have introduced compulsory unified contracts for migrant workers, the absence of monitoring mechanisms allows illegal practices continue to be the norm.

Due to the kafala sponsorship system prevalent in the region, the legal status and well-being of domestic workers is highly dependent on their employers.

“Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon and Jordan are recruited through temporary migration schemes to work for a specific employer, meaning they cannot leave a bad job for a better one and are often reluctant to complain about abuse because it could jeopardize their right to stay in the country,” Frantz said.

“Their precarious legal status and lack of knowledge of the local language and laws makes them vulnerable to abusive labor practices. Many are coerced into accepting a lower salary than promised, working from dawn until late at night, or performing extra jobs.”

Three quarters of domestic workers surveyed said their passport had been confiscated by their employer, effectively holding them hostages. Of the Nepalese women surveyed, only eight percent were in possession of their passport.

While Lebanese law guarantees a minimal monthly wage of $133 for migrant workers, respondents reported wages as low as $100, whereas in Jordan, where the minimum wage is set to $200, some were paid only $80 a month.

Despite laws guaranteeing at least one day off a week for domestic workers, 19 percent of those surveyed said they were not aware of this right, and 29 percent said they didn’t have a set day off.

The study also revealed that at least a quarter of domestic migrant workers who live with their employers were forbidden from leaving the house on their off-time, although the number may in reality be much higher.

“Domestic workers who were not allowed by their employers to leave the house or speak with other migrants were difficult and in some cases impossible for us to access,” Frantz said. “In some cases, the members of the research team who were themselves migrant domestic workers were able to reach fellow domestic workers more easily.”

“But the overall sample is skewed in favor of migrants with greater freedom of movement than is probably the norm,” she added.

“They do not want to listen to us”

A support system amongst migrant workers emerged in the research as a vital tool of survival for many. One Sri Lankan woman working in Jordan told OSF that she used to help an Indonesian worker calculate her pay through hand gestures at the window, as the latter was locked indoors at all times in an adjacent building. This solidarity shone through in other stories of women who would pass food from one balcony to another to help more deprived domestic workers.

Those surveyed indicated that they mainly relied on a network of fellow migrants to keep themselves informed instead of formal institutions. While most domestic workers know how to contact their embassies, few are aware of hotlines intended for them, and only a fraction indicated they knew how to contact legal services.

Far too often, domestic workers feel like they cannot trust organizations meant to protect them.

“People in the agencies in Ethiopia say if you have any problem, go to the embassy, they will help you,” one Ethiopian woman told OSF. “But when we get here, they do not help. The people in the embassy do not want to listen to us.”

Domestic workers also expressed reluctance contacting security forces out of fear of being disbelieved or detained for having fled from their employer.

The isolation and abuse of migrant workers can have deadly consequences for the women who left their homes in hope of making a living in Lebanon. Human Rights Watch documented an average of one death per week due to unnatural causes in 2008 in Lebanon. Those cases included suicides and death by falling from buildings.

Alem DechasaDimi Kash-Kalashou and Naifa Niska Dalalti are only some of the women whose living conditions and tragic deaths grabbed public attention. But many more nameless women and men suffer in silence in a system which thrives on exploiting those desperately looking for better opportunities than their home country can offer.

While access to information is difficult for many domestic workers, some organizations like Lebanon’s Migrant Worker Task Force and the Anti-Racism Movement try to reach out and provide crucial information and services.

“A growing number of NGOs in Lebanon are working to improve the situation by providing legal aid to migrants, advocating for policy reform and working directly with migrants to help them build their own networks of solidarity,” Frantz said.

“Activism by domestic workers themselves is also increasing in many parts of the Arab region, particularly in Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.”

Frantz highlighted the importance of communication in breaking the isolation faced by many of the workers, both by ensuring access to cell phones and through measures like radio programs in the migrant worker’s languages to communicate vital information.

She added that there needed to be a broader change in the way the general population perceives domestic workers and their plight for progress to take hold.

“More efforts are needed to shift public opinion and ensure that domestic workers are afforded labor protections on a par with other workers,” she said.

Click here to access the full OSF report.

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