September 16, 2010

II. Abuses against Domestic Workers

Accounts of abuse against MDWs in Lebanon have become commonplace in newspapers and human rights reports. Human Rights Watch interviewed many MDWs who complained of abuse by their employers and sought shelter at their embassy, or with friends in Lebanon. The most common complaints related to non-payment of wages, excessive working hours, forced confinement in the workplace, lack of time off, inadequate living conditions, confiscation of identity documents, exploitation by labor agencies, and verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.

This report examines how Lebanon’s legal and regulatory system handles allegations of abuse from domestic workers, and the options for redress it provides. Human Rights Watch makes no claims based on these interviews regarding the prevalence of such abuse among domestic workers in Lebanon—a task that is difficult given the lack of reporting mechanisms, the private nature of work, and restrictions on domestic workers’ freedom of movement and communication. Despite these challenges, some patterns emerge.

Unpaid and Underpaid Wages

Non-payment or delayed payment of wages is one of the most common problems that MDW face.

A Malagasy domestic worker who acts as an informal community leader told Human Rights Watch, “The problems often start when they [the MDWs] ask for their salary. The employer then says, “Why do you want your salary? I will keep it for you and give it to you later.” Then the tensions begin. Eighty percent of problems are salary-related.”[36] Officials at the Ethiopian consulate and the Philippines embassy concurred that non-payment of salaries is very common.[37] A former labor attaché at the embassy of the Philippines told Human Rights Watch that 75 percent of the cases they received “often include a complaint about non-payment of wages.”[38] In her study of Sri Lankan domestic workers in Lebanon, which relies on interviews with 90 Sri Lankan women in Lebanon, Nayla Moukarbel found that 60 percent of interviewees complained about non-payment of wages.[39]

Non-payment of wages is a leading cause for MDWs to leave their employer: in Moukarbel’s sample, 73 percent of the Sri Lankan domestic workers interviewed said it was the reason they had left their employer.[40]

Officials at embassies of MDWs told Human Rights Watch that when they confront employers about withholding the wages of MDWs who seek shelter at their embassy, many justify their actions by arguing the worker will leave them to seek other opportunities if they pay their salary on time.[41] As detailed later in this report, obstacles and gaps in the settlement of labor cases make it difficult for MDWs to claim unpaid wages, and interviews conducted in Sri Lanka with domestic workers who had worked in Lebanon in the past show that many of those who complained of unpaid wages never received the full payments due or, in many cases, any payment at all.[42]

Confiscation of Passports, Forced Confinement, and Restricted Communication

Other common tactics used by many employers to “control” MDWs include withholding their passport and physically confining them to the house. In a study based on interviews with over 600 MDWs in Lebanon, Jureidini found that over 85 percent of live-in domestic workers reported not being in possession of their passport.[43] This percentage was equally high for freelancers—MDWs who have a nominal sponsor but in practice live independently and work for multiple employers. In Moukarbel’s sample, only 29 percent of the Sri Lankan domestic workers interviewed said that they had their passport with them. Similarly, Human Rights Watch researchers rarely interviewed a MDW who was in possession of her passport or other papers.[44] In most cases, passports were either with the first sponsor, the agency, a Lebanese person who had promised to arrange their papers, or had somehow gotten lost in the process.

Some employers go further in their attempts to control the movement of MDWs, physically confining them to the house where they work. “When Madame would leave, she would lock me in the house,” a Filipina worker said, mirroring what many others said.[45] For many MDWs, employers would only allow them to go out to buy groceries, or if they accompanied them. In certain cases, employers would even lock the MDW in a room as a form of punishment. “After I insisted on getting paid, Madame yelled at me and locked me in my room,” recalled a Nepali worker who eventually escaped by climbing down from the balcony of the room to which she had been confined.[46] In her study, Moukarbel found that 60 percent of the 90 Sri Lankan domestic workers were ’locked in’ (meaning the employers locked the household door when they left the house).[47]

Some employers try to control who MDWs speak to, in order to prevent “other workers from spoiling them.” One Ethiopian worker told Human Rights Watch that her employer punched her after discovering that she had a cell phone.[48] Many Sri Lankan women also said their employers cut their hair against their will, a practice that may be particularly humiliating given cultural norms in many Sri Lankan communities. When the Sri Lankan embassy called one employer to ask about this behavior, the employer simply said, “Yes, I cut her hair, this is the style in Lebanon.”[49] Another MDW reported that as soon as she got to the house of her new employer, “Madame,” cut her hair and applied a lice-killing medication to her scalp, explaining, “Your hair is dirty and I don’t want you to get the children dirty.”[50]

Employers defend controlling actions such as passport confiscation, withholding wages, and confining a MDW to the workplace, by arguing that they need to protect their households and the ‘financial investment’ they made when they paid initial recruitment fees. “How can I guarantee that she won’t open the door to strangers?” one employer said in a phone call to Human Rights Watch.

Heavy Workload, Food Deprivation, and Inadequate Living Conditions

Other complaints by MDWs centered on working conditions such as hours worked, living quarters, and food deprivation. Of the 154 Filipina domestic workers present at the Philippines embassy shelter on December 1, 2009, 24 reported they “ran away” because they were overworked, and eight because of bad conditions, such as inadequate food or sleeping quarters. One worker told Human Rights Watch “I only had one meal a day. If I eat from the fridge without asking, Madame would shout.”[51] Another Ethiopian worker recounted how her employer would tell her, “This food is for Mister. You eat rice.”[52] In Moukarbel’s sample, 73 percent of the MDWs interviewed reported they had sufficient food, but more than 66 percent complained that they were fed mostly leftovers and were not free to eat when they were hungry.[53]

Psychological, Physical, and Sexual Abuse

Employers regularly yell at workers, and psychological abuse and threats are common. A Filipina worker told Human Rights Watch, “Madame called me a sharmouta [whore] because I did not clean the cupboard properly.” The worker left her employer the next day and sought refuge at her embassy.[54] She was not alone. Out of the 159 Filipina workers at the embassy refuge in December 2009, 13 had run away because of verbal abuse by employers.

Many MDWs also reported that employers hit them, slapped them and pushed them, usually after employers blamed them for a work mistake. A 24-year old Filipina worker told Human Rights Watch, “Madame pulled my hair the first time because I took the garbage out and got stuck outside after the door closed behind me.” The same worker told us that a few months later, “Mister slapped me three times on the face because I had not changed the baby’s diapers properly.”[55] A worker from Madagascar reported that her employer slapped her because she forgot to put on gloves while making the tabboulé, a traditional Lebanese salad. Her employer yelled at her, “Stop! You are dirty,” and slapped her, she said.[56] A Nepali domestic worker told Human Rights Watch that her employer forced her head into the toilet because he found that she was not cleaning them properly.[57] A 50-year-old Malagasy worker reported the first time her employer hit her:

I was too tired and sick and could not take care of the baby. I asked the other domestic worker in the house to take care of him that night but Madame was not happy. At 7 a.m. in the morning, she took a plate and hit me with it. After that, she pulled my hair and left. A minute later, her husband arrives and he gives me a kick on the neck. I started crying. A few minutes later, he comes in saying, “If you cry any more, I will kill you.” They locked me in. After three hours, they took me with them to their parents.[58]

Nayla Moukarbel found that over one-third of her sample of 90 Sri Lankan domestic workers reported physical abuse, usually by the “Madame” of the house.[59]

Human Rights Watch interviewed a number of MDWs who complained of severe physical violence, although these incidents are rarer.  A 27-year-old Filipina reported that her employer started hitting her six months after she started working in 2004. “Madame would slap my face, and take my head and push me into the wall.” The abuse worsened over time: Her employer hit her with a baseball bat and locked her in a room. She escaped by climbing down from the third-floor apartment, but when she went to the police, they returned her to her employers. On November 15, 2009, the employer hit her with a baseball bat on her hips, hands, and legs, the domestic worker said. She finally succeeded in escaping to her embassy, which appointed her a lawyer. Human Rights Watch saw photos of the bruises (which supported the allegations made by the worker)

Domestic workers also complain of sexual harassment. Seven of the 159 Filipina workers at their embassy shelter in December reported being sexually harassed, while 11 percent of Moukarbel’s sample complained of sexual harassment.[60] A 24-year-old Filipina told Human Rights Watch that “my ‘baba’ [male employer] would touch my butt. He would also sometimes call me to the bathroom to bring him his things and he would be there naked or in the bath.”[61] A 32-year-old Filipina had been working for a year and eleven months when her married male employer, who is 47, started telling her that he loved her. One day he showed her pornographic pictures. “Whenever Madame was not in house, he would try to harass me. In December [2009], I was taking my shower, when he asked me to open the door. I refused, and he eventually left me alone but he said, “Next time, I want to make ‘no good with you.’”[62] The worker ran away to the embassy the following day.

Human Rights Watch interviewed three MDWs who claimed they were raped by their employers. All three cases show the psychological control that employers exert on domestic workers. A 32-year-old domestic worker told Human Rights Watch how on December 5, 2009,

Mister came to my room and he hugged me. He told me “I want you.” I said, “No sir, it’s not good. Why you want me?” I wanted to shout but he put his hand on my mouth. I tried to push him. But I could not and he raped me. Ten days later, Madame left the house to go to a party. I go to veranda on the kitchen, and he came to veranda and raped me there. I was unable to scream. I was very afraid.[63]

After this incident, she ran away to the embassy on December 25, 2009.

A 35-year-old Malagasy woman had a similar story to tell. She had come to Lebanon in June 2009. On certain afternoons, her female employer would visit relatives and she would stay home with the male employer, who is 60. “Mister would put a porn movie on the TV and would call me and force me to look at the movie. At the beginning, he would force me to watch, but later he said ‘you have to do the same.’” He did that five or six times.” When Human Rights Watch asked her why she did not run away earlier, she replied, “I was afraid.” Eventually, she ran away to the agency and told her story to the agents, as well as to the female employer, who denied that it was possible. The agency then told her, “if you are lying, you will go to prison for 10 years.” Afraid, the worker did not press charges, nor did the agency try to follow up or investigate; it simply tried to find her a new employer, as did the Malagasy consulate. [64] In such cases, abusive employers are free to hire a new domestic worker who is then at risk of similar abuses.

A third MDW also shared her story of rape. According to her, the employer’s son-in-law had offered to take her to church, but told her that he first needed to go to the gas station where he works to pick up his boss’s car. Once there, he took her to a room on the first floor where he pushed her and pulled down her pants. She kept saying, “No sir, no sir.” He touched her, saying that this was the first time he had a Malagasy woman, and then raped her. He later dropped her off at church. She informed her two sisters, who live in Lebanon. When she reported the rape to police she was asked, “What do you decide. Do you want to go to Madagascar or stay in Beirut?” She said she preferred to go to Madagascar. She was finally deported weeks later, after spending two weeks in jail because she lost her legal status in Lebanon when she left her employer.[65] Her alleged rapist was never detained and no charges were brought against him.

Abuse by Agency

Human Rights Watch collected a number of accounts from workers who alleged abuse by their recruitment agencies. A 23-year-old Filipina arrived in Lebanon on April 1, 2009. After two months, her first employer sent her back to the agency because she said she no longer wished to work. “The work was too hard. The house very big,” the worker said.[66] According to her, the owner of the agency “slapped me and pulled my hair into the wall.”[67] He then allegedly kept her at his house for three weeks. “They would give me only bread to eat,” she said. After things did not work out with another employer, the owner of the agency again took her back and beat her, she said.

A Nepali domestic worker recounted that the second time her employer brought her to the agency, the agency owner beat her. The employers had complained that they had problems communicating with her as she did not speak English, and that she had no experience in operating appliances. [68] Agency staff may punish or threaten workers who return to the agency because they have to bear the cost of providing the employer with a “free” replacement if the return takes place within the first three months of the contract.

The frequency of abuse by employers and agencies has led Ethiopia, Nepal, and the Philippines to ban their nationals from coming to work as domestic workers in Lebanon. However, this ban has not stopped their workers from coming: Human Rights Watch interviewed a number of Filipina and Ethiopian workers who had arrived after the ban was imposed, including one Filipina worker who said she had circumvented restrictions by taking a flight from Manila to Bangkok, then to Bahrain, and finally to Beirut.[69]

Table 6 – Other Studies’ Findings of Abuse of MDWs in Lebanon

  Sri Lankan House maids in Lebanon, Nayla Moukarbel Profile of Female Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon, Dr. Ray Jueidini
Sample size 90 610
Sample description Live-ins, freelancers, and “runaways” Live-ins, freelancers, and “runaways”
Nationality of MDW Sri Lanka Sri Lanka, Philippines, Ethiopia
Unpaid and Underpaid Wages   About 60 percent (complained about wages not being paid) Not Available
Psychological Abuse (yelling, constant criticism) About 50 percentclaimed to “have not been treated right,”(excluding physical abuse) 52 percent reported employers yelling at them
Physical Abuse by Employers Over one third 14 percent
Physical Abuse by Agency 15 percent Not Available
Sexual Harassment 11 percent 7 percent
Heavy Workload and Excessively Long Work  (over 12 hours a day) MDWs in sample worked an average of fifteen hours per day 56 percent
Food Deprivation   73 percent say they were not deprived of food. But 2/3rd claim they were mostly given leftovers and didn’t have freedom to eat whenever they wanted. Not Available
Absence of private space (own room) Not Available 40 percent
Absence of Regular time off 90 percent said they had no days off per week 34 percent
Confiscation of Passports   - 52 percent of passports were confiscated by the employer - 10 percent confiscated by the agency - 29 percent are in possession of their passport    Live-ins  - 85 percent confiscated by employer                        - 14 percent by others - 1 percent not confiscated Freelancers : - 37 percent by employer - 59 percent by “others” - 4 percent not confiscated
Day off About 90 percent had no day off. Not Available
Forced Confinement 80 percent were not free to leave the house of their own accord and could do so only when accompanied by a member of the household or to buy things from the neighborhood store 31 percent were not allowed to leave the house

[36] Human Rights Watch interview with Malagasy Activist, Beirut, February 9, 2010.

[37] Human Rights Watch interview with a former labor attaché at the Philippines embassy, Beirut, July 31, 2008; Human Rights Watch interview with official at Ethiopian consulate, Beirut, December 19, 2007, both of whom requested that their name remain anonymous.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Moukarbel, Sri Lankan Housemaids in Lebanon, p. 183.

[40] Moukarbel, Sri Lankan Housemaids in Lebanon,  p. 183.

[41] Human Rights Watch interview with a former labor attaché at the Philippines embassy, Beirut, July 31, 2008; Human Rights Watch interview with official at Ethiopian consulate, Beirut, December 19, 2007, both of whom requested that their name remain anonymous.

[42] Human Rights Watch, Exported and Exposed, Section IV.

[43] See Ray Jureidini, Profile of Female Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon, Selected Survey Findings, June 2006.

[44] The withholding of passports by employers is a worldwide phenomenon and is found across many sectors, such as domestic work, sex work, and agriculture. Kalayaan, an NGO working on domestic workers’ rights in the UK, noted in a 2003 report that “an average of 49% of migrant domestic workers, entering the UK legally, have their passports taken by employers.” See Kalayaan, Migrant Workers’ Rights: The Passport Issue, July 2003, http://www.kalayaan.org.uk/documents/kalyaan%20passport%20report.pdf.

[45] Human Rights Watch interview with Filipina worker P.P., Beirut, February 11, 2010.

[46] Human Rights Watch interview with Nepali worker N.N., Beirut, March 4, 2008.

[47] Moukarbel, Sri Lankan Housemaids in Lebanon, p. 195.

[48] Human Rights Watch interview with Ethiopian worker M.N, suburb of Beirut, May 23, 2008.

[49] Human Rights Watch interview with Sri Lankan worker K.K., Baabda, December 18, 2007.

[50] Human Rights Watch interview with Sri Lankan worker H.H., Baabda, December 18, 2007.

[51] Human Rights Watch interview with Filipino worker M.M., Beirut, February 11, 2010. 

[52] Human Rights Watch interview with Ethiopian worker M.N., Beirut, May 23, 2008.

[53] Moukarbel, Sri Lankan Housemaids in Lebanon, p. 188.

[54] Human Rights Watch interview with Filipino worker S.S., Beirut, February 11, 2010.

[55] Human Rights Watch interview with Filipino worker S.S., Beirut, February 11, 2010.

[56] Human Rights Watch interview with Malagasy worker M.M., Beirut, March 11, 2010.

[57] Human Rights Watch interview with Nepali worker N.N., Beirut, November 21, 2008.

[58] Human Rights Watch interview with Malagasy worker P.P., Beirut, February 16, 2010.

[59] Moukarbel, Sri Lankan Housemaids in Lebanon, p. 174.

[60] Moukarbel, Sri Lankan Housemaids in Lebanon, p. 180.

[61] Human Rights Watch interview with Filipino worker F.F., Beirut, February 11, 2010.

[62] Human Rights Watch interview with Filipino worker S.S., Beirut, February 11, 2010.

[63] Human Rights Watch interview with Filipino worker M.M., Beirut, February 11, 2010.

[64] Human Rights Watch interview with Malagasy worker A.A., Beirut, March 10, 2010.

[65] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Malagasy worker M.B., March 16, 2010.

[66] Human Rights Watch interview with Filipina worker H.I., February 11, 2010. 

[67] Human Rights Watch interview with Filipina worker H.I., February 11, 2010. 

[68] Human Rights Watch interview with Nepali worker N.M., Beirut, November 21, 2008.

[69] Human Rights Watch interview with Filipina worker H.I., Beirut, February 11, 2010.