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Domestic workers in Lebanon, silent witnesses of a country on the verge of collapse

For many years, domestic workers in Lebanon have had an up-close-and-personal experience with a faulty system that the country’s economic collapse has now laid bare

Domestic workers in Lebanon, silent witnesses of a country on the verge of collapse

After two bad experiences with families, Saru is now self-employed as a cleaning lady. (OLJ/João Sousa)

A plane from Beirut is about to touch down at the Yaoundé-Nsimalen International Airport. On board are 50 women of all ages, singing the Cameroonian national anthem and crying their eyes out. Collateral victims of a dying country, they are finally returning home after months of struggling to escape the Lebanese quagmire.

Now that the euphoria of the Oct. 17 uprising has faded, Lebanon is embroiled in a serious economic crisis that has shaken the entire system.

The most vulnerable, already in a precarious situation, are now at risk of becoming homeless. Thousands of domestic workers have been thrown onto the streets by their employers, who can no longer afford to pay them.

Paid in US dollars — nearly 75 percent of Lebanese households pay their employees $300 or less a month, according to Kafa, a women’s rights organization — a domestic worker is now seen as a luxury for most Lebanese families.

Through the eyes of these workers, one learns the tale of a crumbling country and the collapse of a model in which domestic help was one of many pillars.

Several of these workers had already sensed, prior to the crisis, that something was wrong and that this system, with its excesses, would eventually explode in everyone’s face.

“This crisis was going to happen sooner or later. In a family of five, each has their own vehicle. Is it really necessary?” says Pauline, who asked that her name not be published.

After seven months of struggle and three weeks waiting day and night in front of the Cameroonian Embassy, thanks to a laissez-passer, this mother was able to return home to the husband and children she had left almost a decade ago. Her passport remains in the hands of her former employers in Lebanon.

But other migrant women in Lebanon have continued to grit their teeth, hoping things will get better.

More than 250,000 migrant workers are registered in the country, most of whom are from Ethiopia, the Philippines, Nepal, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. The number of departures linked to the crisis in 2020 has not been officially recorded, but the photos of dozens of migrant women gathered in front of their embassies in recent months indicate the scale of this phenomenon.

‘Thawra! Thawra!’

When tens of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in October 2019, Myriam, a 49-year-old self-employed Filipino woman, could not resist the temptation to join the protests.

Every night, when she left her employer’s house near the ring road, she walked toward Martyrs’ Square, shouting “Thawra! Thawra!” Some people in the streets stared at her, perhaps judging her as out of place. Others smiled at her, feeling proud that she was part of the movement alongside them.

Myriam arrived in Lebanon almost 30 years ago. (OLJ/João Sousa)

“With the outbreak of the thawra, more Lebanese began to understand our struggle against the kafala system,” she says, referring to the sponsorship system that ties the arrival and residence of migrant workers in the country to local sponsors — most often their employers — in a framework of subordination.

Like her peer, Pauline understood the reason behind the outbreak of the uprising but did not necessarily see it as a reason to join forces with the demonstrators. She was no longer working full-time and saw her cleaning hours, and her savings, starting to dwindle. She had just enough to pay for the room where she was crowded together with four other migrant women.

In 2011, Pauline had left her husband and children for a country she knew nothing about, where she was promised a monthly salary of $200, or 40 percent more than the average wage in Cameroon.

“I was told: you will see, you will be respected, able to talk to your children, you will be fed and have clean clothes, and then you can finally change the lives of your people.”

Upon her arrival, Pauline, like other migrant workers from Africa and Asia, quickly understood what she had signed up for, and accepted it until the day she stopped getting paid.

Before the system collapsed, Saru, a self-employed worker from Nepal, used to buy herself some clothing and jewelry online, a little pleasure that she has had to give up. It has been 12 months since she last sent money to her family in Nepal. Her elderly father had to put his hard hat back on and return to long work hours to cover college fees for her children.

Meanwhile, to get by, Saru cleans the house of a Japanese aid worker living in Gemmayzeh. “It’s only expats who treat you well in Lebanon. She is very generous and does not wish me to get too tired,” Saru says.

The Nepalese Embassy remains quiet. Only about 40 of their nationals were able to return home in September. Conversely, the Philippines took care of the repatriation of their expatriates.

Myriam, who is fortunate enough to be paid in dollars as a nanny with a European family, sees her friends leaving every week. “Our embassy is helping and doing a good job. It’s a privilege for Filipinos who don’t have papers here,” she says, adding that she feels sorry for the communities of domestic workers of other nationalities.

Because of inflation, once-generous employers are no longer shy about controlling their employees’ personal consumption.

“Some madams tell my friends, ‘Oh, easy on the rice,’ or, ‘You should stop the Nescafe,’” Myriam says.

Solidarity

For other employers, the coronavirus lockdown serves as a pretext to further deprive their workers of freedom.

“They are told that they are not allowed to go out, while the bosses continue to have dinner and to see friends. Such hypocrisy,” says Myriam.

“The coronavirus is everywhere in the world, but Lebanon brings together all the problems of the earth,” Saru says.

In recent months, calls and distress calls to associations providing assistance to migrants have intensified. Hundreds of workers have been evicted from their homes and can no longer even afford to buy bread.

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Some women, who like Myriam, continue to be paid in dollars and are therefore less affected by the economic crisis, come to the aid of the poorest by distributing food, including to dozens of Indian workers who are illegally employed in a factory and left to fend for themselves with nothing to eat.

“We even helped Syrian and Iraqi families last month,” Myriam says.

Some situations are even more dramatic. One woman from the Philippines is married to a Lebanese man who is imprisoned in Roumieh. She can no longer afford milk for their infant.

Myriam, like many migrant women in Lebanon, finds helping others and committing to causes a means of emancipation in a generally contemptuous, even hostile environment.

She has been campaigning since 2007 for the rights of domestic workers and helping to provide them with some space for social life and relaxation through Sunday meetings, trips to the sea and mountain excursions.

Moreover, since 2017, she has fervently fought for their rights with the Alliance of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon.

“I’m so proud because I can stand up for myself. I want to be the voice of the voiceless, especially those who are locked up,” Myriam says.

Along with other organizations, the alliance has provided invaluable support to all those who have found themselves on their own over the past year, left without a job in Lebanon and unable to return home as they can no longer afford a plane ticket.

‘It’s not like in Saudi Arabia’

The difficulties experienced by a large number of domestic workers were not born with the crisis, but the crisis exacerbated them.

For years, these women have shared the intimacy of families and got to know their employers up close and personal. But familiarity never really overcame social distance.

For these women, home has often been synonymous with contradiction, since they never really feel at home. And yet, over time, in some cases a true emotional bond has developed with Lebanon, with its cuisine, neighborhoods and weekend hangouts where friends meet to vent their frustrations a little.

In small boxes, Myriam keeps 27 years of memories. “I used to go out every Sunday with my girlfriends. We took lots of pictures that we had developed,” she says, talking about a time when the internet and smartphones did not exist.

Saru slips through the crowded alleys of Burj Hammoud where she has lived for a few years. “In recent months, I have been seeing more and more child beggars; it breaks my heart. It could have been my children,” she says.

Since she landed in Beirut in 2009, she has not seen her son and daughter, now aged 19 and 16, who remained with their grandparents in Nepal. It is for them that she “kills herself” — so they do not suffer the same fate as her. When she was promised a job as a cleaner in Lebanon, the 37-year-old divorcee jumped at the opportunity in a heartbeat. “You’ll see, over there, it’s not like in Saudi Arabia. They really respect foreigners,” she was told.

“But I quickly realized that Lebanon had become my prison,” Saru says. Under the kafala system, almost every aspect of the employee’s life depends on the goodwill of the employer.

In September, however, caretaker Labor Minister Lamia Yammine presented a new standard labor contract for migrant workers that would somewhat improve their working conditions. It stipulated that domestic workers must be paid the national minimum wage, which is currently LL650,000, and gave them the right to leave their employers at will and without the latter’s consent.

The proposal, however, was met with an outcry by the Syndicate of the Owners of the Worker Recruitment Agencies in Lebanon and has for now been suspended by the Shura Council.

Even in the most “open” households, giving workers one day off per week is not always easy.

“But where will she go?”; “She doesn’t know anyone”; or, worse, “She might take the opportunity to run away.” These are common excuses trotted out by employers.

The working hours stipulated in employment contracts are also very often violated. “Some Lebanese do not see us as human beings and think that since we are poor, we can be exploited at will. Eight hours of work as mentioned in the contract? The madam said to me, ‘That’s a load of rubbish, it’s just a piece of paper,’” Saru says.

For her part, when she read the contract, Pauline understood straight away that her life “did not belong” to her.

For domestic workers, entering a Lebanese home is the same as entering a convent. “Your employer decides everything, even when you can take a shower. For three years, I was not allowed a cellphone. The mister would take me once a month to call my children from a phone booth. Once a month! And he scolded me to hurry up,” the young Cameroonian recounts.

Pauline recently returned to Cameroon because of the crisis in Lebanon. (OLJ/João Sousa)

In a country where appearances matter a great deal, hiring a helper to run the household has long been a guaranteed sign of success and social status, even if some households did not have the means to accommodate their help in good conditions.

“They made me sleep on the balcony because they had a small house,” Pauline says of her first employers.

What happens behind closed doors

Behind closed doors, violence can be pervasive — sometimes it is remarkable and other times it’s more insidious.

When she arrived in the Land of Cedars, Myriam was 18 years old and settled in with a family in the Mar Elias neighborhood of Beirut.

For a reason as trivial as answering the phone, blows came raining down on her. “One day I was standing in the kitchen, and the madam and her son pulled my hair and slapped me because I did just that,” she recalls. It was a “grave mistake,” according to the head of the family.

Sometimes, insults are hurled at workers as if the language barrier could cushion the shock. “The madam said horrible words to me. I didn’t speak Arabic, but I could understand the expressions on her face,” says Saru. A friend of hers later explained the meaning of the salty language that obscenely targeted Saru’s parents.

Racism is also firmly anchored in language and manners. In an initial three-year contract, Pauline was to take care of a particularly difficult girl while both of the child’s parents worked. “She was the age of my youngest daughter, 4 or 5 years, and called me a nigger. She told me I was ugly and spat on me in public,” Pauline recounts.

Because they had no choice, these women often stayed silent.

They became silent witnesses, sometimes with a crooked smile on their face, of conversations between four walls, customs and ways of doing things that did not always appeal to them, and of sloppiness in the house.

They keep little stories in their heads and tell them to their girlfriends to make them laugh.

“My boss’ daughter walked inside the house braless, sometimes in front of her parents. And even in panties. It was shocking at the time. I was laughing so hard,” Saru recalls mischievously.

Yet some of the stories are not so funny, like the one about the time Saru’s boss made advances toward her.

“He told me he liked me. He tried to touch me when I was the same age as his younger daughter. He told me, ‘You are very poor, you have to do whatever I want,’” she says with disgust.

There is also the story of the implicit competition with the lady of the house to get into the children’s good graces. “Her kids loved me very much. They used to wait for me to wish them a good night. It was a ritual. Their mother could not put them to sleep. It made her jealous.”

In the family cocoon, men remain silent. “We work indoors, which is the prerogative of the lady of the house. The man does not care. As long as you cook for him, he’s fine,” Myriam says.

On Aug. 4, Saru left Gemmayzeh a few minutes before the port explosion shook the capital. Fortunately, her boss had flown to Japan the day before and would not see the damage to her house until almost two months later.

Pauline had been so exhausted during the previous months she says she felt that something serious was going to end this cursed year.

At the time of the tragedy, Pauline had barely left Forum de Beyrouth on her way back to Burj Hammoud. Her apartment was destroyed and several friends were injured.

For several days after the blast, she did not sleep and jumped at the slightest slamming of a door. “I was expecting a war, but going through this explosion traumatized me like never before,” she says with a tight throat.


The article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.


A plane from Beirut is about to touch down at the Yaoundé-Nsimalen International Airport. On board are 50 women of all ages, singing the Cameroonian national anthem and crying their eyes out. Collateral victims of a dying country, they are finally returning home after months of struggling to escape the Lebanese quagmire.Now that the euphoria of the Oct. 17 uprising has faded, Lebanon is...