“I don’t trust you, but please look after my children”

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Nay El Rahi on tackling exploitative and abusive culture among employers of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon.

19 February 2016

Lebanon is one of the top countries of destination for female migrant workers coming from African and South/Southeast Asian countries. The number of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon is estimated to be between 200,000 and 250,000.

The abuse and exploitation that migrant domestic workers live through is well documented.

Domestic workers are excluded from the Lebanese Labour Law, which denies them their basic labour rights, such as the minimum wage, annual and sick leave, regulated hours of work, the right to organise and the right to terminate the employment contract.

Furthermore, migrant workers’ residencies and work are governed by the sponsorship system, or the Kafala – a customary practice that ties a migrant worker’s residence and work permit to one specific employer, or sponsor. It reinforces power inequalities between the employer and employee and is a major cause of vulnerability of migrant workers in Lebanon.

The standard unified contract that all migrant workers sign once in Lebanon is only available in Arabic, and does not guarantee the workers the right to a day off outside the house, or a minimum salary, or the absolute right to terminate the employment.

In addition to the lack of legal protection of any kind, migrant domestic workers are faced with racist attitudes and stereotypical assumptions by both their employers and governmental institutions.

Kafa’s “Think About It” campaign is aiming to change those attitudes. Based on a nation-wide survey prepared by the American University of Beirut, exploring 1200 employers’ perceptions, attitudes and practices towards migrant domestic workers, it is an attempt to understand and properly address the roots of these perceptions and attitudes.

Two significant trends came out of this soon to be published study; the first of which were stark gaps in employers’ knowledge of the legal requirements of the sponsorship system. For instance, while neither the contract nor the sponsorship system requirements mention anything about the worker’s official documents and passport, 94% of the employers surveyed withhold the worker’s passport, of which 54% think this is stipulated by the contract.

The second substantial finding of the survey was the obvious contradiction between how much employers rely on domestic workers in their everyday life on the one hand, and the low and negative perceptions they have of them on the other hand. Despite entrusting the worker with the spectrum of domestic responsibilities, from taking care of children and parents to managing their households, employers have negative, low and borderline racist perceptions of the workers. A significant percentage of them believes the worker is not to be trusted, or comes to Lebanon with psychological problems.

Here are some more detailed findings:

  • 41% of the Lebanese consider that the migrant domestic worker has psychological problems but, have no problem with her staying with their parents when they’re away
  • 51% of the Lebanese consider that the migrant domestic worker is not to be trusted but, have no problem with her staying with their kids
  • 27% of the Lebanese consider that the migrant domestic worker is not clean but, have no problem with her cleaning and cooking
  • 36%of the Lebanese consider that the migrant domestic worker is stupid but, have no problem with her managing the household in their absence.

Kafa has designed a two-phased campaign around these two most prevailing findings from the survey. The first phase is targeting employers’ weak knowledge of the legal requirements of the system in place, highlighting the discrepancy between what the legal texts say and what employers think these texts say.

The second part of the campaign is highlighting the contradiction that employers live on the daily basis, between the responsibilities they delegate to the workers and their lack of trust in them and their capabilities. It is a call for employers to think through their perceptions and reconsider their long-held beliefs and misconceptions of migrant domestic workers.

We hope that this campaign will play a big part in changing the environment that the domestic workers work and live in, and move us loser to ending the exploitation of all migrant workers in Lebanon.

Nay El Rahi is the Migrant Domestic Workers Programme Coordinator at KAFA

KAFA (Enough Violence and Exploitation) is an organisation based in Beirut, Lebanon, working against violence against women, child sexual abuse, and exploitation and trafficking in women. Visit its website: http://www.kafa.org.lb/ and follow  it on Twitter.

See all the campaign videos below, and share them on social media with the hashtag #getyourfactsstraight.