Domestic workers in Lebanon: modern day slavery?

Published March 27th, 2014 - 12:09 GMT
It is worthwhile here to ask what is the role of the union of these employment agencies in protecting domestic workers, in the presence of a widespread culture of “slavery” that does not seem to be on its way out any time soon in this country.
It is worthwhile here to ask what is the role of the union of these employment agencies in protecting domestic workers, in the presence of a widespread culture of “slavery” that does not seem to be on its way out any time soon in this country.

It should not be “ordinary” that a migrant domestic worker is beaten, humiliated, and then raped, supposedly to discipline her, without much outrage. But this is exactly what happened a few days ago when an Ethiopian woman working in Lebanon as a domestic worker was beaten and violated.

We are still living in the era of slavery. Forget all the treaties, conventions, constitutions, laws, and all other principles that prohibit and criminalize slavery. The issue, first and foremost, is one of mentality, attitudes, and inherited beliefs that we do not seem to have truly cast away. Herein lies the crux of the matter. 

 Indeed, should it be normal for a migrant worker to be assaulted and raped by a man working at the employment agency that recruited her – to discipline her, as it has been said – without any outcry by all those concerned? Shouldn’t this be seen as an assault on everybody’s human dignity, and not just the Ethiopian woman’s violated body?

The incident in question took place in the town of Kousba in the North Lebanon district of Koura a few days ago. Some will say, as usual, that this case is “small change” compared to the killings taking place in and around Lebanon, so why should it be reason for much an uproar? But absent from their minds perhaps is the fact that what has happened in Lebanon and nearby countries was all motivated by freedom and dignity.

In other words, do those who care little for the dignity of vulnerable people in their care, such as migrant workers, deserve to demand and champion dignity elsewhere? If not, then how credible are their intentions when advocating any other cause?

The secretary outside heard the whole thing and did nothing, as though what was happening was the “norm.”

The Public Relations Division of the Internal Security Forces could have not carried the news in a dedicated statement, and kept it instead under wraps like many daily incidents. But Lieutenant Joseph Msallem decided otherwise, and circulated the story to the media.

“Because this is no ordinary incident, publicizing the story is a message to all those thinking about abusing domestic workers. For this reason, we asked every domestic worker or those who can help them in similar situations to contact us on our hotline,” Msallem explained.

Al-Akhbar managed to obtain more details regarding the incident that were left out of the ISF’s statement. This is while bearing in mind that the investigation is still ongoing, and more details are expected to come to light soon.

The incident began when a woman, who is in her seventies, lodged a complaint concerning her Ethiopian maid identified as B.A. (33 years old) with the employment agency that recruited her. The agency’s office is located in the northern town of Kousba, and is run by a Lebanese woman, who is a lawyer.

Apparently, the owner was not present at the office, so the elderly woman lodged her complaint with the secretary there, identified as L.S. (24 years old), in what appeared to be a routine procedure.

In truth, if the mentality of some Lebanese had not been skewed in the first place, the whole issue would not have been more than an ordinary dispute between an employer and an employee. But we are talking about a migrant worker here; a “slave” for all intents and purposes, given the attitudes towards them in Lebanon. The difference with traditional slavery, however, is that this is all regulated, effectively making it a legalized “slave market.”

The secretary insulted and verbally abused the domestic worker, saying things like “why do you not understand, animal,” and “I will show you, cow.” And true to her word, she “showed” her. L.S. called in another employee in the agency, who principally works as a driver, but it seems he also has another job: He “disciplines” migrant workers at the office.

The man came into the office, and took over abusing her from the secretary, before he took her to another room in the office. She started screaming as he battered her. The secretary outside could hear everything, but did not intervene, as though it was all part of the routine procedure.

He used his belt to beat her. How reminiscent of the whip that slaves throughout history were beaten with, as though some people refuse to let go of that horrid past.

A forensic doctor subsequently examined the migrant worker, and found bruises on her body, including on her “private parts.” According to sources familiar with the investigation, the man allegedly became sexually aroused while assaulting her, and raped her. She was thus “disciplined,” and asked to “obey her mistress,” and told that if she doesn’t, then her punishment would be repeated.

 Interestingly, the domestic worker had the consent of her employer when she filed a report with the judicial police in Tripoli later. This begs the question: how many domestic workers were subjected to the same – if not worse – kind of treatment, without anyone knowing about it, because they could not report it to the law enforcement agencies? How many of these workers know the way to the police station anyway?

Luckily for the victim, Judge Ghassan Bassil was on shift at the Public Prosecutor’s Office at the time. Nearly a year ago, Bassil had ordered the detention of a couple for assaulting a migrant worker.

Upon examining the allegations regarding the rape of the Ethiopian maid in Kousba, he decided the driver and the secretary at the employment agency should be taken into custody, according to Al-Akhbar’s sources.

In her statement to investigators, the domestic worker mentioned certain physical marks belonging to the suspect, to confirm that he had taken off his clothes during the incident, before the forensic doctor’s report was filed. The investigation is ongoing, and will be forwarded to the investigating judge, meaning that there is a possibility the owner of the employment agency could be summoned to establish whether similar incidents had occurred in the past.

Perhaps this incident, in addition to similar ones in the past, will help shed light on the operations of employment agencies that bring in migrant workers to Lebanon. According to experts, there is no direct oversight in place over these agencies’ activities, which necessitates a plan by the Ministry of Labor to regulate and scrutinize their operations. It is not logical, experts say, to wait for domestic workers who are subjected to assault or rape to bring charges with the security forces before taking action.

It is worthwhile here to ask what is the role of the union of these employment agencies in protecting domestic workers, in the presence of a widespread culture of “slavery” that does not seem to be on its way out any time soon in this country.

Finally, it may be necessary to reiterate to all those concerned on some of the guiding principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, specifically the text of the first article: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

It may also be useful to quote the first paragraph of the preamble to the declaration: “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

By: Mohammad Nazzal



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