Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Daily Star: AUB lecture sheds light on plight of migrant workers

AUB lecture sheds light on plight of migrant workers, by Evita Mouawad. Wednesday, April 07, 2010

BEIRUT: In Sri Lanka, it is customary for women to purchase a house and furniture for their husband before marriage, as it is their duty to provide food for the household once the children are born.

This tradition has led many Sri Lankan women to seek work abroad especially in the Middle East where most families employ migrant workers as housekeepers or babysitters and where the pay is very reasonable compared to what one might earn back home.

Lebanon is one of the countries that receives the most migrant workers in the Middle East, most of them coming from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia or the Philippines and throughout the years, cases of exploitation, abuse and even suicide have been surfacing and attracting more attention among the public.

The painful truth is that this has been happening for more than 30 years as Lebanon started welcoming migrant workers back in 1973.

In 1994, Caritas established its Migrant Center with aims of strengthening and supporting the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Lebanon regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or political beliefs.

A documentary entitled “Maid in Lebanon” was presented Tuesday at the American University of Beirut, portraying the hardship that female migrant workers are subject to in Lebanon. The film was directed by Carol Mansour and sponsored by Caritas and other NGOs.

“Maid in Lebanon” does not only give insight on the lives of these workers in Lebanon but also on the process they go through in Sri Lanka before leaving for the Middle East. In Sri Lanka, Lebanon is perceived as a country of opportunity.

Among the 200,000 migrant workers that are employed in Lebanon, 80,000 are Sri Lankan making them the majority among the others.

The journey is not always fruitful for all, as many of the workers become prisoners on house-arrest. And contrary to what many Lebanese believe or do, it is illegal for a migrant worker’s sponsor or agency to confiscate the worker’s passport.

“When employers confiscate these workers’ passports it is as if they strip them from their identity and it ultimately means that the worker has become a prisoner in the home,” said Noha Roukoss who is responsible of the Awareness Sessions of Caritas.

She also noted that employers tend to confiscate the passports, believing that it will keep the worker from running away, but according to Roukoss this is not true. “According to the many cases we have seen, when workers are mistreated and run away from the household they leave everything behind, all they care about is their freedom. And once free they will do whatever it takes to get back home even if it means trafficking themselves back to Sri Lanka,” she said.

After a worrying number of migrant workers’ suicides surfaced in the press last year, the Labor Ministry approved in January the “Unified Contract” for all migrant workers in Lebanon that was drafted by Caritas and other NGOs.

Nonetheless the fact that the contract is only available in Arabic has caused problems, making it more difficult for the workers to be aware of all their rights. Caritas is working on getting it translated to as many languages as possible.

Harsh stories of sexual harassment and rape are also portrayed in the documentary as domestic workers reveal being repeatedly violated in the households. And what is more shocking is that in many cases the assaults are not led by the fathers or husbands but by the teenage boys of the household aging 16 to 18.

In 2002 the Caritas Migrant Center built a Safe House for migrant workers who have been victims of abuse where social workers, lawyers and doctors advise and look after them as they await for trial or for a flight back home.

Caritas has also installed a hotline that anyone can call 24 hours a day to report abuse of a domestic worker. The numbers are 03 092 538 or 03 290 066

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