By Dalila Mahdawi - Daily Star staff - Thursday, June 24, 2010
BEIRUT: Lebanese employers of migrant domestic workers often project harmful paternalistic feelings toward their employees while at the same time nominally rejecting violations of their rights, a new report has said.
The study, “Servant, Daughter, or Employee? A Pilot Study on the Attitudes of Lebanese Employers toward Migrant Domestic Workers,” launched Wednesday by non-governmental organization KAFA: Enough Violence and Exploitation, also shows that employers are poorly informed about their contractual rights and obligations.
There are around 200,000 women migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, mostly from the Philippines, Ethiopia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Because they are excluded from protection under Lebanese labor laws, they are vulnerable to exploitation and human-rights abuses. They are also subject to a controversial kafala, or sponsorship, system, which effectively binds them to their employer.
But while the hardships endured by workers are receiving greater attention, the attitudes of employers still remain little understood.
KAFA’s study, which is the first major examination of perceptions of Lebanese employers toward their employees, is based on 102 interviews with Lebanese men and women employers and owners or managers of recruitment agencies.
The lack of a clear definition of domestic work means that “employers are free to mandate what work is performed by the employee,” said Zoya Rouhana, director of KAFA. “There are no clear borders,” she said, noting that domestic workers were often obliged to clean the houses of their employer’s relatives for no extra pay. “It is necessary to work on anchoring a sound contractual agreement. Migrant domestic workers should have decent working conditions.”
The study found widespread support for such practices as confiscating the passport of migrant workers or preventing them from meeting other individuals from their country of origin. It also revealed a widespread belief among employees that migrant workers are “only here to work” and a considerable degree of racism toward dark-skinned workers. But all employers rejected the rationing of food of domestic workers and said those who sexually abused their employee should be given the same punishment as someone who sexually abused a Lebanese woman.
“I do not accept to give [the domestic worker] a day off,” said one employer interviewed in the study. “She will go out, have a boyfriend and get pregnant. I [do not accept because I] have a young daughter.”
According to KAFA, many employers lock their employees in their house, with 37.7 percent allowing the domestic worker to leave the house on her own. Only 20 percent of the employers interviewed gave their employee a day off outside the home. “These results show an alarming trend and highlight that a large proportion of domestic workers in Lebanon cannot separate themselves from their employer even if they were allowed time to rest,” said report author Sawsan Abdulrahim.
“Whereas in Lebanese culture maternalism (and paternalism) mandates a high degree of both inclusion and protection, half of the Lebanese employers we interviewed circumscribed the space available in their homes for domestic workers,” Abdulrahim added, noting that 43 percent of employers forbade their employees from eating at the same table or from entering the living room while guests were over.
While most employers (93 percent) said they treated their employees like a family member, a considerable number added that they would fire their domestic worker if they got ill and hire a new one.
The relationship a domestic worker has with her employers depends less on the law and more on “the personal beliefs and values of the employers,” Abdulrahim said.
KAFA said that while Lebanon has recently taken some steps toward improving the rights of migrant domestic workers, the reforms did not go far enough. Lebanon’s recent formulation of a unified contract was a step forward but was riddled with omissions, said Mohanna As-Haf, a KAFA lawyer.
The costs and lengths of legal proceedings work discouraged abused workers from seeking legal redress, with the contract not solving the sponsorship dilemma a worker is placed in if she does file a lawsuit. There is also no way to see that the contract is enforced. “Rights are important when we can claim them,” As-Haf said. Until the contract grants parity between migrant workers and employers, it “remains only ink on paper.”