As part of the project: “Stop the Exploitation of Migrant Domestic Workers”, in partnership with the Danish Refugee Council and KVINFO, KAFA (enough) Violence and Exploitation, launched a study entitled “Servant, Daughter or Employee? A Pilot Study on the Attitudes of Lebanese Employers towards Migrant Domestic Workers” under the patronage of His Excellency Minister of Labor Sheikh Boutros Harb. The event took place at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Beirut, on Wednesday, June 23rd of 2010.
The Researcher, Dr. Sawsan Abdulrahim presented the findings of the study which unveiled some of the attitudes and practices of Lebanese employers towards migrant domestic workers thought to be normative but which also constitute violations of their human and labor rights. The study did not focus on the severe forms of physical exploitation and violence that many domestic workers suffer, but on other practices and perceptions that enforce employers’ control and that identify the lack of a regulatory framework that protects migrant domestic workers from mistreatment. The study can help guide future projects and campaigns targeting employers. It calls for a “change of some attitudes that must be condemned for they do no respect the worker’s human rights, will and independence”.
The findings revealed that blatant violations of the rights of domestic workers – such as withholding their salaries, not giving them enough food, and subjecting them to forms of violence – are virtually unanimously rejected in Lebanese society. Conversely, practices that equally infringe on the rights of domestic workers and heighten employer power and control – such as withholding their passports, preventing them from going out alone on their day off, and, to a lesser extent, locking them inside the employers’ house – receive less widespread rejection. In fact, employers hold the attitude that these practices are necessary and justified to protect domestic workers from harm and to protect themselves from bearing responsibility.
Moreover, the study uncovered the existence of a racialized hierarchy that is not merely in the minds of employers but translates to a hierarchy in wages. This hierarchy is organized such that migrant women from the Philippines receive the highest salaries and those from Bangladesh receive the lowest. Domestic workers from Sri Lanka and Ethiopia receive salaries between the two extremes. Level of education and experience were two sought after characteristics for employers, but so were obedience and a low level of contact with other domestic workers.
Lebanese employers often project feelings of maternalism (and paternalism) towards migrant domestic workers, with many expressing preference for treating them like daughters. The study findings exposed obvious contradictions in participants’ statements, leading us to believe that maternalistic assertions were symbolic at best. They showed inconsistencies between expressions of closeness in the relationship and employers’ support for conditions that clearly circumscribe the space available for domestic workers. It is important to question whether the phrase “I treat my domestic worker like my daughter” works to reinforce the control of the employer (by making the domestic worker feel a sense of obligation towards a maternal or a paternal figure) yet at the same time maintains the employer as the main benefactor in the relationship.
The majority of employers included in the study agreed that inadequate policies contribute to the vulnerability of domestic workers and heighten employers’ control. In cases when a Lebanese person attempts to support a domestic worker living and working under abusive conditions, he or she quickly discovers that the whole system, including government and employment agencies, is on the side of the abusive employer. The findings further highlight that employers avoid resorting to employment agencies when faced with a conflict and the majority indicated that they invite more government involvement and regulation of the employer-worker relationship. In spite of this, only a small proportion of employers knew about the existence of mechanisms that govern this relationship, such as the unified contract.
The findings delineated in the present report can guide future campaign plans that target employer attitudes and practices and that link to more comprehensive policies. Awareness campaigns should address practices and attitudes that violate the rights of domestic workers, even those that are perceived by the majority of employers to be normative and necessary. Efforts should focus on de-normalizing practices that constrain the autonomy and free will of domestic workers. They also need to work against widespread support for the idea that employers can control aspects of the domestic worker’s life under the guise of protecting her.
Employers’ acceptance of government enforcement coupled with a low level of employer knowledge of regulatory mechanisms highlights the need to spread awareness about the unified contract to both employers and domestic workers. Awareness efforts need to address employers’ lack of knowledge concerning new regulations and changes in the legal framework. They should also focus on informing domestic workers of their rights and providing them with information on who to contact in cases when rights guaranteed by the unified contract are breached. In addition to awareness efforts, recommendations in the report draw attention to the need to dissolve the sponsorship system and institute more regulations of employment agencies, in the hope of limiting employer control and lessening the exploitation of domestic workers.
Finally, much of the work needed to improve the living conditions of domestic workers requires close collaboration between activist groups and policy makers who are willing to take on sensitive issues. Whereas physical and sexual violence against domestic workers have rightfully received attention, it is time to begin to work towards granting domestic workers basic human and labor rights – to grant them at least one day off from work and to allow them to decide how and where they wish to spend that day. The inclusion of domestic workers themselves or advocates on their behalf in the process of change is crucial. Change can only take place if activists maintain momentum and continue to press for support at the policy level.
This study was conducted by Dr. Sawsan Abdelrahim (Associate Professor at the Faculty oF Public Health at AUB) and commissioned by KAFA as part of a larger project to end the exploitation of migrant domestic workers. The larger project is implemented by KAFA in partnership with the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and funded by KVINFO - Danish Centre on Gender, Equality and Ethnicity. The project approaches the situation of migrant domestic workers from multi-dimensions and includes a research component, advocacy, awareness rising, and training of front-line officials. KAFA’s commitment to the achievement of gender-equality and non-discrimination, and the advancement of the human rights of women and children shape our commitment to advancing the rights of migrant domestic workers. Acknowledgement that the situations of violence and abuse experienced by Lebanese women are similar to those experienced by migrant women led KAFA to take up this issue. It is our belief that gender-equality and non-discrimination can only be achieved if the rights of all women are respected.