With an estimated 200,000 domestic workers, Lebanon became one of the top nations in the world that rely on foreign domestic help, with one maid for every 16 families.
The workers primarily come from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Philippines and Nepal. The conditions in which they work and live have become a topic of much discussion following the release of a report in September by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The report called on the Lebanese judiciary to protect female foreign domestic workers. The conditions are so bad, the report said, it leads some workers to commit suicide.
According to the report, "violence against women workers often fails to gain the attention of the police and prosecutors who do not file a lawsuit except in cases of serious physical violence backed by comprehensive medical reports."
The report seems to confirm recent research carried out by other human rights organisations.
A study commissioned by KAFA (Enough) in June of 2010 found that over 50% of the women work more than 12 hours per day
and 40% have no regular time off. Eight-eight percent of employers keep their employee's passport, while 31% lock their employee in the house, and 80% do not allow their employee to leave the house on her day off.
One domestic worker per week dies, according to the KAFA report, usually of suicide or workplace accidents. Other reported forms of abuse include non-payment or irregular payment of salaries, psychological and physical violence (including sexual) and social isolation.
In a statement issued in September in response to the HRW report, Labour Minister Boutros Harb said that the report contains some inaccuracies "which undermine and distort Lebanon's image". He said the report did not highlight actions taken by the Ministry of Labour with this regard, in co-ordination with the competent civil society organisations, embassies, ministries and trade unions.
Harb said that a decision has been taken to establish a Complaints Office and a hotline to follow up on the daily complaints received and refer them to the competent authorities for further study, and work on developing a legal framework for domestic work, pointing to the completion of an instruction manual in 14 languages for domestic service workers.
Director of Human Rights Watch Office in Lebanon, Nadim Houry, saw in the Minister of Labour response a positive step that shows official interest, but said "that it is not the report that distorts Lebanon's image, but the violations committed against these women in Lebanese homes."
Houry said that nowadays there is an acknowledgment of the problem, but the adequacy of actions taken to solve the problem is being researched.
"The right of defence before a judge is not available for female domestic workers in a manner that protects their rights, the reason being on the one hand that the judge does not draw their attention to their right of appointing a lawyer, and their lack of money, on the other," Lawyer George Abboud told Al Shorfa that.
Abboud pointed out that "the judge asks these female workers questions in either English or French, either language many of them do not understand, taking into account that the Law of Due Process in Lebanon stipulates the necessity of the presence of a sworn translator in such cases."
But in a recent interview with the Gulf News, Fady Ebrahim, secretary General of Caritas Lebanon, an international charity based in Beirut, said the problem is not with the courts, as the HRW report said, but with the law itself.
"The problem is rather with the law which did not consider domestic workers as labourers and thus they don't enjoy the rights of workers as per the law," he said.
Ebrahim added that there is a serious lack of education on the part of both domestic workers and their employers about the rights of domestic workers, in both a moral and legal sense.
"The law has the duty to protect any person, Lawyer Nizar Al-Baradei told Al-Shorfa. "In legal matters, female workers need tangible support, especially that only few lawyers adopt their cases and defend them."