Thursday, November 4, 2010

Voice of America: Migrant Workers Face Abuses Inside Lebanese Homes

If they all moved to one country, migrant workers would be the world's fifth most-populous country. In Lebanon, hundreds of thousands of women from South Asia and Africa live in Lebanese homes, working as maids. Activists say behind closed doors, abuses go unchecked and legal protection is rare.

Aid workers found this Sri Lankan woman, who asked to be called Nilu, in a hospital with wrists crushed by a hammer, welts all over her body, and a broken back.

Nilu spent six months sleeping on the floor of her Lebanese employer's kitchen. She worked seven days a week as a maid and was not allowed to go out. She says even the smallest offense, like forgetting an item on the shopping list or not noticing water on the bathroom floor, would drive her mistress to beat her.

Nilu is one of about 200,000 foreign women in Lebanon working as a maid. Many women say their hours are long and the work is hard, but they are not abused. Hailing from poorer countries like Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Philippines, women say they come to Lebanon to make money, so they can help take care of their families at home.

Worldwide, migrant workers sent $316 billion to developing countries in 2009, often three times the amount of money coming from aid agencies and foreign countries.

The International Organization for Migration says women who travel abroad to work in homes are often vulnerable to abuses. In Lebanon, Human Rights Watch says the situation is critical. Workers who flee their employers are arrested and deported. And employers, even those accused of physical and sexual abuse, are rarely held legally accountable.

Beirut Human Rights Watch Director Nadim Houry says problems for migrant workers in Lebanon often begin in their home countries. Poorly regulated agencies make false promises to often desperately poor women.

Once in Lebanon, the women find little protection. Like in many countries, Lebanese labor laws designed to protect employees do not apply to domestic workers. In 2009, the Lebanese government adopted a standard contract for foreign domestic workers that guaranteed basic rights, like time off, and payment of wages. And while the contract is a positive step, Houry says it is not effective.

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