BEIRUT: Senior Shiite cleric Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah issued a fatwa, or religious edict, on Thursday urging employers to refrain from resorting to physical violence, sexual harassment and unjust actions against foreign domestic workers. There are roughly 200,000 domestic workers, mostly from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, and the Philippines, working in Lebanon. There is also a large, predominantley male, Syrian population who mostly work as day laborers. A great number of domestic workers are employed as live-in maids and are often forced to work long hours without a weekly break or sufficient food. A 2006 survey conducted in Lebanon by Dr. Ray Jureidini of 600 migrant domestic workers found that 56 percent worked more than 12 hours a day and 34 percent were not allowed regular time off.
A statement issued last Tuesday by leading rights group Human Rights Watch spoke of "the urgent need" to improve the working and living conditions of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, saying that "at least" 95 women had died between January 1, 2007, and August 15, 2008. Many had died as a result of abuse or while trying to escape their employers, it said.
Fadlallah stressed that such unethical treatment was an indication of social, educational, and legal disorder within Lebanon.
Remarking on the many other forms of abuse migrant domestic workers faced in Lebanon, Fadlallah pointed to the "sale" of workers to other Lebanese. More often than not, this takes place without the consent of the worker concerned, he said. It also forces female domestic workers to assume the role of the mother in raising the children of her employers, he said.
Such actions were religiously and legally forbidden, said Fadlallah, who urged Lebanese authorities to assume their responsibility in imposing the law.
"These forms of exploitation are not only unethical but could also pressure the worker into committing suicide or harming themselves," the cleric said.
His statement added that "racial considerations" were no excuse to treat workers as "second-class human beings," and said such mentalities should be corrected. He also urged that employers be legally bound to the durations stipulated in the employees' work contracts.
Among the other reasons for violence committed against migrant workers was the issue of political and security conflict between Lebanon and the workers' country of origin, said the statement in an indirect reference to Syrian workers.
"This kind of behavior could drive any country to resort in the future to such action against immigrants in the event of political instability in their country of origin," added Fadlallah.