BEIRUT: Migrant domestic workers spoke Saturday about their experiences in Lebanon, shedding light on an often-overlooked segment of the country's workforce. African and Southeast Asian women joined a panel of Lebanese rights activists and around 40 others at the Medina Theater in Beirut's Hamra district for what was perhaps Lebanon's most inclusive and candid discussion of the plight of some 200,000 migrant women to date.
Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch (HRW) said migrant laborers often faced abuse at the hands of their employers, noting 90 percent of women had either had their passports confiscated, their salaries withheld or no weekly day off.
An unknown number also face physical and physiological abuse. A 2008 HRW report found that migrant domestic workers in Lebanon were dying at an average of one per week, usually by "falling from high buildings, often while trying to escape their employers."
"We all have to be agents of change in our families and neighborhoods," said Houry, urging people to stand up to those mistreating domestic helpers.
Despite the severity of abuse, Lebanese society is still largely unwilling to confront it, several participants said. One woman complained her grandfather mistreated his domestic worker and dismissed advice from relatives to give her a day off. "These people are in denial and they don't want to listen," she said.
But for Aimee, a Madagascan who has spent the last 11 years providing de facto support for distressed women, communication between employee and employer was vital. Migrant workers, like their Lebanese counterparts, "need love and affection and also for their stories to be told," she said.
Angeline, a Sudanese refugee living without papers in Lebanon, said there were organized groups within the Lebanese police force that exploited Africans living in the country illegally, exhorting hundreds of dollars from them in return for not reporting them. "Wherever black people go in the Arab world, they face discrimination," she said.
Naimah, from Kenya, said her skin color often resulted in public harassment. "Sometimes I just lose it and scream, telling them I'm old enough to be their mothers, but they just think, 'Why the hell is this maid even talking?'"