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LEBANON: Employers hurt foreign maids with impunity, rights group says

September 16, 2010 |  9:00 am
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Justice Lebanese-style: A Lebanese employer in 1999 beat and burned two maids with a hot iron. 

The employer received a fine of $333. 

In a new report presented at a news conference in Beirut on Thursday, the New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch offered some troubling statistics on the Lebanese justice system's track record for protecting the rights of migrant workers in Lebanon. 

The 54-page study, titled "Without Protection," concluded that the Lebanese judiciary generally failed to protect the rights of foreign maids who accuse their employers of mistreating them and that employers accused of abuse frequently go unpunished or only receive light sentences. 

The report also found that migrant workers face many obstacles to justice in Lebanon, resulting in their reluctance to report abuse to the authorities.

For the report, Human Rights Watch conducted a review of 114 Lebanese judicial decisions and police reports affecting domestic workers. It also conducted interviews with several lawyers and diplomats and nearly 30 domestic workers, among others.

In not one of the more than 100 cases reviewed did researchers find that an employer faced charges for incidents such locking their live-in maids inside the house for long periods of time, starving them or confiscating their passports.

According to Human Rights Watch's statistics, the Lebanese judiciary even appears to go easy on employers when it comes to cases involving accusations of severe abuse and mistreatment of domestic workers. An example would be a case from 1998 in which an employer beat a maid from Sri Lanka to death and was given an 18-month jail sentence.

Nadim Houry, Beirut director for Human Rights Watch, warns that wide-scale impunity for employers accused of abuse sets a dangerous precedent.

"Bad employers know that they will not be held accountable," he told Babylon & Beyond."The importance of the judiciary is not just for the cases at hand, but to send a strong message of deterrence. Workers are denied justice, and the Lebanese judicial system -- which is supposed to protect them from abusive employers -- ends up being complicit in the violations."

Domestic workers themselves face a myriad of obstacles in pursuit of justice.

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Among the bigger problems they face, Houry told reporters at the news conference, are the lack of information pamphlets outlining the rights of foreign maids in Lebanon, written in their own languages; lengthy judicial processes (especially when workers are the plaintiffs); restrictive visa policies and the country's kafeel, or sponsorship system.

If a maid leaves her kafeel, or employer, who is sponsoring her stay in Lebanon -- even to file a legal complaint -- the worker immediately loses the right to live in Lebanon and could face time in detention and deportation, according to Human Rights Watch.

Lebanese law enforcement and judicial officials add to the domestics' misery, Houry said.

"Policemen, prosecutors, judges ... consider certain behavior normal [like locking a worker in, or keeping her passport, or not giving her a day off] even though the penal code considers forced confinement a crime. So they are insensitive to certain behaviors," he said.

Human Rights Watch estimates that about 200,000 migrant domestic workers, mainly from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Philippines and Nepal, are employed in Lebanese households.

Previous media reports and research by rights groups suggest the workers suffer from very high death rates. The deaths of eight domestic workers were reported in the country during the last month, and a 2008 report from Human Rights Watch said that on average one domestic worker dies each week in Lebanon.

Given the alarming statistics, a number of local human rights organizations and foreign embassies have set up shelters and hot lines for maids in need. In June, the Lebanese Ministry of Labor set up its own hot line for workers' complaints.

Gilbert Asuque, the Philippines' ambassador to Lebanon, told Babylon & Beyond that his embassy is housing 98 Filipino domestic workers in its shelter and that the embassy staff has set up a 24-hour hot line for their citizens in Lebanon.

Wm Primarathmam, the Sri Lankan consul in Lebanon, told Babylon & Beyond that his embassy also offers a shelter for maids claiming abuse and that the embassy now checks up on host families before the maids' arrival in Lebanon.

"We contact the ladies who are coming, the sponsors and the agencies. If the contract and the pay is OK, we approve," he said. "After they arrive, we contact them after one month, then two months, then three months ... to minimize all the problems."

Human Rights Watch called on Lebanese authorities to provide foreign maids with access to legal aid and interpreters, reform the sponsorship system and launch a special labor inspection unit to monitor households and create a list of blacklisted employers.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Upper photo: Rights group Human Rights Watch says in a new report that the Lebanese justice system is failing to protect the rights of foreign maids in Lebanon. Credit: Agence-France Presse

Lower photo: A sign outside an agency in Beirut bringing maids from abroad to Lebanese households. Credit: Alexandra Sandels

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