Lebanese American University

LAU Advancement

Domestic Workers in Lebanon and the Middle East

Long treks made in search of employment have become a hallmark of an interconnected world, with Lebanon becoming a recipient of many people eager for work. Today, over 200,000 foreign workers are present in the country. However, research suggests that for large numbers of workers, the quest for a better life comes at a high price. Civil rights groups report that migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, most of whom come from the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia, are offered little protection under Lebanese law.  Human Rights Watch (HRW) uncovered abuses such as nonpayment of wages, inadequate time off, malnutrition, and the withholding of passports. In the most extreme cases, the abuse suffered has tragic consequences.  At the time of their study, they reported that at least 95 migrant domestic workers have died in Lebanon since January 2007. Almost half were classified by the embassy as “suicide”. Interviews with embassy officials and friends of domestic workers reveal that the misery of intolerable working conditions has driven some to end their lives, or risk their lives in an attempt to escape.

According to HRW, migrant workers arrive not knowing where they will work. Unscrupulous employment agencies then exacerbate this confusion by communicating only in Arabic, not the worker’s native tongue.  With no choice  but to sign if they want to work, migrants unwittingly agree to a contract that falls far short of legal labor standards.  Basic employment rights are not explained to the workers, and many are unaware how to reach their embassy for help.

It is important to note that this problem is not strictly Lebanese. The Philippines Overseas Employment Association’s figures show that 60% of overseas workers from the country settle throughout the Middle East, and abuse of workers occurs across the region. In light of the bad working conditions, Filipinos were banned from working in Jordan. However, given that migrant workers make up around 5% of Lebanon’s work force, it is clearly a problem that the country needs to address.

In the short term, embassies in Lebanon have been providing shelter for workers who successfully escape abusive situations. Shelters at the Philippine and Sri Lankan embassies, as well as those run by Caritas, accommodate dozens of women who have run away from abusive employers and are waiting to obtain unpaid wages and a ticket home. But by the time the embassy is called upon to help, the situation has become critical.

In an attempt to stop the problem at its roots, the Lebanese government recently implemented a new unified contract for migrant workers. This stresses better working conditions and is available in both Arabic and the worker’s native language. The contract also stipulates fairer work hours and wages. However, employers can still break contracts at will, leaving the workers stranded in an unfamiliar land without a ticket home.. In addition, the new contracts still leave workers’ passports unprotected, leaving workers at risk.

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