“Adesh, Adesh?” shouted the first driver in the line-up of five cars beside me. As I walked on the sidewalk, drivers shouted, “How much, how much?” It was only my second week in Beirut, and I had been told the slang for maid was “Sri Lanki”. I wondered if the accosting had something to do with the fact I’m Sri Lankan.
I’ve lived and travelled the Middle East for years. The first time I moved to the Gulf I was soul-ridden from seeing the migrant domestic workers (MDW) that looked like members of my family and the community I grew up in. There was the Sri Lankan maid who’d knock on my door asking if I wanted her services, the Filipina women pushing strollers, running after Arab children, and the Bengali woman sweeping close to the table I sat at with my white and Arab friends. I’d always smile, almost embarrassed if I was wearing short shorts in front of an aunty, guilty for my company with white expats and the Arab majority. I knew while the organisation I worked for held my passport for three months, theirs were held for years.
“My maid’s stupid. She knows nothing. She can’t do anything. She’s useless,” a Lebanese woman shared with me. “In Lebanon having a maid is a status symbol.”
According to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) 2016 report on Lebanon, there are over 250,000 migrant women in domestic work. The majority are Ethiopian. Sri Lankan women were once the most popular after other Arab women in the early 70s, hence the term “Sri Lanki”. Currently, Bangladeshi women earn the least, and there’s more likelihood to obtain Ethiopian women due to high supply. Filipina women earn the most because they usually speak English and have had experience in domestic work.
The Kafala is a sponsorship system in the Middle East that ties an employee to their employer. It gives employers reign over their employees’ movement and work hours, inhibiting them from leaving their sponsored work. It’s a form of slavery, sitting within a structure of an endemically racist capitalist system which affects MDW, but also working class Lebanese and Arab communities who suffer as part of this. Despite the fact that some countries in the Middle East have reformed or abolished Kafala, power still remains in the employers’ hands.
“It sits within a structure of an endemically racist capitalist system which affects migrant domestic women, but also working class Lebanese and Arab communities”
At Beirut Airport, it’s common to see an immigration officer with a queue of Ethiopian women waiting to be numbered. This is usually the point when their documents and passports are taken by their sponsors. Although I am Sri Lankan, when I travel I’m able to embark on my journey freely, thanks to my Canadian passport and the life that comes with my upbringing in the West.
Madams (female employers) are known to shower and bathe maids when they arrive, using lice shampoo, teaching them how to disinfect the bathroom after use, as many perceive their maids as “dirty”. Many of the migrant women arrive with little or no English, Arabic or French skills making it difficult to connect with their employer and their family. The MDW tend to feel isolated. The ILO states almost half of MDW aren’t given their own rooms. They sleep in the kitchen, the parlour or in a glass-enclosed veranda.
Some MDW are locked indoors, as employers worry they will run away, or fear what they’ll do, as they’re responsible for their actions. There have been cases such as Halima‘s, a woman who was “locked away” for 10 years without receiving wages. While minimum wage in Lebanon is $US450, this doesn’t apply to MDW – the average wage for migrant women is just $US180.
“Ethiopian women returning from working in the Middle East have psychiatric morbidity rates that are two to five times more than those remaining in Ethiopia”
On a flight to Ethiopia from Beirut, there were many Ethiopian women either returning or visiting home. There was one woman I noticed who was despondent to those around her, as were the flight attendants. “40% of Ethiopian women are bipolar – I read a study. Our maid used to throw plates on the floor,” said the Lebanese woman beside me on the plane. If I was a MDW, I’d throw more than just plates. I researched her claim and learnt that Ethiopian women returning from working in the Middle East have psychiatric morbidity rates that are two to five times more than those remaining in Ethiopia.
Though some MDW work for caring families, there are those who endure verbal, physical or sexual abuse. “My first six months were horrible. I ran away. They don’t treat us like women. We’re slaves. I still don’t have my passport. We really suffer here,” said a 27-year-old Ethiopian woman I spoke with. She explained that some women feel pressured after running away and look for sex work. She also said that the authorities often stop women, knowing that they’re unlikely to have their documents. Some of these men will ask for money and knowing the women don’t have any, they demand sex. “They see us as bitches. That’s what we are to them.”
A few weeks prior, I was followed by a uniformed officer into my building and through the secluded stairwell. He wanted my phone number for sex. I was able to tell him off in English in my North American accent, my privilege spraying as potent as pepper spray. “It’s because you’re Sri Lankan,” said the Filipina maid who works in our building as she pointed to my skin. Even with my privilege as a Sri Lankan from the West, with a white Arabic speaking husband that looks Lebanese, I notice how people avoid speaking to me when I’m with him, even when English is spoken. I can’t help but wonder if some of the stares we get when we’re together are out of curiosity by the nature of our relationship. Did a Lebanese man marry his Sri Lanki?
If, with my privilege, I feel the obvious racism in the power imbalance between migrants and locals, I can’t imagine what it’s like for a MDW. They leave their families and children, often working for the sole purpose of sending money back home. For every case where a vulnerable woman is subject to such terms of oppression, this is often accompanied by violence, control and death. There are organisations of some Lebanese in solidarity with some of these women, and those run by former workers themselves. We can support their efforts to force the Lebanese elite to abolish the Kafala system, and put pressure on employers who are exploiting their workers. Let’s strive towards justice and change, rather than sit by and watch.