There is an issue in our Arab region these days that has become so blatantly intolerable that most people seem to have instinctively shut off their natural capacity to see it or to talk about it: the situation of “domestic workers.”
Both those responsible for this human trafficking and those benefiting from it like to call them khâdimât: servants. For some reason, when the rest of us go to work we qualify as “employees,” but those we employ in our homes are our “servants.”
Khâdimât are “imported” by specialized agencies and they are chosen through catalogs and taken home like commodities by a massive proportion of the Lebanese population.
According to the International Labor Organization, domestic workers today represent about 19 percent of the Lebanese population (cited on the International Museum of Women website).
Initially, this stunning statistic would suggest that almost every household in Lebanon has a “maid.”
More likely, however, if this statistic is accurate, it must indicate that an unusual number of upper-class households in Lebanon have multiple “maids.”
On the surface, the idea of hiring domestic help is not in itself problematic. Two-income families have become common throughout the world, even an economic necessity.
And when both spouses in a family are working, they are likely to need help in the performance of some of the traditional housekeeping responsibilities.
So is there really a problem? After all, there is nothing illegal – at least by Lebanese legal standards – in “importing” house help from foreign countries with large populations that are economically less privileged than we are.
We can even relieve our consciences by telling ourselves that we are helping these poor people provide for their families back home.
It is, in reality, the work conditions of these women from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Nepal, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria and other countries, which is alarming.
Most of us may not realize that they are not even protected by Lebanon’s labor law, effectively ascribing them a subhuman status.
The Lebanese government laws and the General Security’s enforcement apparatus hold employers responsible if their domestic worker “runs away.”
Employers are advised to withhold their passport and prevent them from having any significant social life. And recruitment agencies now routinely offer employers insurance to cover themselves against this specific offense.
Think about it for a moment. If you find yourself in an employment situation where quitting your job would be viewed as “running away,” then you qualify as a slave, pure and simple.
A domestic worker’s portfolio includes every imaginable task, from cleaning the house to cooking, washing, ironing, feeding the kids, taking them to school, walking the dog, carrying “madame’s” hand bag and groceries, reporting to duty any time “mister” snaps his finger or blows his car horn, and the list goes on and on.
Naturally, this amount of work cannot be performed by anyone in a normal workday.
Consequently, most domestic workers in Lebanon have 12- to 18-hour workdays. Many Lebanese employers (or can we now call them slave-drivers?) don’t even give a day off per week to their worker, and the pay is ridiculous.
In 2010, Human Rights Watch launched an awareness campaign that revealed that employers often withheld their domestic worker’s salary for months at a time, that a third of them were not allowed to leave their employer’s house alone and were often locked in the house and sometimes denied food as part of a long list of physical and psychological abuses.
A third of them did not have a regular day off. And as many as one domestic worker per week committed suicide in Lebanon in 2008 as a result of abuse, including of a sexual nature.
It is quite disturbing, moreover, to see that there is little, if any, apparent difference between the way that this modern form of slavery is practiced in the church and outside of it.
Perhaps the day-to-day treatment is better in a home that claims to follow the ethical teaching of Jesus, or at least one might hope so.
But at the end of the day, it boils down to very practical things: if you are benefiting from hired help at home that covers every imaginable chore for more than 10 hours per day, if you are holding on to your worker’s passport and they are not free to resign whenever they wish, and if all of this is costing you a couple hundred dollars a month, then you can be pretty sure that you are involved in some form of injustice, and most probably caught in the perpetuation of contemporary slavery.
Given the current unjust laws in Lebanon regarding these foreign workers, those who would claim to abide by a Jesus ethic should decide either to opt out of the cheap privileges available from having a domestic worker, or they should pay them what they believe their work is really worth, and consciously practice civil disobedience by breaking certain requirements that the law still expects employers to enforce, such as withholding their passport or locking them up to prevent them from “running away.”
If we are not capable of transforming that work relationship into a normal contract with standard privileges and responsibilities, then cooking, cleaning and taking care of the kids and the dog need to remain the chores of Mr. and Mrs.
Martin Accad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon.