Foreign maids expose horrors of employers’ ‘atrocious abuses’

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BEIRUT | Back in Sri Lanka, “Nilu” had long hair. But she wanted a home and a little money. So she followed in her mother’s footsteps and took a job as a maid in Lebanon.

Six months later, she escaped. Her back was broken after she fell from a third-story window while trying to run away. Aid workers said they found her in a hospital. She was covered in welts and bruises, and her hands were crushed by blows from her employer’s hammer.

Nilu looked wistful as she tugged at her shoulder-length hair. It was chopped off at gunpoint after she accidentally left a kitchen appliance plugged in. She asked not to use her real name for fear of another attack.

“I was expecting to work here to realize my dream of having a home,” she said in a shelter where she is now hidden.

Lebanon hosts about 200,000 foreign maids. Like other migrant domestic workers around the world, the women frequently are subjected to conditions that local activists call “legal slavery.”

Outside a Beirut church, foreign domestic workers from Ethiopia say they work hard so they can send money to their families at home. They don't want to talk about abuses. (Heather Murdock/Special to The Washington Times)

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Outside a Beirut church, foreign domestic workers from Ethiopia say they work ... more >

Many foreign domestic workers in Lebanon say their hours are long and the work is hard, but it is worth it to be able to send money to their families in poorer countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and the Philippines. Other women, lured to Lebanon by the hope of a better life, are trapped into lives of isolation, unable to protect themselves from abuse.

The International Organization for Migration reports that mistreatment of foreign domestic workers is a problem around the world, including in the U.S. Behind closed doors, foreign maids are unprotected by labor laws and are commonly abused.

“No country in the world has a monitoring system,” said Jemini Pandya, a spokeswoman for the organization. In every country that employs foreign domestic workers, Ms. Pandya said, maids might be locked inside employers’ homes, refused time off and beaten.

Foreign domestic workers are often without contracts or legal status in their host countries, and therefore are at the mercy of their employers. “There have been so many cases of particularly atrocious abuses,” Ms. Pandya said.

Migrant workers, however, are also important to the global economy, particularly in the developing world. Last year, migrant workers sent $316 billion home to developing countries — more than three times the amount the countries received in formal foreign aid.

Although abuses of foreign domestic workers have made recent headlines in the Middle East, a U.N. report said this kind of “modern-day slavery” affects millions of women and girls around the globe.

In Lebanon, unlike many other countries, foreign domestic workers technically are protected against some abuses. The Lebanese government adopted a standard contract last year that all domestic workers and employers sign. It guarantees foreign maids basic rights such as time off and payment of wages.

Nadim Houry, director of Beirut Human Rights Watch, said the contracts are “a step in the right direction” but are not effective. They are not translated into the workers’ languages. The women may have legal rights, but they don’t claim those rights because they haven’t read the contracts. No system is in place to force employers to honor the contracts.

“These contracts, in a way, are not worth the ink that they’re signed on,” he said.

Problems for many workers begin before they leave their home countries, Mr. Houry said. Poorly regulated agencies recruit desperately poor women and often make false promises.

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