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.”
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.
Once in Lebanon, 80 percent of domestic workers’ passports are confiscated by their employers, and more than half of the women are never allowed a day off outside the homes. Many employers also refuse to pay their maids or withhold their salaries for months.
Mr. Houry said these common practices are partially a result of Lebanon’s restrictive sponsorship system. Employers pay about $3,000 to bring a domestic worker from overseas. If she abandons the household, the investment is lost.
“Their fear is: ‘I’ve made all that payment. If that person comes and then two weeks later decides she wants to go work as a freelancer, I would have been robbed of that initial investment,’” Mr. Houry said.
Less frequently, but also commonly, domestic workers are verbally, physically and sexually abused. Mr. Houry said it is usually women, known to domestic workers as “Madames,” who perpetrate the physical and verbal abuse.
At the shelter where Nilu is hiding, she said she thought her Madame would kill her if she did not run away. Before her failed escape, she spent six months locked in her employers’ house working seven days a week and sleeping on the kitchen floor. Nilu said she was beaten for offenses such as failing to notice water on the bathroom floor or adding too many potatoes to the soup.
“If I made any mistake, the Madame would hit me immediately,” she said.
In 2008, Human Rights Watch reported that between January 2007 and August 2008 an average of one domestic worker died each week in Lebanon. Most were either suicides or failed attempts to escape their employers’ homes. Ethiopian Suicides, an activist website, has counted 30 deaths of foreign domestic workers reported in the past year. Most were suicides.
On a bright recent Sunday, outside a church in Beirut, throngs of Ethiopian domestic workers wearing traditional white scarves sat on the sidewalk while eating sour Ethiopian bread. One woman said her friend was in jail because she ran away after an employer beat her.
The story was cut short because another woman warned her sister not to speak publicly about abuses. The sister pointed to a scar on her forearm. “This is where she beat me,” she whispered.
Maids who run away from employers break Lebanese law and are frequently arrested, said Nagla Chahda, director of the Migrant Center at Caritas, which provides migrant workers with legal and social support. In Lebanon, like in most other countries, migrant workers’ legal status depends on their employers.
“In case they run away, immediately the employer puts a complaint against them accusing them of theft,” she said. “If they are arrested, they are immediately put in prison.”
Once in prison, the women can file complaints against their employers, but the legal system is stacked against them. Those who do find attorneys face cases that drag on for years and a system that often doesn’t recognize abuse of domestic workers as crimes. The proceedings often are held in a language the workers do not understand.
Even if the court does give a domestic worker a fair hearing, the alleged crimes usually have no witnesses. A judge often is left to decide a case based on the word of the employer against the word of a maid.
Employers are rarely convicted of abuses. When they are, the sentences are always light, Human Rights Watch said in a recent report. In 2009, an employer was sentenced to 15 days in jail for repeatedly beating a Filipina maid. Last summer, a Lebanese court imposed its heaviest sentence for a crime of its kind. A woman was convicted of locking up and regularly beating a Sri Lankan maid. She was sentenced to one month in prison.
Other Middle Eastern countries also have been criticized for tolerating widespread abuses of foreign domestic workers. On Thursday, Amnesty International released a statement calling for the Gulf states to protect foreign maids after an Indonesian woman was hospitalized. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono called the abuse “extraordinary torture.”
It took Nilu 2½ months before she could sit up again after aid workers found her in the hospital. Now she can walk and plans to return to Sri Lanka, while attorneys in Lebanon attempt to prosecute her former employer. Nilu said she hopes her former employers will be forced to pay her something to make up for the fact that she is not strong enough to work. But, she said, she does not know why she was attacked so brutally.
“The Madame was always angry at home,” Nilu said. “When she argued with her husband, she would take it out on me.”