The Real Housekeepers of Beirut

They come from Africa and Asia to work as domestics in Lebanon. There, many face domestic violence and virtual slavery. Here’s why the law doesn’t protect them.

Josephine Adotey took a steak knife from the kitchen drawer.

The housemaid walked to her cot, sat down, and placed the knife to her chest. The apartment was quiet. Her employers were asleep. The Ghana native couldn’t take another moment.

Upon moving to the Middle Eastern country, an employer made her work 20 hours a day, sleep on the kitchen floor, and starve–for $200 a month. He tried to rape her–and threatened to kill her and hide her body if she told anyone.

Adotey quit and found a new employer who was worse. When she boiled milk too hot, Madame threw it in her face. When Adotey spoke to the kids, Madame accused her of “infecting them with African diseases.” One day, after consuming nothing but contaminated water for two weeks, she was on the verge of collapse. Having lost 44 pounds, she snuck leftover potatoes from the fridge. Her boss caught her, denied here the scraps, shattered glass on the floor, and demanded Adotey clean it with her bare feet. Adotey tried to quit, but Madame said she couldn’t–she had “bought her.”

“We Africans, they see us as animals. We are not human,” says the 33-year-old, who I met at my friend’s home outside Beirut. Adotey had left her previous employers and was happily working for the kind family. But she’s still haunted by that first year. “I feel like this is more than slavery … Now, they just polish it and put a little money there to feel like you are working. But no, you are under slavery.”

At least 400,000 migrant domestic workers work in Lebanon, according to This is Lebanon–a nonprofit dedicated to getting maids out of abusive situations. They come from African and Asian countries, like Ethiopia, Kenya, and the Philippines, desperate for money to send to their families. They do everything from scrub toilets and bathe the elderly, mop floors and raise children. Many Lebanese treat their maids with respect and consider them part of the family, such as my friends. Others overwork, starve and abuse them. There’s one reason they get away with it: the Lebanese government refuses to protect migrant domestic workers.

Instead, Lebanon uses kafala. It’s a sponsorship system that legally ties maids to employers, which can facilitate dangerous working conditions. For years, advocates have begged politicians to end kafala. In September, Minister of Labor Lamia Yammine announced a new unified contract for maids. But on October 30, Lebanon’s top administrative court suspended that contract. It was hardly a surprise–the government has made it clear it doesn’t want to be responsible for these women’s lives.

That lack of responsibility has come with dire consequences. In 2017, about two maids died each week, according to Lebanese General Security figures. Advocates say it’s mostly from botched escape attempts, like jumping from balconies. Others commit suicide, are murdered, or starved. No matter what, the cause is ruled a suicide. On March 14, Faustina Tay was found dead. The Ghanaian maid’s death certificate said suicide, but a news outlet later revealed suggesting her employers may have been involved.

“Faustina is our George Floyd. And every week, two George Floyds die,” said Patricia Pradhan, a caseworker with This is Lebanon. (She uses this pseudonym for fear of reprisals.) “In Lebanon, Black lives don’t matter.”

Actually, to Lebanese leaders, no lives appear to matter, immigrant and native Lebanese. On Aug. 4, a massive explosion in Beirut killed 191 people and injured more than 6,000. It was caused by nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate, which the government allowed to be stored on the seaport.

The blast exemplified the government’s negligence. In the last year, while politicians have enriched themselves, Lebanon has entered its worst economic crisis in modern history. Banks have run out of money, the Lebanese lira lost more than 80 percent of its value, and the United Nations estimates 55 percent of the population is trapped in poverty.

Consequently, maids have been working for no pay, stuck in abusive households, or dumped outside embassies. At least seven have committed suicide since March, according to local media outlets. Ironically, the U.S. is in the midst of a Black Lives Matter movement. Perhaps they can use this moment to finally show what’s happening in Lebanon and advocate for change.

TRADING IN HUMAN FLESH

Constance hugged her husband and 1-year-old twins. She didn’t want to leave them. But work in Ghana was sparse, and the 21-year-old needed to feed her family. So, she found a maid agency in Lebanon that agreed to fly her in and employ her.

Constance landed in Beirut and went straight to the agency. They ran lab tests and found she was pregnant.

“Can I go home to have the baby?” she asked. The answer was no. She could either pay them back for bringing her to Lebanon–or get an abortion. With nothing in her pocket, she had no choice.

“They didn’t let me go, so I have to accept them to save my life,” said Constance, who withheld her last name for privacy. “My dad is a pastor; this is not allowed in my house. So my soul is not happy still. I’m just praying for forgiveness.”

Constance lost her rights the moment she arrived in Beirut. That’s because Article 7 of Lebanon’s labor code specifically excludes migrant domestic workers. So, they’re denied labor protections, like minimum wage, rest hours, or overtime compensation. Instead, the country uses kafala–which emerged in the 1950s and still exists in Lebanon, Jordan, and the Gulf States.

Under kafala, maids can only enter the country if they’re sponsored by an employer or agency. There are approximately 800 agencies in Lebanon, not including illegal ones. They work with recruiters in Asia and Africa to target poor girls, promise them fair treatment, and lure them to Lebanon.

The employer’s name must be written on the maid’s passport–meaning she can’t quit or leave Lebanon without their permission. If she tries, her boss can report her to the general security, who will issue a retention order.

If an employer dislikes their maid, they can return her to the agency. “Some of these agents are–the majority are actually just people traffickers,” Patricia says. “They’re trading in human flesh. Every Lebanese woman knows that if she takes her worker back to the agent, the worker will be beaten back into submission.”

The abuse, though, usually takes place inside the home. Amnesty International has issued extensive reports of maids in Lebanon forced to work long hours, denied rest days, verbally abused, and sexually assaulted. Lebanon has a contract for maids–requiring an eight-hour workday and one weekly rest day. But it’s largely ignored.

It’s important to note many families treat their maids with dignity. Some buy them cell phones, health insurance, clothes–and include them at the dinner table. Moreover, it makes sense for Lebanese to have maids. The country hardly has daycare facilities or nursing homes–and families with children and elderly parents need help.

But with leaders refusing to legally protect them, all maids can rely on is their employer’s goodwill.

“We Do Not Talk About Racism”

On Oct. 17, 2019, millions of Lebanese began an uprising against their government. For more than a year, protesters have accused politicians of denying them basic needs–like clean water, trash collection, and job opportunities. Last fall, the mass demonstrations shut down schools, banks, and businesses–causing an economic blow.

Then, coronavirus hit. The government enforced a lockdown–plummeting the economy even further. This is Lebanon–which has a Facebook page that maids can message for help–says since the pandemic began, about 30 maids have messaged for help each day. Their main complaint is working for no pay.

For years, there have been failed attempts to help these women. Countries like Ethiopia put travel bans on Lebanon–but thousands of women are still trafficked in. Maids tried to create unions–but were arrested as a result.

Dian Hadar, an Amnesty International campaigner in Lebanon, has been interviewing abused maids and advocating to end kafala for years. When Lebanon’s minister of labor issued a new unified contract for maids, Haidar had a glimmer of hope. That is until the government changed its mind.

The Lebanese government has proven that it cannot protect nor fulfill the rights of any of the people living in Lebanon — be them Lebanese or migrants or refugees,” Haidar said. “Kafala has to come to an end. It’s not acceptable for this abusive migration system to take place … migrant domestic workers have to come under just and fair conditions, they have to be protected by labor laws.”

 Melani McAlister, a professor of American studies and international affairs at George Washington University, believes Americans could help influence change. First, they must realize “Black Lives Matters” is not just a domestic issue.

“Of course, people will often think about the thing that is closest to them. But you can see how, then, the connections become obvious when you say, ‘okay black lives matter in Cleveland, and black lives also matter in Congo, and they also matter in Beirut,” McAlister says. “Black meaning people with black skin–but it also means people who are racially oppressed in all kinds of situations.”

In 2012, a video of a Lebanese man dragging his maid by the hair and beating her in Beirut was broadcast on national TV. Lebanese people were outraged–but nothing was done. Two days later, the woman hanged herself.

Fast forward to today. The millennials who started the Lebanese revolution won’t stand for that kind of treatment. Many have brought signs to protests that read “End Kafala.” Girl Up Lebanon, an organization that advocates for gender equality, even began a change.org petition to end the sponsorship system.

“In Lebanon, we don’t have this conversation. We do not talk about racism,” said Rym Badran, the 17-year-old founder of Girl Up Lebanon. “So the Black Lives Matters movement really opened our eyes and gave us this opportunity to talk about what is happening in our country.”

What if these young revolutionaries had the support of the most influential country in the world? After George Floyd’s death, American activists vowed to no longer turn a blind eye to black oppression. Can they call on ending the kafala system–one of the greatest injustices in the world? If they don’t, I fear no one will.

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Lisa Khoury

Lisa Khoury is a Washington Monthly contributor. Previously, she worked as a producer and assignment editor for Spectrum News in Buffalo, and has written for ABC News, Al Jazeera, Vox, HuffPost, and the Buffalo News.