Lebanon:the invisible domestic 'slaves'
18 October , 17:55
(ANSAmed) - BEIRUT, OCTOBER 18 - They meet in the streets of Beirut's trendy quarters, often wearing uniforms, walking a dog or accompanying children to a playground or an elegant shopping centre. They look like well-paid workers who are happy with what they are doing, also considering the wealth of many of the families that hire them. But the reality of the 200 thousand domestic helps who are working in Lebanon is completely different, according to Gulnara Shahinian, UN rapporteur for initiatives against slavery. In a conference in Beirut she denounced the existence of a situation of exploitation and physical and sexual abuse, asking the government to intervene. ''The domestic helps who immigrated to Lebanon, most of them women, are legally invisible. This makes them extremely vulnerable to domestic slavery,'' said Shahinian, who has been rapporteur for three years now and has recently made her first visit to Lebanon. ''Immigrated domestic helps,'' she continued, ''are forced to live in the houses of their employers. They face race and gender discrimination, and are deprived of the necessary legal protection." ''I have met women,'' Shahinian added, ''who have been forced to work long hours without remuneration and without a valid contract. They are physically and sexually abused and psychologically mistreated through constant insults and humiliations." Just looking at most of the apartments and houses in Beirut's better districts gives an idea of the conditions these women, most of them coming from south-east Asia and Africa, have to live in. A tiny room is usually connected to the kitchen, completely separated from the luxurious salons and rooms, so small that it is hard to imagine that someone actually lives there. And yet most maids are forced to sleep in these rooms, which usually have a small toilet next to it. And they are 'forced' in the real meaning of the word: ''Current legislation on visas,'' the UN representative for the fight against slavery points out, ''states that if a domestic help leaves his or her employer, he or she breaks the law.
Therefore a maid who is held as a slave and decides to leave the house is treated as a criminal, not a victim." Gulnara Shahinian admits that the Lebanese government has taken some steps in the right direction, like opening a telephone line to hear the complaints and help requests of domestic helps. Also, a national committee has been created to offer suggestions on how to deal with the situation. One of the first initiatives of this committee was to write a standard labour contract and a draft law for immigrant workers. ''But this draft,'' Shahinian underlines, ''has been under discussion for three years now and its approval must become a government priority now. The law must explicitly guarantee that immigrant workers can keep their passport, can move around freely, that they have one day off per week so that they can leave the house, and that they get adequate accommodation and wages. The law must also include clear regulations on how employment agencies must do their work."