Every week in Lebanon, a maid dies. Last month alone, eight have been killed. Most are deemed suicides, but thanks to an indifferent judicial system, some of the real stories may never come to light.
Heavy workloads and work in multiple households for no additional pay remain common practice, as does confiscating passports. According to a recent report, two-thirds of domestic hires in Lebanon do not get a regular day off. Unfortunately, this situation is not unique to Lebanon, nor is it surprising to people familiar with the region's practices.
There has been plenty of research that sheds light on the horrid work conditions and racism many of these working women endure in households throughout the GCC, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. But until recently, there has not been much research investigating why so much domestic work is needed in an Arab household. In a culture that gives great value to women as homemakers and mothers, how does outsourcing these jobs to a foreign hire affect the dynamics inside the home, and why might this contribute to racism and dehumanisation?
On a recent trip to Lebanon, I met a young researcher who attempted to answer these questions. According to her findings, class consciousness combined with lazy husbands and sons are among factors to blame. It is they, she says, who generate so much of the needed housework without lending a helping hand. It is also the wives, she added, who equate social status with hiring a foreign domestic worker.
In the US, for example, it is not so unusual for a middle-income household to hire domestic help to clean the house once, maybe twice per week. But it is highly unusual to have a full-time, live-in helper, even with the availability of cheap, undocumented foreign workers. By contrast, in Lebanon, which is a middle-income country, there are about 200,000 foreign domestic workers, according to Human Rights Watch. They are mostly from Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Ethiopia. This means there is one foreign domestic worker for every 20 Lebanese.
"Everyone in Lebanon in one form or another benefits from a foreign domestic worker," says Hayeon Lee, who recently submitted her thesis to the Centre for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut. "Demand for domestic labour is a class symbol," she said. Not doing your own housework is "also a male symbol". Like their southern Mediterranean and Asian sisters, many Arab mothers indulge and spoil their sons. It is not unusual to find mothers and daughters waiting on their fathers and sons inside the home, even with simple tasks like grabbing a glass of water.
"As an anecdote, I know Lebanese men who live alone. They take their laundry on weekends to their mother's house and bring back with them a week's worth of cooked food," says Ms Lee. "This is labour done by the maid." Despite its liberal facade, Lebanon has similar statistics to most Arab countries when it comes to women's social, economic and political participation: less than one third (29 per cent) of the workforce are women, according to the United Nations Development Programme. "Women's rights are less developed than people think," says Ms Lee. A housewife with a manageable home, a small family and moderate income often still "wants to hire a foreign domestic worker in order to connect with class privilege".
But bringing a foreign woman to live full time with a family can have unintended consequences, especially in a culture where a woman's labour as a homemaker and mother is highly valued. Sit bayt is the Arabic term for homemaker, translated literally as "lady of the house". It is a compliment bestowed upon women deemed competent at running a household. "Is she a sit bayt?" I recall my grandmother inquiring about the women she considered as a potential wife for her young son. What happens to this value when it is outsourced to a foreign domestic hire?
"If you are bringing a foreign domestic worker and she is the better cook, knows secrets of your private life and can run the household, it does undermine the 'sit bayt' status," says Ms Lee. "This contributes to racist stereotypes. She is the 'other'. She is lesser than you in every way: her nationality, her intelligence. She is different, dehumanised. You use her help but do not acknowledge it, so you remain the 'sit bayt'."
These stereotypes are racist and shameful. But what makes matters worse is that people seem to be unapologetic about their racism. In Damascus, there is a sign inside a posh gym that forbids "domestic hires" from using the swimming pool. In Beirut, there is no shortage of diplomatic incidents where embassy staff from southeast Asian or African countries are mistaken for hired house help and denied entry into restaurants and other establishments.
The Lebanese government has taken some steps toward bettering the lives of these women, but according to HRW, these steps fall short of rectifying the problem. Take the new contract policy that authorities issued last year and made mandatory for all domestic help agencies to use for their hires. Although it guarantees them a day off, many domestic workers are not aware of this, thanks in part to the contract being in Arabic. In June, the Ministry of Labour set up a hotline for anyone to call and report abuse. But when Ms Lee called the line, she discovered that no one had yet called the number.
"It seems no one even knows about it," she said.
Rasha Elass was a reporter for The National. She now lives in Damascus