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The Plight of the Sri Lanka Women as Domestic Servants in Lebanon.

by Charles.S.Perera

(November 20, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) " To run away from the misery of poverty , and to let the families live, a number of Sri Lankan women leave their homes to go to countries in the Middle East, more particularly to Lebanon to wok as domestic servants.

Lebanon with a population of four million receives 800 000 immigrant workers, among them 150 00 are Sri Lankan women. Many among them find them selves in worst conditions, than they were in their homes in Sri Lanka. For a few dollars, they find themselves without their passport, locked up in the home of their employer , and subjected to ceaseless work until exhaustion. Some attempt to runaway, while others commit suicide."

So begins an introduction to a documentary film " Bonne à Vendre/ a Maid for Sale" produced by a Lebanese woman film maker Ms.Al-Joundi . It is a sad film of Sri Lanka Women going to Lebanon to work as domestic servants, with hopes of earning money ,with which they expect to make life for them selves, and their families better when they return to their homes in Sri Lanka.

But their hopes do not end with the realisation of those tender hopes. But instead, in Lebanon where there are no laws to protect domestic servants, their rosy dreams end up working as slaves, working from early morning, to dawn of the following day, at the mercy of their employer, without a moment of rest, scolded , punished, locked up in rooms, none to speak to, and no way to escape. Their life of hope end in being mutilated, raped, thrown from upper floors of buildings , or in suicide.

Ms.Al-Joundi calls it the modern day slavery. These poor women with their unrealised dreams, live in tears, and pain hoping for death to release them from the misery they had unknowingly courted in their search for dollars, and a better life. According to a report of the Human Rights Watch in Lebanon, released in August , this year, 95 migrant domestic workers had died in Lebanon since January 2008. About 40 of the cases were suicides, while 24 were described as workers falling from high-rise buildings, often in an attempt to escape their employers.

Al-Joundi has said that "Bonne à Vendre" (A Maid for Sale), was her attempt at shining a light on the situation, "and to give voice to these silent women" who have been suffering within a system which she characterizes as "modern day slavery."

She says, she remembers how she was pressed, by over sixty Sri Lankan women waving goodbye to their families and friend from the bus which was taking them from the airport exit lounge to the plane, to take them with their hopes and pleasant expectations, to the homes of their employers in Lebanon.

They were in tears crying over the children and families they were leaving behind, and Ms.Al-Joundi found it difficult to hide her own tears. She decided to make this heart rending episode into a documentary to open the eyes of the Governments of Sri Lanka, of Lebanon and the humanitarians in the world, to the plight of the Women of Sri Lanka, in their attempt to fight against their poverty in their own way, by sacrificing themselves to an unknown life as domestic servants in Lebanese homes.

She starts her film with, Janika, a domestic worker from Sri Lanka, in her Lebenase traditional pink maid's uniform, cleaning the vegetables, preparing dinner and washing the dishes in the home of her Lebanese employer. Janika says, "……while working I think always about my country. My heart is with my husband and my children. Although I am here, for more than three years… I have cried for my daughter."

In making investigations Ms.Al-Joundy found that there was more to it than the poor women going to Lebanon to earn and take back some money to make their conditions at home in Sri Lanka a little better. There was " big" business in domestic servants from Sri Lanka to Lebanon, and she carried out a one and a half year long investigation flying between Lebanon and Sri Lanka before she made her film.

It is the Sri Lankan recruitment Agencies that target the candidates for recruitment mainly from among the poor, the uneducated and the desperate. One of its recruits for instance was a woman who did not have enough money for the burial of a parent, a recruiting agent immediately stepped in to get her to sign a contract for an employment in Lebanon and advanced the money for the burial.

In order to lure their probable candidates, the Employment Agencies present Lebanon as a land of plenty and a place where one can earn high salaries. Many women tempted by the riches of the Lebanese families where they may find lucrative employment, get easily into debt, paying fees for training, visas, and travel expenses.

The Lebanese employees also pay the Agencies up to US$ 3000 to find them a domestic servant. The employment Agencies stand to gain from both parties.

As for the domestic servants, when she pays back the debts she had incurred, there is often nothing to take back home, if she is one of the lucky ones to be allowed to, go home.

It is only on arrival in Lebanon and to the home of the Employer that the innocent Sri Lankan woman from the village where she lived happily despite poverty, becomes aware of the reality of being a domestic worker in the Arab World. Her passport and the identity cards are confiscated, and locked up in a servant's room.

Ms.Al-Joundi says that for the Lebanese having a domestic maid from Sri Lanka, is like having an internet connection which is open day and night for which you pay only a monthly fee. The Domestic Servants are not covered by any labour law in Lebanon, and she can be made to work according to the pleasure of the employer.

The employer's only liability is on the "kafalate", the agreement, the employer has obtained for the duration of the contract. To protect their interest the Employment Agencies encourage the employer to confiscate the Passport and other identification documents . To further strengthen the protection the employer keeps the maid locked up in a room.

The Employment Agencies have established a "Training schools in Sri Lanka ", which offer newly recruited domestic workers a 10-day Arabic course, use of household appliance ,and a course on how to please their new employer.

Ms.Al-Joundi says she was the first in 1996 to visit these training schools, which no one from the outside had ever seen before. This is where the women learn how to tend to their household duties Lebanon, because the Arab women are very picky about hygiene.

Blood and Tears yet A sure Foreign Exchange Earner.

Ms. Al-Joundi , adds that according to the Sri Lankan Bureau of Foreign Employment, there are now over 86,000 Sri Lankan women employed as domestic workers in Lebanon. They constitute the largest population of female migrant workers in the country. Women from the Philippines, another big category, are more often employed as nannies.

There is a substantial economic gain by the Government of Sri Lanka in this export trade in Sri Lanka women as domestic servants. In 2006, Sri Lanka received $3.4 billion in remittances from migrant workers abroad, making it the second-highest form of foreign exchange, and twice the amount the country receives in foreign aid and direct foreign investment. In fact, domestic workers now surpass tea as a Sri Lankan export product.

Kingsley Ranawaka, chairman of the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), had said that Sri Lanka is planning to cut the number of women migrants exported to the Middle East due to the growing number of complaints of ill-treatment, breach of contract, sexual and physical abuse and unpaid wages.

Until now, it seems the Sri Lankan government has been quite content to allow the trade to go on.

Ms. Al-Joundi , says that, one of the things she discovered while making the film was that the Sri Lankan government was very happy to export its women abroad and treat them like cattle because their contribution to the national income is helping to fund the war against the Tamil Tigers.

So neither the Middle Eastern nor the Sri Lankan governments want this business to stop. But it is a shame that has to stop, the sooner the better.

This is an earnest plea to the President of Sri Lanka, to please stop this shameless export trade of poor Sri Lankan Women as domestic servants, without hesitation.
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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