Monday, March 16, 2015

What? There’s human trade in Lebanon?

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Today, Lebanese made a big discovery. A life-changing discovery.

It all started with an SMS. An ad actually. One these annoying SMS ads that keep beeping on our phone all week long, from morning to evening.

This ad reads: “For Mother’s Day indulge ur mom & offer her a housekeeper. Special offer on Kenyan & Ethiopian nationalities for a period of 10 days”.

Someone took a screenshot and posted it on social media. The photo went viral and in a few hours it became the talk of the nation. Lebanon woke up to a harsh reality: in this very civilized country of ours, housemaids are treated like products.

Shock. Outrage. Ya mama.

Strangely, most of the people that expressed their disbelief on social media have a housemaid and know perfectly how this whole business works. They know that these women and these girls are not allowed to keep their passport. They know how they are treated from the moment they land in our beautiful international airport until the moment they leave, if they ever do. They know about the racism, the abuse, the suicides.

They know of the companies that make money out of this human trade. They had to deal with one them to get their own maid, didn’t they? They most probably know about the different websites and Facebook pages that advertise these companies’ services, some in the most horrendous way, like posting a picture of these workers passports, in complete violation of their privacy.

Most of these people were living in Lebanon when, a few years ago, a domestic worker called Alem Dechasa killed herself. They expressed the same outrage back then. Then forgot all about it.

To be fair, it was on March 14 2012. An eternity by Lebanese standards.

Today, the fair citizens of Lebanon are in shock. Tomorrow they’ll forget. Until the next SMS or the next suicide.

We should seriously think of replacing the cedar in our flag with a little red fish. You know the one that has a three seconds memory span. 


© Claude El Khal, 2015    

1 comment:

Mugs said...

Among the darkness of the story you tell, there are little spots of light. Female domestic workers are beginning to use mobile phones and social media to organise and protect themselves (e.g. NARI Group of Nepalese Feminists in Lebanon, FENASOL), although many workers have to take big risks just to get a SIM or airtime and need to conceal their phones 24x7. The embassies of some countries (e.g. Philippines) do take protection of their workers seriously, though many do not. Migrant outreach and support services are being provided in Lebanon through centres (e.g. Migrant Community Centre Beirut and Caritas), but they need much more funding and support. The voices of domestic workers trapped without rights are being documented and published (e.g. KAFA, Human Right Watch and other reports) with other reports being privately prepared by international bodies seeking to design interventions to improve the situation (e.g. DFID/ILO Work in Freedom). My view is that self-organisation is going to be a key driver for obtaining the rights of domestic workers - the use of mobile phones will increase as mobile internet services become more capable and better understood, and even those women whose only contact with the outside world is shouted between balconies or lowered on string from a window in a plastic bag will be better placed to be in touch with other women who do have some basic access to a mobile phone, if only irregularly. In the countries where these domestic workers originate, there are groups who are seeking to alert women to the dangers of migration, and trying to design ways to help them get employment more safely. Simple steps like taking a photo of their passport and visa stamp and sharing it with trusted family or friends is one such small act that could make a big difference later. This is not to in any way minimise the appalling suffering that the loss of liberty and basic human rights has on these vulnerable young women. But I believe that attitudes will change and are changing, only very slowly, but the move is inexorably one way. That it is becoming acceptable to acknowledge openly that these domestic workers are victims of trafficking and exploitation is itself a change in attitude. That people will admit that they know that employment agents can make bigger profits from greater exploitation and cruelty displays some openness. Change will come, the slow percolation of the internet into vulnerable lives through mobile will be a catalyst, and though the situation is terrible today, it will improve with writers like you helping to shine a light into a very dark corner.