Maid for Abuse: Lebanon's Foreign Domestic Workers

Elie Chalala
Still from "A Maid for Each," courtesy of Icarus Films.

A Maid for Each
Directed by Maher Abi Samra
Icarus Films, 2016

A look to the sidelines reveals more than one would expect – but in this case, what you cannot see raises questions of human dignity and morality. In “A Maid for Each,” Lebanese director Maher Abi Samra offers a look into the inner workings of domestic labor in Lebanon through personal interviews that obscure faces, but offer glimpses into the thoughts of each young maid’s “master.” Complementing these, Abi  Samra follows Zein, an owner of a domestic work agency in Beirut, and showcases the behind-the-scenes work that makes maid services possible.

For the past two decades, maids in Lebanon have evidently become the norm; among the middle to upper-middle class, quite a significant number of families rely on maid services and employ at least one maid. Al Jazeera reported 250,000 foreign domestic workers in Lebanon in 2015, while in 2011 the New York Times reported 200,000, the majority of migrants coming from Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Ghana, among others. The higher wages offered in Lebanon, compared to those in their native countries, prove enticing for these domestic workers. Lebanon also offers several types of domestic work as caretakers and housekeepers, mainly with couples and families with elderly members in need of care.

Before the Lebanese Civil War, Syrian, Egyptian, Kurdish and Palestinian refugees, as well as poor Lebanese, comprised the majority of the country’s domestic workforce. Fathers would send girls aged 10 and up to work until they reached marriageable ages, returning only to collect the girl’s annual salary or when the employment ended.     

The Civil War, as well as other factors, contributed to a shortage of domestic workers. One factor, the introduction of Syria’s compulsory education system as far back as the 60s, banned young girls from leaving the country to work in Lebanon.

As the civil war raged in Lebanon, and the number of casualties rose among civilians, many domestic workers left due to safety concerns, leaving a gap in the foreign migrant labor. In the late 70s and on, workers from the Asian subcontinent and East Africa met the need. With the arrival of large numbers of domestic workers, Lebanon saw the rise of employment agencies, and with them, the transformation of the business. A sort of “bureaucratized” system replaced traditional, pre-civil war era methods of hiring domestics. Today, domestic work agencies work hand-in-hand with foreign recruitment agencies, as well as with smugglers who send young women from their countries into Lebanon. Upon the girls’ arrival, the domestic agency serves as a de-facto owner until employers can be located, with the Kefala (Sponsorship) System determining the arrangements for their employment. With the maid and the responsibility for her transferred to the employer, a renewable work contract binds her to the client for 2-3 years. The employer has to follow up by filing the necessary legal papers with the government, a factor that makes the maid totally dependent upon him during the contract, unable to change employment unless he signs release waivers. This system creates an environment designed to not only allow, but encourage the exploitation of young women desperate for work, a point made clear the deeper we dig into domestic work agencies.

Director Abi Samra appears conscientious, wanting his documentary to highlight human rights issues. The film makes this clear from the very opening when one of the interviewees, a woman, reflects on her own family’s history with maids, telling of her parents’ intolerant attitude toward people of color, and their fear that if she stayed out in the sun that she would tan and thus be mistaken as a maid herself.

Abi Samra also touches on an inherent hypocrisy among educated groups, who feel guilt for hiring maids. One man permits Abi Samra to feature his maid’s meager living quarters, but worries that people may recognize his home, conveying embarrassment and shame for either the room he has provided, or for the act of merely hiring a maid. Others draw from the experiences of their families, who have employed domestic workers for decades, but explain that they can’t recognize or remember individual maids, as they remained in the background, rarely seen. For many, their historical presence can only be detected when parts of their faces or bodies appear in the edges of family portraits. With the film only featuring the faces of the first two maids, the rest of the interviews play as background noise, preserving the anonymity of the speakers, while Abi Samra’s camera guides us over the facades of buildings.

At first glance, the camerawork proves dizzying and confusing, as it apparently pans over scenes without focusing on any particular objects. Only as the documentary continues can the viewers begin to understand the elegant – if not masterful – cinematography. Footage of Zein’s agency, interwoven between interviews, represents the only segments of the film containing any sign of life, with people moving on and off camera, making idle chatter, telling jokes, and behaving as they would on a normal work day. Zein (the agency owner) receives several phone calls throughout the day, running sort of a “mail-order” business where clients provide him with lists of mainly superficial qualities they would like in their maids. The process of choosing maids crudely relies on superficial observations. Their demands tend to be simple and unreasonable: their maids should be young, look physically fit, and most importantly, must not look assertive. One client insists that girls who appear assertive do not prove obedient, while another woman explains that someone told her the “stupid ones are the best.” This implicitly suggests that the “stupid ones,” being poorly informed on their basic rights, do not ask for much, and thus prove more pleasing to their employers.

The young women, objectified by the agency and their would-be employers, never directly appear before the camera, as if the lack of a presence represents another necessary quality. Zein’s agency runs into several conflicts throughout the day, particularly with maids wishing to end their working terms with their employers (a near-impossible feat, as the contracts indenture the domestics into three years, and entail the forfeiture of their first month’s salary unless proof of physical abuse can be produced). For the duration of the film, another person acts as a messenger between Zein and the maids, who stay hidden in different rooms, ensuring that they never appear before the camera.

This need to remain completely hidden from view has evidently become a standard which greatly harms the maids, who live severely restricted personal lives, to the point of being barred from leaving the country to visit the families most work to support.

The abuse and exploitation begins even before they reach Lebanon. Human Rights Watch reports that, in order to find jobs, workers must pay fees to recruitment agencies in their countries of origin, typically amounting to $200 - $300 – an amount that puts many into debt before they even reach their destination. From then on, their salaries go toward paying off those fees. Employers often verbally and sexually abuse their maids, and can withhold paychecks and subject the women to confinement. A Caritas study found that 70 percent of employers limited their workers’ freedom of movement, while 98 percent retained their passports. Forced to suffer silently, desperation forces many maids to resort to suicide, usually by hanging or jumping off tall buildings. On average, according to Human Rights Watch, at least one worker dies each week in Lebanon.

Often, these deaths remain unexplainable, and sometimes even go undetected by the sponsor families. According to the film, one individual, whose family maid committed suicide in his parents’ home, admits that the suicide affected him and his wife to the point where their feelings of guilt and shame forced them to see a psychologist. The psychologist, in turn, convinced them that the maid killed herself for personal reasons rather than her working conditions, thus giving them a sense of comfort.

Understandably, countries like the Philippines, Nepal, and Ethiopia have banned travel to Lebanon for the purpose of domestic labor due to the country’s reputation for abuse and exploitation. This has simply made the maid industry more sketchy and conniving. Using tourist visas, agencies in the exporting countries circumvent the laws by sending maids to countries with no travel bans to Lebanon, countries like Sudan and Dubai. From those countries, the women are sent on to Lebanon. While Lebanon imports only 2 or 3 percent of the domestic workers who travel to the Arab world, the numbers still prove staggering. Zein explains that in a year his agency typically receives 14,000 girls from Sri Lanka, 40,000 from Bangladesh, 45,000 from Ethiopia, and 29,000 from the Philippines.

The film shows Zein standing beside his drawing board, explaining in a chilling manner the statistics and procedures for importing domestic workers, and revealing a meticulously, almost scarily well-planned process. He boasts of connections with police and government officials, who provide him with protection, and conveniently overlook any illegal employment practices.

As the film closes, the camera once again returns to footage of buildings. Slowly, the viewer realizes that clusters of maid service advertisements and posters line the walls, so numerous that they almost blend into the background. Looking harmless and pleasant with their colorful designs, they hide the grim truth of the brutal reality that exists behind closed doors.

Naomi Pham contributed research for this essay.
This film review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 21, No. 73, 2017.
© Copyright 2017, 2018 AL JADID MAGAZINE
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