Domesticating Slavery in the Contemporary Arab World

by Martin Accad

There is an issue in our Arab region these days that has become so blatantly intolerable that most people seem to have instinctively shut off their natural capacity to see it or to talk about it: the situation of “domestic workers.” Both those responsible for this human trafficking and those benefiting from it like to call them khâdimât: servants. For some reason, when the rest of us go to work we qualify as “employees,” but those we employ in our homes are our “servants.” Khâdimât are “imported” by specialized agencies and they are chosen through catalogs and taken home like commodities by a massive proportion of the Lebanese population. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), domestic workers today represent about 19 percent of the Lebanese population (cited on the International Museum of Women [IMOW] website). Initially, this stunning statistic would suggest that almost every household in Lebanon has a “maid.” More likely, however, if this statistic is accurate, it must indicate that an unusual number of upper-class households in Lebanon have multiple “maids.”

On the surface, the idea of hiring domestic help is not in itself problematic. Two-income families have become common throughout the world, even an economic necessity. And when both spouses in a family are working, they are likely to need help in the performance of some of the traditional housekeeping responsibilities. So is there really a problem? After all, there is nothing illegal – at least by Lebanese legal standards – in “importing” house help from foreign countries with large populations that are economically less privileged than we are. We can even relieve our consciences by telling ourselves that we are helping these poor people provide for their families back home.

It is, in reality, the work conditions of these women from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Nepal, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, and other countries, which is alarming. Most of us may not realize that they are not even protected by Lebanon’s labor law, effectively ascribing them a subhuman status. The Lebanese government laws and the General Security’s enforcement apparatus hold employers responsible if their domestic worker “runs away.” Employers are advised to withhold their passport and prevent them from having any significant social life. And recruitment agencies now routinely offer employers insurance to cover themselves against this specific offense. Think about it for a moment. If you find yourself in an employment situation where quitting your job would be viewed as “running away,” then you qualify as a slave, pure and simple.

A domestic worker’s portfolio includes every imaginable task, from cleaning the house to cooking, washing, ironing, feeding the kids, taking them to school, walking the dog, carrying “madame’s” hand bag and groceries, reporting to duty any time “mister” snaps his finger or blows his car horn, and the list goes on and on. Naturally, this amount of work cannot be performed by anyone in a normal work day. Consequently, most domestic workers in Lebanon have 12-18 hour work-days. Many Lebanese employers (or can we now call them slave-drivers?) don’t even give a day off per week to their worker, and the pay is ridiculous. In 2010, Human Rights Watch launched an awareness campaign that revealed that employers often withheld their domestic worker’s salary for months at a time, that a third of them were not allowed to leave their employer’s house alone and were often locked in the house and sometimes denied food as part of a long list of physical and psychological abuses. A third of them did not have a regular day off. And as many as 1 domestic worker per week committed suicide in Lebanon in 2008 as a result of abuse, including of a sexual nature.

It is quite disturbing, moreover, to see that there is little, if any, apparent difference between the way that this modern form of slavery is practiced in the church and outside of it. Perhaps the day-to-day treatment is better in a home that claims to follow the ethical teaching of Jesus, or at least one might hope so. But at the end of the day, it boils down to very practical things: if you are benefiting from hired help at home that covers every imaginable chore for more than 10 hours per day, if you are holding on to your worker’s passport and they are not free to resign whenever they wish, and if all of this is costing you a couple hundred dollars a month, then you can be pretty sure that you are involved in some form of injustice, and most probably caught in the perpetuation of contemporary slavery.

Given the current unjust laws in Lebanon regarding these foreign workers, those who would claim to abide by a Jesus ethic should decide either to opt out of the cheap privileges available from having a domestic worker, or they should pay them what they believe their work is really worth, and consciously practice civil disobedience by breaking certain requirements that the law still expects employers to enforce, such as withholding their passport or locking them up to prevent them from “running away.” If we are not capable of transforming that work relationship into a normal contract with standard privileges and responsibilities, then cooking, cleaning and taking care of the kids and the dog need to remain the chores of Mr. and Mrs.

10 thoughts on “Domesticating Slavery in the Contemporary Arab World

  1. First, thank you Martin for putting on “paper” what goes on behind closed doors in the Arab world. After 20+ years in several Arab countries, I am thankful voices are rising from within to bring awareness. I pray that your article will not rest with words on a page but that it will bear the fruit of repentance and action in the church worldwide. I stand with you as a sister, part of the global church, from the background of Southern America and its horrible slavery history. I have just finished the book – My Bondage and My Freedom- by Fredrick Douglass, a slave from the mid-1800’s in America. What an AMAZING writer / orator on the injustices of slavery in all forms, including “free slaves” – hired to work but still bound in an injust system. I highly recommend it, although I warn you – it is a painful read.

    While engaging with this book, I have also been settling into life in Lebanon and I must say I wondered how the two events would relate to one another. I had no reason to choose the book, for this time, except that I had it on a list of books to read. I find that it has been sadly and overwhelmingly providential. When I was told recently by a well-meaning Lebanese Christian that the advantage to being in Lebanon was I could have a full-time, live-in maid for $150 a month, I was appalled. I have seen the “maid’s quarters” in rental apartments. I have seen the fatigue on the faces of “servants” at a church service. Fredrick Douglass’ words ring with truth as my eyes are opened again and again to the “servants” of Lebanon:

    … the slave has no wife, no children, no country, and no home. He can own nothing, possess nothing, acquire nothing, but what must belong to another. To earn the fruit of his own toil, to clothe his person with the work of his own hands, is considered stealing. He toils that another may reap the fruit; he is industrious that another may live in idleness; … he lives in ignorance that another may be educated; he is abused that another may be exalted; he rests his toil-worn limbs on the cold, damp ground that another may repose on the softest pillow; he is clad in coarse and tattered raiment that another may be arrayed in purple and fine linen…

    and again, I quote:

    … It is only when we contemplate the slave as a moral and intellectual being, that we can
    adequately comprehend the unparalleled enormity of slavery, and the intense criminality
    of the slaveholder…. The slave is a man, “the image of God,”… possessing a soul,
    eternal and indestructible; capable of endless happiness , or immeasurable woe; a
    creature of hopes and fears, of affections and passions, of joys and sorrows…

    I can imagine, along with Fredrick Douglass, that people might read the above quotations and say, “Why we don’t have slaves, our “servants” are paid, they chose to come here and work, they have beds and clothing and food, they even go to church with us.”

    As an American southerner, whose family had working for them an African-American maid in the 60’s, I come before the Lebanese church – one with you, and I plead for light, for truth, for repentence. We need each other in this journey to fight for the dignity of those who are bound.

    We must start by asking if we pay those who work for us enough? Do we allow them to go back to their home countries when family members back home marry, when their relatives die, when they want to marry? Do they hold their own passports in their possession? Do we provide them vacations? Do they get sick days and days of grieving the loss of loved ones? Are they working 24 / 7 while we rest and entertain? Are they exhausted because we don’t want to be? Do our children curse and yell at them, lift a hand to harm or abuse them? Can they come and go when they need to? Did we have to meet in secret to procure our “servant”? If any of these are the case, can this not also be slavery?

    May God forgive us… forgive our hypocrisies… forgive those who lock people into a work situation that doesn’t allow them to grow and succeed… forgive those of us who see the corruption but do nothing… forgive those who hypocritically bring their house help into the house of God but who live a double standard behind closed doors… forgive our turning a blind eye and ear to the pain and brokenness and deceit that so easily entangles the world of “house help”.

    Could it be that God is calling the Lebanese church to rise and repent, in order to be filled with holiness and power – to be Jesus’ witness in the MIddle East and around the world? Would it not be an awesome, God-honoring work to confess our sins, that others might live !

  2. I have seen this unjust treatment used with refugees who are trying to earn some money from labor work. Sadly their Lebanese employers are taking advantage of them and not paying them what was promised or not paying them at all. The problem does not lay only with government’ laws but with people whose hearts are hardened and who doesn’t have any compassion towards the afflicted, the poor or the marginalized. I think awareness about the other’s human rights should be taught intentionally at schools and preached about in all religious assemblies in order to achieve gradually a change in these discriminative attitudes.

  3. I totally agree!Last week I was praying with a lady from Bangladesh who had left the home she lived at because she had been abused by the children there.They were beating her up she said.To make sure I was understanding her correctly I asked again who was beating you up the woman at the house ?She answered back “no, the children” I said “how old are they ? ” She said :”the oldest is 9 years old”.I couldn’t believe my ears.
    The other dramatic issue there, is how will will she manage to get her official papers back from this home that has confiscated them from her?Who will side with her and defend her rights?

  4. I spend a lot of time among people from the migrant communities in Lebanon and am always disappointed that Lebanese evangelicals don’t do more to address the problem of slavery in their midst. I wonder why the pastors of some of these migrant-worker evangelical churches aren’t sponsored by Lebanese evangelical churches. Why does my migrant friend, who pastors one of the largest evangelical churches in Lebanon (God is wonderfully at work in these migrant communities), have to go and sit in the house of her Lebanese sponsor and act like a maid until her residency is renewed and pay her $200 to use her name? Why can’t a church sponsor her, give her protection and help, and save her the $1200 per year it costs for her papers? In New Zealand, the evangelical churches have done a lot to reach out to migrants, particularly by making their buildings available at zero cost and helping sponsor pastors for the churches. There are a couple of churches extending the hand of fellowship in Lebanon but so much more could be done.

    The problem is deep-seated in Lebanese society. A Christian leader I know of has employed a maid for the last three years. She sleeps on a sofa in the kitchen and, as far as I’m aware, hasn’t had a day off in 3 years. And this under the guise of fear for her safety. Ok, she eats at their table and they are not unkind but is it too much to expect a day off for her once in awhile? I also know of an evangelical pastor who hasn’t given his maid a day off in the last year. The most she gets is an occasional 3-hour visit to her church. I would love to see Lebanese evangelicals taking a lead on this issue but their own house is not in order.

    At least you’ve started a conversation and I’m thankful to you for that.

  5. Steph, I agree with your point. I have a dear friend who Pastors a large congregation of domestic workers, mostly Filipino women. They struggle with finances because the women are so poorly paid and cannot support their Pastor. What a blessing it would be for a Church of the “haves” to come alongside them with financial support. I can tell you that these women are already working for the Kingdom of God, and would do great things if they had the financial means.

  6. Although I don’t have a “helper”, imagine the difference we can make if she was treated humanely. What if she is given the needed emotional support after leaving her family behind to provide for them? What if she sees Jesus in us and shares His love back home. Imagine how one (or more) life can change.

  7. I applaud the efforts of NGOs, governmental agencies, and law makers that are speaking out, coming together, and are working hard to prevent these kinds of abuses. I also applaud the efforts of IMES and other concerned parties that are educating our communities and raising their awareness. But I long to hear voices emanating from the Church, both local and global; prophetic voices to encourage us, challenge us, even provoke us to live out the ethics of Jesus. It’s not enough for us to refrain from abusive behavior, to be neutral. We are called to love as Jesus loved. To use the language of Glen Stassen in “Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context” (Stassen and Gushee), the Jesus-kind-of-love:
    – sees with compassion and enters into the situation of persons in bondage
    – does deeds of deliverance
    – invites into community
    – and confronts those who exclude

    I long to see followers of Christ living out the ethics of Jesus. I long to see our churches provoking us to live the ethics of Jesus. And I long to see leaders in our churches modeling the ethics of Jesus.

  8. Hi, Ron! You’re right. And it’s not just Lebanon but this is a phenomenon all over the Arab world. There are some good organizations trying to bring awareness to the issue but it’s a difficult task to take on as this system is so embedded into the culture. People, especially in the Church, need to start talking about it. Well written, Martin.

  9. Human Trafficking has remained an elusive concept for governmental actors and civil society in Lebanon. When I see sad looking domestic workers trying to keep children busy and carry shopping bags in shopping malls on weekends, while their parents are enjoying a meal and socializing with friends, it breaks my heart. Martin, the behaviour you describe is very much part of daily life here in Lebanon. Ofcourse, not all Lebanese abuse their domestic servants, but in this day and age all people, including domestic servants have rights. The laws in Lebanon do not protect these people and civil society prefers not to address this injustice. In desparation some governments have taken measures to protect their citizens against modern day slavery, by not allowing their citizens (who work as domestic servants) to travel to Lebanon. For example this is the case for the Philippines. Apparently, domestic servants are no longer allowed to travel from the Philippines to Lebanon in order to protect them from human trafficking. However, evil is not stopped. Modern day “slave drivers” traffick them now via other Arab countries into Lebanon. During these stop-overs women are at great risk to be (sexually) abused or haressed before they arrive in Lebanon. This evil system of human trafficking needs an international approach, one government, one law or one NGO cannot make the change. We need to stand united and address human trafficking globally. Prevention and protection measures require resources to address poverty and strengthen the implementation of laws.

  10. I would never have guessed that there would be a situation like this in Lebanon. You’re absolutely right in you assessment of the situation. It is sad. And, shame on those who perpetuate such an unjust and unethical system.

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