The footage aired by LBCI last week of a foreign worker being abused—presumably by her employers or members of the agency that lured her to Lebanon with promises of a decent wage and equally decent work environment—is shocking but hardly surprising. Lebanon is not Europe, and if we are being honest, the conditions in which almost all domestic workers have to work would not be tolerated in the countries to whose ideals we aspire. In short, thousands of Lebanese families—most of whom like to think of themselves as decent and humane—have, wittingly or not, bought into a culture of slave labor and an increasingly virulent unofficial form of apartheid.
The government—if one can call it that—simply cannot stay silent on the matter. Too many young women have died, either at the hands of violent employers or by committing suicide after enduring unbearable isolation, abuse or medieval work conditions.
This is not only a tragedy on a human level; it is a shameful stain on Lebanon’s reputation for tolerance and compassion. The Gulf Arabs who vacation here may not care about how we treat our domestic workers (their track record is hardly stellar), but if Lebanon wants to do more business and build stronger ties with the West, it had better remember that agreements come with conditions on basic human rights. We may not behead people in public, and we stopped routinely torturing political activists when Syria left, but we still suffer from a crude racism, and the world is catching on to our grubby secret.
Hence the need to reverse the trend. There should be zero tolerance on discrimination. Leisure establishments and beaches should not be allowed to bar entry to foreign workers—or, to put it more accurately, dark-skinned or ethnically diverse domestic workers—and any found doing so should be fined and the owners arrested.
There can be no room for those who say that the instances of abuse are minimal compared to the number of migrant workers in Lebanon, that by and large they are treated well and that they come here of their own free will to earn more money than they can at home. To make this point is to ignore the basic human rights abuses that are carried out daily under our very noses and to dismiss the fundamental aspirations of a society to fulfill its moral obligations to its fellow human beings.
It is also to reject the notion of checks and balances that ensure workers’ rights, the equality of all in the eyes of the state and the right to redress through the justice system. The people who stood by last week when the poor, wretched, and no doubt terrified woman was being bundled into the car clearly saw her as a lesser being, undeserving of their sympathy. (Indeed one wonders what would have happened if a police car had passed by. It is unlikely those assaulting the woman would have been arrested. At best they would have been asked to sort out the dispute in a less public place.)
The migrant worker debate extends beyond the shameful way in which we treat those who come to Lebanon to make a better life. The influx of foreign domestic staff has not only shaped a generation’s view of manual labor, but it has led to capital flight of nearly $200 million each year.
Lebanese now equate domestic work with that of a second-class citizen and would rather stay at home and miss out on valuable income than risk the shame of being seen doing housework. This is not the case in Western cities, where ordinary people are happy to work for a decent wage, either as housekeepers or nannies, but in Lebanon we are clearly too good for this.
If we are incapable of treating people with the dignity they deserve, maybe we don’t deserve to employ them. Maybe we should learn to clean our own homes, do our own shopping, walk our own dogs, make our own coffee, and, more importantly, look after our own children. Maybe we might learn something… Then again maybe we won’t.