Imagine you’re a domestic worker who, after six days of working full-time, decided to head to the beach for a well-deserved day in the sun. You purchase a ticket to enter, find the perfect spot, but then, right as you’re about to jump in the pool, the resort manager approaches and tells you to stay out of the water because “people are not used to the sight of workers swimming.”
Such discrimination is the rule rather than exception at beach resorts in Lebanon. African and Asian domestic workers are usually allowed into beaches only when accompanied by their employer, and even then they are denied access to facilities.
In the rare instances when a foreign domestic worker taking the day off is given entry, generally because they are accompanied by Lebanese friends, they are made to feel different and unwanted.
Kawkab Tessaye, a 27-year-old Ethiopian domestic worker, says she has been to the beach a couple of times in Lebanon, but the experience left her feeling uncomfortable. The looks on peoples’ faces told her she was “different” and “out of place.”
“I once went to a resort in Batroun, and even though I was with Lebanese friends, I felt unwanted because of my color,” Tessaye says.
According to the watchdog organization Human Rights Watch, 17 private beaches (out of a nation-wide total of 27) do not allow African and Asian domestic workers into swimming pools. HRW first investigated the matter last summer, but has yet to test the resorts’ policies on the ground. At the initial stage, HRW contacted 30 resorts and received 27 official replies.
A number of resorts claimed to offer “designated areas” where workers can wait while their employers relax at the beach. One manager at a private beach said workers were not allowed as guests because, according to the resort’s rules, “maids come in for free.”
Others said they charge foreign workers less at the door.
A free or discounted entry may encourage families with children who want to go to the beach and bring their maids for help, but don’t want to pay for an additional ticket.
In at least one resort Asian and African workers are allowed to swim in the sea but not in the pool, because “not all people like maids to swim with them in the water.” At another, they are not even allowed to wear bathing suits, according to HRW.
Given how dire conditions are for many foreign domestic workers in Lebanon – employers often restrict their movement, give them no time off and pay them next to nothing – going to beach is often the least of their concerns.
Lebanese labor law does not cover the basic rights of these workers, let alone their right to enjoy leisure activities. Even though a new employment contract between agencies and employees, recently approved by the Ministry of Labor, gave workers the right to a full day off, it fell short of giving them permission to leave the house during this break. Furthermore, the contract is rarely respected by agencies or employers.
To make matters worse, there is no anti-discrimination law in Lebanon. The Lebanese constitution refers to discrimination under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but there is no separate law to counter discriminatory practices.
“We are aiming to expose this discrimination by publicizing it and getting people to talk about it,” said Nadim Houry, HRW’s Beirut director. “We need to start facing racism. It is not unique to Lebanon, but we haven’t started tackling the problem yet. Many unacceptable things are tolerated and embraced here.”
Houry is hoping the future Lebanese government will pick up on the campaign and work toward enacting and implementing a real anti-discrimination law.
Any such steps, however, will take a long time to realize. Until then, the country will likely continue to deny foreign workers the most basic human rights, like enjoying a day at the beach.