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Rights group says Asian maids face beatings in Lebanon
Lalia believes that if divine justice is served, her Lebanese employers will be reborn as maids in her native country of Sri Lanka, where they will face a lifetime of the same rough treatment they now dish out to her.
Now 29, Lalia -- who believes people will suffer in the next life for the harm they inflict on others today -- has worked as a maid in Lebanon for 10 years.
She describes those years as "hell", and says she has not lived a single "good day" in all the homes where she has worked.
"I have never in my life seen people who treat others as badly as the families I have worked for," said Lalia. "They beat me with reason or without, just because they can."
Lebanese Labour Ministry statistics show that in 2000, more than 54,000 foreign workers were registered in the country.
Unofficial estimates put that figure closer to 150,000 workers, 80 percent of whom hail from Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Ethiopia, and most of whom work as domestic maids.
These figures suggest that about four foreign maids are employed for every 100 Lebanese living in the country -- a ratio skewed by the fact that some wealthy families have many maids.
Driven by poverty in their home countries, women from Africa and southern Asia travel to Lebanon to earn $100-$300 a month as live-in maids -- money they then send to their families back home.
Many maids say they are able to buy a flat back home after working for several years in Lebanon.
But rights activists say the relative comfort of work in Lebanon masks the fact that many of these domestic workers face beating and maltreatment at the hands of their employers and the agencies that fly them across the world for work.
A report by the human rights group Amnesty International says beatings, verbal abuse, starvation and imprisonment in the employer's home are some of the most common abuses faced by maids, some of whom are even subjected to sexual abuse.
NOT CONFINED TO LEBANON
Rights activists say the mistreatment of domestic workers is not confined to Lebanon, but a widespread problem across the Arab world and many developing countries.
Ray Jraidini, who heads the Social and Behavioural Studies department at the American University of Beirut, said such abuses were not rooted in the character of Lebanese society but varied among individual employers.
One agency owner complained that some maids were "devious, using domestic service as a means of getting to Lebanon before running away from their employers to find other work".
In such cases, he said it was best to "use a little force and discipline" to let them know they should not "ruin our reputation with our customers".
"Some people view such behaviour as degrading for the maids, but if those who complain about the treatment of maids had to work with the type of human being I just described, they would have treated them worse," he added.
Maids say discrimination against them is also evident in the adverts that maid agencies place in the local press.
"We offer maids who speak Arabic and English -- with 30 percent off for each maid during the shopping festival," said one typical advertisement.
NO PERSONAL FREEDOM
A recent International Labour Organisation (ILO) study on the treatment of maids in Lebanon said beatings and sexual exploitation were the most common forms of abuse.
It said the women of the household often beat their maids in the first few months of employment to show them "who is boss".
The study also said that maids in Lebanon enjoy little personal freedom as they are often locked indoors when the family goes out, while most families confiscate their maid's passport as security against them running away. Most maids, it said, were rarely allowed to make telephone calls.
In an ILO poll of 70 Sri Lankan maids, 88 percent said they did not get a day off, although some said they were allowed to attend church for a few hours on Sunday.
A view held by some employers is that the maids are "getting what they deserve".
Sana, a teacher and mother of three, told Reuters that she had tried to treat her maid well at the start but complained that "she was insolent and started refusing to do the work I asked and ignoring my orders in front of other people".
Sana said she had discovered that beating the girl was the best way to "put her back in a her natural place".
"Since I began beating her she has changed and become more obedient than you would believe," she said. "I think this is the ideal way to treat the likes of her."
ILO spokeswoman Khawla Matar said that the organisation was unable to intervene to protect the maids.
"We only intervene to expose the realities but we don't get involved in individual complaints," said Matar, who added that "flagrant" abuses begin in the country of origin.
The American University's Jraidini said the Lebanese tend to look down on these migrant workers because they come from poor countries and consequently mistreat them.
He added however, that even Lebanese maids face abuse, while some are lucky enough to find work in compassionate households.
Billy, a Filipina maid, said that the family she works for treats her kindly, and although the woman of the house sometimes scolded her, she had never raised a hand at her.
"On the contrary, she shows a special interest in me and understands my position as a person who lives far away from my parents and family," Billy said.
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