The Metropolis Empire Sofil Cinema was filled with domestic workers, concerned citizens, interested foreigners, and several NGO representatives on the third night of the Human Rights Film Festival, which concentrated on migrant’s rights and discrimination. Despite the minor technical difficulties that are now expected at this festival, the show was interestingly eye-opening.
The first screening was an 18-minute film by Michael Abi Khalil that highlighted the prejudice many Lebanese hold towards domestic workers. The film was called “Sayda”, after the Filipina it was about.
Majdy Abi Khalil lived alone in his village. He brought a domestic worker to take care of him and married her. The film was mainly a series of interviews with people from the village and their opinions about his marrying her. The comments ranged from “It is inevitable that someone feels attached to a person living with him, but he shouldn’t have given up and married her” all the way to “I don’t like their species.” Majdy himself spoke about the benefits of marrying a Filipina: “The Filipina’s only cares in the world are her husband and her house, whereas the Lebanese woman only wants fame and fortune.”
Another highlight of the night was the enlightening 62-minute film by Corinne Shawi. “Les Femmes Bonnes” started out as random shots Shawi took six years ago of her family’s domestic helper, Doulika. The film followed Doulika, Wasana and Shiromi from the Shawi house, where they were well taken care of, all the way to Sri Lanka, where their living conditions were questionable. Shawi did a wonderful job filming not only the workers but also their family and friends, thereby transforming them into full-fledged people rather than just domestic workers. She even visited Ali, Doulika’s Egyptian secret lover.
Two short films, “Being a Domestic Worker: Sri Lankiete Libnanieh” by Wissam Saliby and “Merci Madame Najem” by Shankaboot’s Basseb Breish put things into perspective. The first film by Saliby showed a Lebanese woman working for a Sri Lankan woman, shedding fresh light on the situation by employing a witty role reversal. More can be seen on Saliby’s blog: www.ethiopiansuicides.blogspot.com.
“Merci Madame Najem”, on the other hand, was an interview done with a Shankaboot cast member in character. The star was Madame Najem, who talks about her hair and nails and all the “trouble” that her helper was causing her. Sarcasm is always a well-needed slap in the face.
The milestone of the night was a Forum Theater performance about migrant workers, performed live by Laban or “Live Lactic Culture.”
Three actors put on a scene where a Lebanese couple gets a new helper in the house named Litti. The actors demonstrated the physical, verbal, and sexual abuse that many domestic workers suffer from. The audience was then asked to scream “Freeze!” as they did the scene once more, then adding minor changes in the behavior of Litti or the couple to try and prevent the abuses.
This practice forced the audience to think in terms of the interactions between the members of the house and the helper that resulted in those abuses.
Human rights activist Dr. Ray Jureidini and Mr. Nadim Houri of Human Rights Watch then held an open discussion about the issue. They were meant to be joined by a representative from the Ministry of Labor that could not make it.
Jureidini discussed two main problems: the sponsorship system and the psychological status of homeowners. He also mentioned the results of a survey done in 2005–2006 with over 600 domestic workers in Lebanon.
The results illustrated the extent of the violations of domestic workers’ human rights:
- 65% work 11 hours or more per day.
- 42% work 13 hours or more per day.
- 34% have no regular time off.
- 33% had to pay a large part of their salary to an agency in Lebanon and to another in their home country.
- 52% of domestic workers are screamed at.
- 60% are called names usually because of the language barrier.
- 14% undergo physical abuse.
- 7% undergo sexual abuse; this number is actually higher but not many will speak openly about such a shameful matter.
- 40% did not have a specific room to sleep in.
- 99% had their passports withheld.
Mr. Houri then explained that the reason there is no law to protect domestic workers is that people believe that housework is not, in fact, work. Houri also highlighted the problems with the existing contract between homeowners and workers that favors the owners. It has been around for two years and it has yet to be translated into the language of the workers.
There has been some improvement. though. The ministry set up a hotline for the workers. However, it closes at 2 p.m., requires English, Arabic, or French, and is not publicized.
Houri speculated that even though Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines have placed a ban on Lebanon, agencies can smuggle workers in through Dubai.
Houri also noticed that there were some domestic workers in the audience and addressed them specifically: “You have to claim your rights, know them and talk to your employer.”
The night included four other films and a photo exhibition, “Unseen lives: Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon”, by Matthew Cassel, Kafa (Enough) Violence and Exploitation.
This article was previously published in Hibr Lubnani.