Twenty-two year old Leela made a promise to her family in Sri Lanka: she would earn enough money working abroad as a maid or a nanny to build a new house back home. Living thousands of miles from her husband and young son would be difficult, but Leela thought she would be able to send them money while she was gone. Her absence from Sri Lanka, in any case, would be short. She could not have been more wrong.

Upon arriving in Beirut, Lebanon, Leela was taken to a household to work as a maid. There her employer took away her passport, locked her inside the house, forced her to work 20-hour days and provided her with inadequate food and living conditions. When Leela complained, she was beaten. Three months passed, during which time her wages were withheld to recoup the cost to her employer of her trip from Sri Lanka to Lebanon. Six months into her contract, she still had not received any compensation for her work.

When Leela left her native country, she was assured by the hiring agency that assisted her in finding work and the Sri Lanka Foreign Bureau of Employment that they would protect her. But, after she arrived in Lebanon, no such assistance was forthcoming. Leela managed to place a secret telephone call to her parents to inform them of her dire circumstances, and she was eventually able to leave.

No aspect of Leela’s story is uncommon. Each year, over 10,000 female Sri Lankans arrive in Lebanon with the intention of working hard to make better lives for themselves and their families. [1] Most of them go to work cleaning, cooking and caring for children — jobs that Lebanese are generally not willing to take though the services are in high demand. Along with Filipinas, Bangladeshis and other Asian and African women, Sri Lankans have become an integral part of the Lebanese home and the Lebanese economy in the post-war era. [2] In most cases, these women earn more than they could in their home country, but it is estimated by the Migrant Services Center, one of the largest NGOs in Sri Lanka serving domestic migrants, that 40 percent of them return to Sri Lanka no better off than they were when they left. Some are struggling to repay large loans taken out for migration expenses and the families of others mismanaged their remittances, but many simply had their wages withheld. It is estimated that 20 percent of the 80,000 Sri Lankan migrant workers living in Lebanon experience some form of maltreatment, ranging from non-payment of wages to verbal, physical and sexual abuse. [3]


While the reasons for the abuse are multiple and complex, one critical explanation is the lack of legal protections, in the form of local labor laws and bilateral agreements, to ensure worker safety and adequate wages. Even where such legal mechanisms do exist, in the form of memoranda of understanding, contracts, civil and criminal laws, and international compacts, they are often not enforced.

Because maids and nannies work inside people’s homes, the state is hesitant to intervene to regulate conditions or resolve disputes. Although domestic migrant workers are technically protected under criminal law and there are Lebanese lawyers willing to assist them, there have been very few cases where Lebanese hiring agents or employers were prosecuted for abuse. [4] In the end, most victims just want the abuse to stop. They have little faith in the Lebanese legal system and simply hold out hope that their wages will eventually be paid. According to Sriyani Perrera, who worked as a maid in Lebanon for 12 years, “Sri Lankans would be afraid to go to the police with a complaint because they know that the employer would just say that they stole money or something like that. The courts would always believe the Lebanese employer’s word over ours. Sri Lankans would just be afraid they would end up in prison.”

Lack of enforcement is also due to the low status of female migrant workers in Lebanon. Because they are poor and often uneducated, they are viewed as undeserving of legal protection. As Ray Jureidini writes in his study of the subject, “Both during and since the war, such positions have come to be seen by Arab women as degrading and unacceptable. Since the influx of foreign women from Africa and Asia particularly, the position of domestic maid has become one that carries with it a particularly low status. This is not only because of the servile nature of the tasks, the conditions of work and relatively low wages, but also because there is now a racial and discriminatory stigma attached to domestic employment.” [5] As these problems are slowly brought into the light, there has been something of a racist backlash as well. A columnist for Beirut’s English-language newspaper, The Daily Star, offended by a Bangladeshi lawyer’s critical comments about the treatment of domestics in Lebanon, pined for the “time when our helpers were also Lebanese…. They did not leave behind foreign letters in the closet accusing us of beating them and starving them and molesting them. Nor did they spit in our soup or demand more leisure time or flee in anger to some embassy.” [6]

The Complicit Sri Lankan State

Responsibility for the maltreatment and lack of protection for domestic migrant workers does not lie solely with prejudice and poor law enforcement in receiving countries. The countries that send workers abroad are deeply complicit as well. Labor-exporting states intervene only meekly on their citizens’ behalf when specific abuses are reported, and have done little to ameliorate the systemic problems. There are several memoranda of understanding between Sri Lanka and Lebanon’s respective Ministries of Labor regarding the plight of domestic migrant laborers, but these documents skirt the workers’ most pressing complaints. A two-page memorandum concluded in the summer of 2005, for example, established requirements that the migrant undergo a physical examination and that the employer cover travel expenses and pay wages in convertible currency. Yet it contained no demand for improved wages or better treatment for the domestic migrant workers already living in Lebanon.

The reason is clear: for labor-exporting countries, migrant workers are a growing source of badly needed hard currency. The World Bank estimated in 2004 that 3 percent of the world’s population is made up of migrants, who collectively contribute $110 billion in remittances to their home countries, 52 percent more than they sent home in 2001. According to P. G. Jayasinge, director of planning, research and development at the Labor Secretariat of Sri Lanka, abuse of domestics is never mentioned directly in meetings or written correspondence with counterparts in labor-importing countries. “If we demand better working conditions and greater salaries,” he explains, “the receiving countries, like Lebanon, will look to other sending countries for their labor.”

In part to maximize remittances, more and more labor-exporting states have created special branches of the government — like the Sri Lanka Foreign Bureau of Employment (SLFBE) — to oversee migration affairs and engage in such activities as pre-departure training sessions for prospective migrants. (The Philippines also provides training for its nationals headed to Lebanon.) Nominally, the training is intended to equip the women with basic language skills they will need to cope in the host country, but the training is insufficient, even though migrant workers have become Sri Lanka’s largest and most consistent earners of foreign exchange. Those migrating to East Asia or Europe are required to complete a 21-day pre-departure course, whereas domestic workers headed for the Arab world study for only 12 days. Migrants moving to the Middle East are required to have no education beyond the fifth grade, no English and only limited literacy skills in their native tongue. The Arabic they learn is not taught by native speakers and not dialect-specific. According to David Soysa of the Migrant Services Center, hiring agencies direct the least skilled and least educated women to Lebanon, because that destination is perceived to have the highest rates of worker abuse. SFBLE statistics do show slightly higher rates of reported maltreatment in Lebanon than elsewhere.

“Always Please the Madame”

In early 2000, a famous Sri Lankan actor, Ranjan Ramanayka, drew great media attention when he visited Lebanon and reported finding intense abuse of domestic workers in homes and prisons. [7] Though the problems with abuse of domestics in Middle Eastern countries are widely known in Sri Lanka, the government continues to encourage women to work in the region. In fact, the government capitalizes on the fact that Sri Lankan females are viewed as hard-working, docile and affordable. Little is done through the mandatory pre-departure sessions to prepare women to face maltreatment. Rather, the SFBLE program encourages prospective migrants to be “model employees” who are forever diligent, respectful and soft-spoken, regardless of what problems arise. Says Sureika, a domestic who recently left for the Middle East, “We learned in the classes that we should work hard to always please the madame…. This is the best way to ensure that we will be treated and paid well.” The training sessions imbue the migrants with little knowledge of their rights or awareness of the value their labor brings.

In the end, the behaviors pushed by the SLFBE derive from the patriarchal value system that persists in Sri Lanka despite the fact that a majority of women inside and outside the country are the sole breadwinners for their families. K. O. D. D. Fernando, deputy general manager of the SLFBE, puts it bluntly: “We know that some countries prefer our women because they will work hard and make few demands, and this is beneficial for us and something that the Bureau needs to continue to market.”

Barring effective bilateral agreements, migrant worker advocates like Sister Angela, a Good Shepherd nun who worked for over 12 years assisting domestics in Lebanon, see change in the training of domestics as the primary imperative. “In my experience, Sri Lankans are treated more poorly than any other migrants working in Lebanon, in part because they are too passive and accept the ill treatment. The SLFBE should be teaching them that simply because they are economically disempowered does not mean they are any less human. They provide an important job for Lebanon and they should demand and maintain their dignity and pride.” A 1996 study done by the Marga Institute, a research NGO in Sri Lanka, found that those domestic migrant workers who went abroad with clear ideas about how they wanted to be treated, and asserted these ideas while overseas, were more financially and socially successful in the Middle East. [8]

Back in Lebanon, several Lebanese organizations that assist domestic workers have also laid great stress on effecting change in how the domestics are perceived. The Beirut-based Afro-Asian Migrant Center started a working group of attorneys and journalists in 2005 to concentrate on how migrants are viewed in the law and in the media. In addition, in 2004 CARITAS Liban-Migrant Services Center, launched a research project to investigate Lebanese opinions of domestic migrant workers and to assess what needs to be done to instill positive change. Subsequently, in 2005, they helped to fund a documentary, Maid in Lebanon, which captures on film the true lives of Sri Lankan domestic migrant workers in Lebanon and exposes some of the abuse they endure. The film has been shown widely in Lebanon. Director Carol Mansour says it is making a difference: “Audiences see that the women in the film are people with a rich culture and history…. I think it makes it harder to take advantage of someone when you have an understanding of who they are.”


[1] Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, Statistical Handbook on Migration (Colombo, 2003).
[2] See Michael Young, Migrant Workers in Lebanon (Beirut: Lebanese NGO Forum, September 2000).
[3] Mertyl Perera, Sri Lankan Migrant Workers in the Gulf, unpublished World Bank-funded study, 1996.
[4] Young, op cit.
[5] Ray Jureidini, Women Domestic Migrant Workers in Lebanon (Geneva: International Labor Organization, 2002), p. 2.
[6] Nahla Atiyah, “The Discreet Charms of the Domestic Worker,” Daily Star, November 14, 2005.
[7] He also reported on a prostitution ring run from inside the Sri Lankan embassy in Beirut, wherein migrants coming to the diplomatic mission for assistance were forced into providing sex for wages.
[8] Perera, op cit.

How to cite this article:

Monica Smith "“Model Employees”," Middle East Report 238 (Spring 2006).

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