Tourists cool off in a pool in Beirut, but anti-racism campaigners say Lebanon also has a darker side. Photograph: Joseph Barrak/AFP/Getty Images
The Lebanese Anti-Racism Movement is organising a "die-in" this Saturday in Beirut and London, with protesters lying in front of the Lebanese embassy to highlight the maltreatment of migrant domestic workers.
While several local organisations have been working tirelessly for some years to bring attention to the plight of migrant workers, the aim of this protest is to push the Lebanese government into measureable positive action.
The recent suicide of an Ethiopian domestic worker, Alem Dechasa, who had suffered a very public beating from her employer in front of the Ethiopian consulate that she had been trying to escape to, was the latest case to generate public outcry and a call for action.
Support for migrant domestic workers has also come from several international organisations. In 2010 Human Rights Watch criticised the Lebanese judiciary's failure to hold abusive employers accountable and last year the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) adoption of aconvention on domestic workers set the first international labour standards for such workers. But the convention's efficacy is only guaranteed once member states ratify it – none has yet done so.
With migrant domestic workers in Lebanon dying at a rate of more than one a week – often by throwing themselves from balconies – it is no wonder that countries such as Ethiopia ban their citizens from seeking work there. Nevertheless, for the desperate and impoverished, blanket bans are ineffective, if not harmful.
Dechasa's case sadly demonstrates that prohibition only leads to those desperate enough to take up domestic work becoming invisible and unprotected. The roots of the issue lie in the cultural, economic and legislative frameworks of the countries that allow these abuses to continue.
Endemic racism and a belief that migrant workers are grateful to be employed enable an attitude that treats migrant workers as second-class citizens. Compounding this is the fact that migrants are indeed desperate to work, which perpetuates exploitative conditions and empowers countries such as Saudi Arabia to ban Indonesian and Filipina maidsfrom working in the kingdom after their countries imposed certain hiring conditions.
Exclusion of migrant domestic workers from the host country's legislative safeguards – labour laws and occupational health and safety provisions – leaves the workers defenceless and entirely dependent on individual employers' interpretations of decent living and working conditions.
The common kafala (sponsorship) system of hiring these workers ties them to one employer for the duration of their contract, making it difficult to change jobs. In an alarming throwback to "Victorian-era slavery" the UK has recently announced plans to adopt a similar form of bonded labour demonstrating the international culpability towards the plight of migrant domestic workers. This system, along with often exorbitant fees paid to recruitment agents, encourages an unfortunate interpretation ofkafala as a form of "ownership", most sinisterly illustrated by the confiscation of the workers' passports. Under the kafala system an unscrupulous employer can largely ignore any previously agreed contractual terms relating to working hours, pay or living conditions, safe in the knowledge that no authority will demand otherwise.
Ratification of the ILO's convention would be a simple and effective way of granting domestic workers the necessary rights and safeguards, as well as helping to clean up certain countries' tarnished image. The reluctance may relate to the convention's requirement that countries inspect and monitor the treatment of migrant domestic workers within the private sanctuary of people's homes – a highly sensitive and controversial idea in the Arab region.
Nevertheless, some Arab countries, such as Jordan, have enactednational laws while others are in the process of doing so. Meanwhile, any alternative immigration scheme in which national labour laws are extended to cover migrant domestic workers and ensure their protection and access to legal recourse would be welcomed.
Either way, there is a genuine need to raise awareness and develop a more humane view of migrant domestic workers in Arab countries, recognising them as real workers and not servants.