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Break the Chain Campaign » Article / Commentary

Domestic Worker Abuse Doesn't Just Happen in Lebanon

December 4, 2009 ·

Poor treatment of migrant domestic workers hits closer to home than you might think.

CNN featured a story this week about 10 Ethiopian domestic workers who committed suicide in Lebanon over a period seven weeks, noting the severe abuse inflicted by employers and the failure of government to protect them.

Readers shocked by the reports of migrant domestic workers committing suicide in Lebanon would be equally shocked to find that the inhumane treatment endured by these women, and a similar lack of labor protections, can be found in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC.

Thousands of people are trafficked into the United States each year, and nannies and maids make up a significant portion of this number. Every day, poor women leave their homes to work as nannies and maids in order to support their families. Often, they are the only hope their families have for survival. When unbearable pressure at home (through the combined forces of gender, economics, culture, and religion) is met with inescapable abuse in the workplace, suicide does become the only option.

As Houry notes, “isolation is key;” domestic workers, particularly those who are foreign-born, are vulnerable to abuse because their workplace is a private residence, they have no coworkers, and their employers are also their landlords and bankers. As the article points out, the roots of the problem in Lebanon are found in poor labor regulation and cultural prejudice, and the situation is no different in the United States. Like Lebanon, the United States does not have “inspectors who can check on working conditions,” and excludes domestic workers from labor protection because the work is “performed in the private sphere.” Unlike Lebanon, however, domestic workers do not have a unified contract. Advocacy groups like the National Domestic Workers Alliance and service organizations like Break the Chain Campaign are working together to advocate for changes in the Department of Labor and for a Domestic Workers Convention at the International Labor Organization. But we have a long road ahead.

In spite of the many challenges still facing anti-trafficking organizations  in the United States, we often have cases of exploited domestic workers who were abused in the Middle East before coming to this country. They seek the help of groups like Break the Chain only after attempts to receive services were unsuccessful. It is clear we now need a global response to the abuse of migrant domestic workers. Worker education and rights awareness in countries of origin like Ethiopia is crucial. Equally urgent is the need for culturally competent direct social services in destination countries like Lebanon.

 Break the Chain Campaign and other nongovernmental organizations in the United States have the ability to address exploitation of migrant domestic workers in our own cities. Through partnerships with government and international counterparts, we can begin to develop a unified network of resources for nannies and maids experiencing this pervasive form of abuse. We can also work to prevent exploitation by strengthening labor laws for all domestic workers throughout the world, who are almost universally excluded from the protections offered to workers in other sectors.

 If we fail to address this problem, the shocking suicide rates reported in this article will continue to grow.