A migrant domestic worker in Lebanon speaks out


Ajanta (not her real name) comes from a poor family in Bangladesh.

She sought work in Lebanon because she wanted to be able to pay for her son’s education. “I have the dream to make my son a lawyer so that he may defend vulnerable women like me.”

Ajanta followed legal migration routes although she says she lied about her age because women under 25 are not permitted to engage in domestic work overseas.

She paid the equivalent of €400 at 10 per cent interest to a broker to get a job with a well-off female doctor in Beirut tending to the doctor’s 17-person extended family.

On her arrival the “house lady” confiscated Ajanta’s passport and contract. “I worked from dawn to dusk. It felt like I had been sold. The cleaning, clothes washing, dish washing became more and more, day-by-day.”

Ajanta says she work between 16 and 18 hours a day. “This made me sick and weak.”

She endured repeated verbal, and occasionally, physical abuse.

She recalls the time she brought in coffee late because she was busy with other chores. “I was slapped mercilessly on my left ear. It took me to nearly 20 minutes to be normal again.”

At night, her employer’s younger brother would come to her room and sexually abuse her.

After three years she fled.

Today, Ajanta shares a house with other Bangladeshi women in a Palestinian refugee camp in Shabra, Beirut.

By day she works as a cleaner; by night, she is a sex worker.

But in spite of the hazardous nature of her work – and the risk of deportation that she faces because her visa to Lebanon was tied to her abusive former employer – Ajanta finds her new life infinitely preferable to the conditions of domestic servitude that she previously endured.

Now she not only has considerably more freedom, but she also has the chance to save money for her son’s education.

“Earlier I was not allowed, but now, after my duty... I can call my son [and after] I feel so fresh, so energized that I may work for long time.”

Ajanta’s story is not an isolated one.

Hundreds of thousands young east African and south-east Asian women travel to the Middle East ever year to avail of the promises of legal and decent work that are presented to them as a means out of the abject poverty into which they are born.

Many of these young women find themselves exploited and abused in situations that amount to forced labour or slavery.

Cases such as Ajanta’s highlight one of the most disturbing aspects of contemporary slavery.

That is, in many parts of the world, trafficking particularly, but not exclusively, for forced domestic work has been de facto legalised.

Legal systems of migration, with only tenuous or sometimes counterproductive protections for workers, have been established to ship a vulnerable workforce into countries in places like the Middle East and Europe where the demands for cheap labour are high.

Once there, the state affords them no protections from the sorts of abuses that Ajanta experienced: in other words there is an absence of rule of law for migrant workers, even those who enter legally to the country in which they are enslaved.

It is the awful commonplace of cases like Ajanta’s that makes ILO Convention 189 on decent work for domestic workers so vital as an effort to secure basic standards of protection for vulnerable workers.

There is still a long way to go before all countries have ratified this Convention and domesticated it into national law.

It is shameful that some rich countries, such as the UK, deny its necessity.