Growing Abuse of Foreign Domestic Workers

Lawyers say efforts by government to monitor unscrupulous recruitment agencies and employers have not proved very effective.

Growing Abuse of Foreign Domestic Workers

Lawyers say efforts by government to monitor unscrupulous recruitment agencies and employers have not proved very effective.

Tuesday, 24 February, 2009
She’s reluctant to reveal too many details – especially about the beatings she’s endured. Once an ambitious young woman striving for a better life, 24-year-old Larji Sonima from Sri Lanka now finds herself the property of a wealthy Syrian household.

As a servant for an upper-class family in the al-Maliki neighbourhood in Damascus, Sonima said her dreams have been dashed as a job that was supposed to bring her more opportunities has instead left her yearning for the life – and country – she left behind.

“I have been beaten more than once by my boss. She even threatened to report me to the owner of the employment agency that helped them find me,” she said. “I’m afraid of being fired because I do not have the money to get back to Sri Lanka.”

She said many others just like her have been fired or deported without pay after filing a complaint against their bosses and employment agency owners.

“So many of us come here for a better life and then we find ourselves trapped in involuntary servitude,” she said. “We have no rights and no one to go to for help.”

Immigration attorney Fareed Abdullah from Damascus said the abuse and exploitation of foreign domestic workers has become a growing problem in Syria.

“The government has made some effort to the monitor recruitment agencies and employers who frequently trample on their rights but it hasn’t been very successful,” Abdullah said. “There are more rules but little enforcement.”

In 2006, the Syrian government passed legislation that set up a system of licensing for recruitment agencies. Abdullah said that in order to apply for a legitimate operating license, an agency must meet strict criteria regarding the treatment and working conditions of a foreign household worker. The law states that all prospective domestic workers should be 18 or older.

The state passed a separate law the following year that put a greater burden on employers to work with officially sanctioned agencies.

Muhammed Muhsin al-Hariri owns the al-Wafa employment agency in Damascus, one of the estimated 100 licensed agencies in the country.

“You have to meet a long list of requirements today to open an employment agency, including being an Arab who has lived in Syria for at least five years,” he said. “The ministry of labour and social affairs outlines all of the specific requirements. Still, I am frustrated because there are those that operate below the radar. They often stay in business by bribing officials.”

A recruitment agency receives its commission from the family that requests a domestic worker. The commission differs from agency to agency and from family to family, usually ranging from 100-150 US dollars per family. However, some agencies take commission from the domestic worker as well.

Even with official guidelines, Al-Hariri said that abuse and neglect run rampant.

“It’s not uncommon for foreign workers to run away or commit suicide because their concerns are neglected by the offices that hired them and the authorities turn a blind eye to the violation of their rights,” he said.

Sani Sukarno, 29, a Filipina who works as a servant in a suburban household in Damascus, said she was lucky because her employers treated her with kindness and respect. Her 26-year-old sister, Somari, was not as fortunate.

“She was raped by the son of the family she worked for in the Mezza Villat neighborhood,” Sani Sukarno said. “We filed a report against them but the police deported my sister rather than investigate the charges.”

While Syrian labour laws don’t openly discriminate between Syrian and foreign laborers, in many cases foreign workers are deported without any due process, according to Abdullah.

“It’s not clear whether foreign workers whose employment authorisation documents have been cancelled are able to appeal the decision or stay in Syria until the situation is resolved,” he said. “The authorities usually just wave away such requests, claiming that the deportation was made for national security reasons or in the social and economic interest of the country.”

There are no official statistics about the number of documented and undocumented foreign domestic workers in Syria, but Al-Hariri said there could be as many as 100,000.

According to Abdullah, the majority of household workers come from Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines.

“Ethiopians are the cheapest and Filipinos are the most sought after because many of them have previous work experience in Saudi Arabia and they speak Arabic very well,” he said. “Filipinos get paid the most – usually 200 dollars a month – while Sri Lankan workers receive about 150 dollars and Ethiopian workers receive about 100 dollars.”

Regardless of their nationality, most domestic workers live under strict scrutiny with long hours, no regular days off and no access to their passports and other immigration documents.

Marwan al-Shiraidi sold his employment agency after coming across repeated instances of physical and sexual harassment of his female workers.

“I saw too much abuse and not just by the employers,” he said. “Many employment agency owners would take the most beautiful girls for themselves. They would put other workers into situations where the employer was known to be violent or had a bad history with past staff. It was very depressing.”
Syria, Philippines
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