Lebanese filmmaker Dima Al-Joundi’s documentary, “Bonne à Vendre/Maid for Sale,” about the plight of Sri Lankan domestic workers in Lebanon, was screened at a film festival hosted by Courrier International in Paris. Simba Russeau sat down with Al-Joundi in Beirut.
By SIMBA RUSSEAU, Special to MENASSAT
BEIRUT, October 24, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Lebanese filmmaker Dima Al-Joundi never did care much for the stereotypes about her country: “The Paris of the Middle East,” “The Riviera of the Arab World,” “The Swiss-like Arab country…”
So when she set out to make a film about the plight of Sri Lankan domestic workers in Lebanon, she had no qualms about exposing some of the less rosy aspects of her motherland.
Al-Joundi’s cleverly named documentary, “Bonne à Vendre/Maid for Sale”, couldn’t come at a more opportune time.
A string of reports have come out in the last year, both in newspapers and from human rights organizations, highlighting the abuses and exploitation of African and Asian domestic workers face, especially Sri Lankan maids. Human rights groups contend existing laws don’t protect foreign domestic workers in Lebanon, and the country does not have a clear national policy to fight abuses against workers.
Human Rights Watch in Lebanon released a report in August that said that 95 migrant domestic workers had died in Lebanon since January 2008. About 40 of the cases were suicides, while 24 were described as workers falling from high-rise buildings, often in an attempt to escape their employers, the report concluded.
A classic documentary filmmaker, Al-Joundi told MENASSAT that “Bonne à Vendre” was her attempt at shining a light on the situation, “and to give voice to these silent women” who have been suffering within a system that Al-Joundi doesn’t hesitate to characterize as “modern day slavery.”
In a way, the subject chose her.
Al-Joundi was living and working in Sri Lanka in the nineties, just when Lebanon, which was starting to recover from the 1975-1990 civil war, was becoming a destination of choice for the Sri Lankan recruitment agencies.
She remembers the scene vividly.
“It was dawn and I was on a bus with these Sri Lankan women – there must have been sixty of them, and they were all going to Lebanon to work as maids. The women were squeezing me against the window as they rushed to say a last goodbye to their families,” Al-Joundi recalls.
“They were crying and I found myself crying with them. I said to myself, ‘There is something wrong with this situation. These women are leaving their own babies behind!’ So I decided to begin researching the subject, which is when I discovered that there was this major business in domestic workers between Sri Lanka and the Middle East.”
Back in Lebanon, Al-Joundi embarked on a one-and-a-half-year cinematic project to highlight the life of the Asians in Beirut’s streets, the markets, the beach and in the Lebanese homes where they worked.
To set the stage, the film introduces Janika, a domestic worker from Sri Lanka, in her traditional pink maid’s uniform, cleaning the vegetables, preparing dinner and washing the dishes in the home of her Lebanese employer.
“While working I think always about my country,” says Janika. “My heart is with my husband and my children. Although I am here, for more than three years I have cried for my daughter.”
Soon, Al-Joundi decided she had to go back to Sri Lanka to find the other side of the story. As a Lebanese woman in Sri Lanka, it wasn’t hard to find.
“Every time I would take a ‘tuk-tuk’ or the bus, men would ask me, ‘Madame, can you please take my wife to Lebanon?’ It got so bad that after a while I started telling everyone that I was French.”
The maids and their employers are only part of the story; the recruitment agencies are another.
A lucrative business
In her film, Al-Joundi highlights the role of the Sri Lankan recruitment agencies that target the poor, the uneducated and the desperate.
In one scene, a woman doesn’t have the money to pay for the burial of a loved one. So in a matter of minutes, a recruiting agent is able to convince her to sign a contract.
As part of their recruitment campaign, Sri Lankan agents often lure these women by presenting Lebanon as a land of plenty and a place where one can earn high salaries.
Many women go into debt in order to pay the fees for training, visa, travel expenses and guaranteed work abroad.
At the same time, the Lebanese employer typically pay up to $3,000 in fees to the recruitment agencies.
The agency collects on both ends.
Once they arrive in Lebanon, the maids discover the reality of being a domestic worker in the Arab world.
“For the Lebanese, maids are like having a DSL connection where you pay a monthly fee and you have 24 hour access, and when you leave the house you leave it connected because anyways it won’t affect your bill,” Al-Joundi said.
There is little the maid can do once she is in the country.
Her legal status in Lebanon depends on the “kafalat,” or guarantee, that the employer has obtained on her behalf for the duration of her contract. To protect their ‘investment,’ recruitment agencies encourage the employer to confiscate the maid’s passport and other identity papers.
“I put it to the Sri Lankan recruiter I interviewed for my film like this: ‘What if I take you out of your country, take away your passport, make you work more than 20 hours a day for only $100 per month as well as lock you in the house? What would you call this? It’s not only racism, it’s slavery.”
Training schools in Sri Lanka offer newly exported domestic workers a 10-day Arabic course, household appliance training and how to please their new employer.
“I was the first in 1996 to visit these training schools, which no one from the outside had ever seen before,” says Al-Joundi. “This is where the women learn how to tend to their household duties because the Arab woman is very picky about hygiene.”
Funding the war
According to the Sri Lankan Bureau of Foreign Employment, there are now over 86,000 Sri Lankan women employed as domestic workers in Lebanon. They constitute the largest population of female migrant workers in the country. (Women from the Philippines, another big category, are more often employed as nannies.)
The economic impact of the domestic workers trade in Sri Lanka is huge.
In 2006, Sri Lanka received $3.4 billion in remittances from migrant workers abroad, making it the second-highest form of foreign exchange, and twice the amount the country receives in foreign aid and direct foreign investment. In fact, domestic workers now surpass tea as a Sri Lankan export product.
Recently, Kingsley Ranawaka, chairman of the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), was quoted as saying that Sri Lanka is planning to cut the number of women migrants exported to the Middle East due to the growing number of complaints of ill-treatment, breach of contract, sexual and physical abuse and unpaid wages.
Until now, it seems the Sri Lankan government has been quite content to allow the trade to go on.
“One of the things I discovered while making this film was that the Sri Lankan government was very happy to export their women abroad and treat them like they are cattle because their contribution to the national income is helping to fund the war against the Tamil Tigers,” Al-Joundi says.
“So neither the Middle Eastern nor the Sri Lankan governments want this business to stop.”