Modern day slavery? Britain and Lebanon

British ambassadors look closer to home

In a previous post I described how it was fashionable to employ domestic servants in Lebanon and how they were often from Ethiopia and the Philippines. At the time I didn’t consider the origins of what might be called modern day slavery or recall anyone’s experiences. The entry merely referred to the 2014 Mayday demonstrations, where the Lebanese trade union movement demanded more rights for the migrant work force.

Today my interest in the subject was revived by a ‘BBC Radio 4’ programme entitled ‘Face the Facts’, which described the working conditions of domestic servants employed by the rich Gulf Arabs predominantly from Saudi and the various Amirates. During my visit last year the British ambassador, one Mr Tom Fletcher, was also in Lebanon, the purpose of his visit, reportedly, was to speak up for the domestic servants employed there.

Some slave tales from Britain and Lebanon

Facing the facts, the 2012 law

The programme referred to changes in the law, introduced in 2012, whereby domestic staff are ”tied” to their employers and cannot escape any ill treatment inflicted upon them. One woman stated how her employers called her insulting names and how she was forced to work long hours. She and her family back home were so obviously dependent on her wages she had no choice but to stay in employment. Another woman was burned with an iron just because it wouldn’t heat up quickly enough.

Though people believed it would be different in Britain the 2012 change in the law meant, that as soon as an employee escaped from their employer, they were illegal and could be deported immediately. The one improvement was that people now are only expected to work for fourteen hours a day.

As the word ”tied” suggests, the people concerned do not have their own visas, so presenter John Waites suggested a return to the old system. It was patently obvious, that the government wishes to limit the numbers of immigrants, even if  people are mistreated or harmed by their employers. There is a modern slavery bill going through Parliament but it doesn’t include plans to return to the pre 2012 situation.

Life in Lebanon (not a happy one)

Someone I met in Lebanon described how her friend, who was a domestic servant managed to find another job washing up but when the police discovered she was working illegally they contacted her registered employer, who denied knowing her and worse deprived her of almost a year’s wages. This meant that not only was she deported back to Ethiopia but was forced to return empty handed.

The young woman in question did not receive a wage and wouldn’t have done until the end of her contract, which lasted a year. The person I know is more fortunate as she works as a chamber maid, does not live in and is paid monthly. She has nevertheless, been away from her family for at least 3 years and arrived in Lebanon aged just 16.

One time I was travelling to Sur (Tyre) in a shared taxi and sat next to an African woman, with a young child on her knee. I felt it was odd as the boy was white but then discovered his mother or more likely grandmother was in a seat in front of us. Intermittently she would look round and talk to the boy but ignore her employee, who was overladen with toys and plastic carrier bags.

Shared taxis are dirt cheap so the boy could have had a separate seat and the African woman could have had a proper shopping bag, an item, that would have made her life a lot easier. Finally the Lebanese woman turned, asked for a bottle of water, took a drink and handed it back, without securing the top. All three of us were splashed by the displaced water. I was fuming and so was the African woman, though she didn’t dare complain.

Gulf slavery and Britain’s future policy

The programme made reference to the Saudi Arabian slave trade, which was abolished in 1962. Similarly other Gulf countries and Amirates abolished theirs between 1950 and 1970. To my knowledge the Lebanon was not part of the original African trade but is making up for it now as both middle class Muslims and Christians employ domestic staff for little wages and little regard for their human rights.

As more Gulf Arabs spend time in Britain an increase in domestic slavery is guaranteed. A government commentator in today’s programme claimed the 2012 change in the law resulted in an ”unwitting” escalation of the problem as the human rights of immigrants are balanced against satisfying the electorate. I guess though, that it is just as much a case of pleasing their rich pals, who could employ British workers and pay them proper wages.


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