CNN Photos

Lebanon’s ‘uncomfortable’ maid culture

Editor's note: Some of the domestic workers' names have been changed in the captions to protect their identities.

Photojournalist Natalie Naccache grew up with Lebanese parents in London and visited the small country on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea every year since she was born.

During her trips, Naccache, who is now based in the capital city of Beirut, noticed most families had a maid who assumed many household roles: cook, housekeeper, mother, nurse.

“These maids were basically living their lives for their employers,” Naccache says. “They were dedicated to their employers, and I found that very uncomfortable.”

Maid culture is embedded in the Lebanese way of life, she says, which is why she chose to capture it in her photo essay “No, Madam.”

Naccache asserts while many maids are treated well, others aren’t as lucky – subjected to verbal and physical abuse, racism, even rape, by recruitment agencies and employers.

According to recent statistics, there are more than 200,000 migrant domestic workers in the country of roughly 4 million.

The majority of these women come in hopes of earning a little money to send back to their families in Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Ethiopia, among other developing countries.

In a 2008 report on migrant worker deaths in Lebanon, the Human Rights Watch found that there had been an average of one death a week from “unnatural causes,” including suicide.

In 2011, Lebanon adopted a treaty by the International Labor Organization (ILO) that protected the rights of domestic workers; the stipulations included a weekly day off and payment at regular intervals and for overtime work.

The HRW is just one of numerous human rights groups who have urged more enforcement of these policies and reform on the country’s kafala, or “sponsorship system,” for domestic workers.

Under the kafala, domestic workers’ immigration status is legally bound to their employers for the length of their contracts.

“Migrant domestic workers have very little leverage when it comes to negotiating with employers because the sponsorship system creates a significant power imbalance in their relationship,” Kathleen Hamill said in a policy paper for KAFA (enough) Violence & Exploitation, a Lebanese human rights nonprofit.

It’s common practice for employers to confiscate passports to deter their maids from running away.

The ones who breach their contracts and leave are no longer considered “sponsored” as workers, so they live as illegal immigrants.

For her documentary project, Naccache visited a migrant community center in Beirut and began speaking with and meeting women and activists who rescue migrant workers from abusive employers.

“Trust was hard to come by,” she says. “Many women there believe this story has been told by the media and nothing changes, so why should I be let in?”

They eventually opened up to her after she spent long hours with them in their homes. One shoebox-sized apartment of escaped domestic workers houses seven women.

Naccache says she still keeps in contact with several of the women and will continue to cover their plight, hoping “someone is going to wake up.”

“Usually, when a maid is off to do something, they always say ‘Yes, Madam,’” she says. “I wanted to switch it to ‘No, Madam’ for once.”

- Sarah LeTrent, CNN