Yes Madam!

Yesterday the chairman of the Social Sciences department suggested to me a topic for a thesis. I still have some time to think about it, as I have finished only 2 course out of the required 8 (and taking another two this semester), but I told him I might actually take it up. Although I try to run away from anything that has to do with economics, I think this challenge appeals to me. It is about labour divisions and class tensions in Lebanon, and the role of foreign workers and Lebanese expatriates in fusing/defusing them. This might not have much to do with economics per se, but it does have a lot to do with labour (and economic trends/development). I am always up for new challenges, and I really like the idea of working on something that I have no background in. I think I might have some trouble finding sources, but it is well worth having a go at it.

I am actually very much interested in the Sri Lankan aspect of foreign labour in Lebanon. Some of my closest friends outside Lebanon were Sri Lankans. Now you can imagine my disgust. The typical Lebanese attitude towards Sri Lankans (as well as other groups, such as Ethiopians, Filippinos, etc. but more so the Sri Lankans) is one of racism. Sri Lankans are considered inferior. Some Lebanese do not even hide their surprise when I tell them that Sri Lankans are treated as equals in other countries and are colleagues in the workplace, classmates in universities, and so on… Some laugh out loud when I say that. Others give me a blank stare, shrug, and dismiss the topic altogether. A few have argued with me: “but how can you sit in the same classroom with a Sri Lankan??” How, indeed. Such a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around. But then again that’s assuming that these people do have heads.

It is sad to say that I live in an upper-class neighbourhood. But rest assured, I do not belong to the upper-class. I am a lower-middle-class person. How I ended up there is a long story, one that I will tell one day (remind me some time). Actually, this provides the perfect answer to a question that the chair of the department asked his students: “what is one ruling idea that supports the economic interest of the dominant class in Lebanese economy?” (recall Marx’s The German Ideology). I have been marking the students’ responses, and so far few have actually understood the question, and still fewer have provided good responses. I am mentioning this because the idea that it is necessary to have [a] “domestic helper(s)” (and the argument that it is dishonourable of an upper-class lady not to have at least one) is a ruling idea that is hammered into people’s heads, for the benefit of the dominant class. Why do I say for the benefit of the dominant class? Because “importing” foreign workers is much cheaper for these people than employing non-foreigners. Now I do not have a problem with who gets hired in terms of ethnicity or religion, or any of these silly things, but I do have a problem with the intentions of the ruling class. Not only are they engaging in trafficking, but they are also using cheap labour. As I was doing a search on the Sri Lankan maid issue, I came across a Daily Star article that refers to a “maid-service” called “Yes Madam” (even the name sends shivers through my spine, as it hints at the master/slave dichotomy of commanding/serving). Curious as I am, I ran a search and came up with the website of the “company”. The owner, a Mrs. Tabbara, argues: “When I went to the Philippines, two years ago, I felt depressed when I saw how people are living there. I saw people who get their food from the garbage. Five-year-old children have no shoes when it rains. So, I see my work as help for a poor country.” Now on to debunking that entire statement and exposing Mrs. Tabbara’s real intentions: First of all, you were depressed with how people were living in the Philippines? Fine, I will give you the benefit of the doubt on that one, but why just the Philippines? What about Lebanon? There are many poor and helpless people in Lebanon. It doesn’t take a flight to the Philippines to see the daily struggle of the poor. Poverty, Mrs. Tabbara, knows neither ethnicity nor religion nor borders. It is a worldwide phenomenon, the biggest defender of which you happen to be. “Helping the poor” by using them as cheap labour? Methinks the “$120 takes one a long way in the Philippines” argument is a bit outdated, so spare us. If you truly care about the problem of poverty, the least you can do is refrain from doing something counterproductive. So close down your business, because it perpetuates not only racism but also economic oppression of the poor by the rich.

Now if you thought the first statement was bad, you’re in for a surprise: “Filipinas are more educated and, well, let’s say also more civilized … Some girls from Sri Lanka don’t know what a fridge is or are afraid to use the elevator.” (emphasis mine)

More civilized? I hope you would not – one day – judge me by your glorious Phoenician standards, because I might actually fail your test of civilization, Mrs. Tabbara. Especially that my Armenian ancestors rarely knew how to sail, as they were landlocked (except for a very short time when they actually had their empire in Cilicia – and I do not understand why anyone has to be proud of having an imperial history).

The article goes on: “Tabarra believes Lebanese women are not suitable for the job. ‘Lebanese girls want to go home, they fall in love, they are late. Maybe, she will even get pregnant. I once had a Lebanese and she only caused problems.'”

I must be very, very uncivilized, because I didn’t know that Sri Lankan girls could not get pregnant (even when sexual abuse of maids is rampant).

And then, dear readers, you have this lady who takes her Sri Lankan maid to protests with her, to carry the Lebanese flag for her… while she holds a picture of warlord Samir Ja’ja…

For fear of offending some of my Lebanese readers, I must cut down on the sarcasm and assume a more serious tone. There are quite a few individuals and advocacy/rights groups that have been looking at the plight of foreign workers in Lebanon and voicing their concerns loudly. I commend them for this. Dr. Ray Jureidini is one. The Lebanese NGO Forum (LNF) is another. Check out the migrant workers section on their website. If you are interested in reading more about the plight of the Sri Lankan maids (and migrant labour in general), I recommend the following:

A Modern-Day “Slave Trade”: Sri Lankan Workers in Lebanon by Reem Haddad

Women Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon by Dr. Ray Jureidini

Migrant Workers and Xenophobia in the Middle East by Dr. Ray Jureidini

Foreign Female Domestic Maids in Lebanon by Dr. Ray Jureidini

International Migration Papers


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