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The maids’ lucky star

Helping Nepali domestic workers

This Saturday 18 December is International Migrants Day. During this week, Mashallah is publishing articles on the topic of migration, covering a few aspects of this phenomena. Today, domestic workers in Beirut.

Dipendra Uprety left Nepal for Lebanon 10 years ago. There, he found himself an unexpected role: a guardian-angel for Beirut’s domestic workers. After having experienced both clandestineness and jail, Dipendra managed to become honorary consul for the Nepalese embassy in Lebanon. Since then, he daily watches over the numerous cases of abuse that occur among the isolated young girls who, like he did, come to Lebanon in search for a better lifestyle. And it’s hard work: new cases happen every week.

Free-lance domestic worker

This 30 something Nepalese with juvenile features looks like the boy next door: neatly kept hair and wearing a brown leather jacket. Hard to guess that Dipendra Uprety has been through rough times. He keeps smiling while telling his story.

He decides to leave his employer’s place, well aware that this will make him an illegal worker in Lebanon. But what are his options?

A few months after he arrived in Lebanon as a ‘freelance’ domestic worker, earning $225 per month, Dipendra finds out that his employer refuses to extend his visa. Dipendra gives the man a total of $1,600, hoping each time that the money will make the employer extend his visa. But he never does. Dipendra starts to realise that he will never see his money again, and he is now without a visa in a foreign country. He decides to leave his employer’s place, well aware that this will make him an illegal worker in Lebanon. But what are his options?

After a year spent working in hotels in West Beirut, Dipendra gets caught in a checkpoint because of his expired visa. He is automatically sent to jail. The young Nepalese asks the authorities to try and find his employer and talk to him. But the man is never interrogated, instead Dipendra gets hit by policemen who accuse him of lying. Thanks to the financial help of a providential friend, Dipendra is able to afford a lawyer and succeeds in escaping jail five months after his getting arrested.

Since then — except at nights, when he has to work in a restaurant ‘to pay the rent’ — Dipendra devotes his entire free time to domestic workers’ rights. “I saw so many of them in jail. Ill-treated, battered. Especially girls.” Many domestic workers find themselves in Lebanese jails, because those who flee from their employers are all — except for a tiny minority who seeks asylum at NGO safe houses — getting locked up under the pretext that they “broke their contract.” No matter what kind of abuse they report.

Dipendra starts to realise that he will never see his money again, and he is now without a visa in a foreign country.

Honorary consul

Because he kept going every single day to the Court of Justice in Beirut, and started to getting to know the staff (lawyers, policemen, embassy spokespersons), Dipendra finally got a promotion. He became honorary consul for the Nepalese embassy in Beirut. After rummaging in his bag, he proves this by proudly showing officially stamped letters from the embassy holding his title. The official consul, a Lebanese who doesn’t speak a single word of Nepalese, finds this situation very helpful: with Dipendra being a voluntary worker, his help is entirely free!

“I saw so many of them in jail. Ill-treated, battered. Especially girls.”

Dipendra goes daily to the General Security Prison of Beirut, known as Adliyeh. Built underground, this huge concrete jail neighbouring a highway defies all the basic rights of its prisoners: no fresh air, no day light. Dipendra’s visits guarantee at least one decent meal per day to the imprisoned domestic workers. As a diplomat, he can’t be told to hand over his food supplies to the guards — a humiliation often reserved to visiting family members.

And guardian-angel

The last case of abuse Dipendra got on his desk goes back to only a day before the interview. Dipendra shows the picture of a young Nepalese girl on his mobile phone. Huddled up on a hospital bed, she has plastic tubes attached to her nose and her arms. Only four days after having started her contract as a domestic worker, she got pushed from the balcony by her employer, her ‘Madame’. The latter justified the act by arguing that the young girl had “mental problems.”

Dipendra’s visits guarantee at least one decent meal per day to the imprisoned domestic workers.

The efficient word of mouth of the Nepalese community in Beirut allowed Dipendra to react quickly. He was the first one to visit the girl at the hospital, and also to alert the Lebanese NGO Caritas, which he often collaborates with. One of the Carita lawyers helped launching a police investigation. The doctor on the other hand, didn’t bother telling the police about the case. Was this out of racism or corruption? “Hard to tell,” comments Dipendra gloomily.

Although the Lebanese Interior Minister has promised changes, Dipendra is not optimistic.

Although the Lebanese Interior Minister has promised changes, Dipendra is not optimistic. “If work in private houses was officially acknowledged in Lebanese labor law,” explains Dipendra, “then domestic workers would have a chance to escape the current sponsoring system, which is a system that locks workers up in a relationship with their employers much like a form of ownership.” Promised changes are often postponed, and this for one simple reason: in Lebanon, there are nearly 400 agencies offering domestic workers’ services to Lebanese families. These agencies keep between 50 percent and 60 percent of the expensive fees that every family has to pay in order to “get a maid,” which makes up to $2,500 for every domestic worker recruited! A juicy money-grabbing business that is far from disappearing.

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