It is with an unmistakable irony that I return from a female migrant workers’ festival in Beirut to mark Labour Day and fail to actually see a single female migrant worker. While the Lebanese employers enjoy learning about how to appreciate the richness of their maid’s culture, the maids themselves have been locked in their house just a stone’s throw away to look after the children of well-to-do Saifi families. It seems that even on Labour Day there is no rest for the domestic workers of Beirut.

The invitation to the event read: “Labour Day is a time to honour the hardships, conditions and struggles of workers worldwide. To mark this day especially, to honour women migrant domestic workers, we will have a day of cultural exchange.” But as I walk around with my Arabic phrasebook, camera and an adopted disarming manner in the hope of actually speaking to a migrant worker about their experiences of what is known to be an excrutiating hard life in Lebanon, I cannot find anyone to talk to.

They are not difficult to spot either, with their homogenous uniforms in varying pastel shades of blue, pink and green.

Buying maids in Beirut is as common as buying a car, and just like their cars most of them are imported. In fact, when I moved into my apartment I was offered a Filipino by my concierge. The word “Filipino” is so synonymous with cheap domestic work in Beirut that I did not even have to enquire as to what exactly we should need such a person for.

In the event that we had dutifully accepted his offer, it would have been no problem accommodating her in our apartment in Manara as our live-in maid where she would be more than comfortable in our 4ft-high maid’s scullery above the kitchen. Our landlord’s father built the house less than a century ago and obviously took such pleasure in the 15ft-high ceilings in the main part of the house that it would have been unthinkable to compromise to produce a liveable space for the hired help.

These women are as easy to buy as a shawarma as there are over 400 employment agencies in Beirut alone and according to The Daily Star, a Lebanese newspaper, one out of every 16 individuals in Lebanon is a foreign maid. This figure translates as just over 20,000 foreign domestic workers in Lebanon

The fee these agencies charge for their workers, most of them illegal immigrants, is not based on skill-set or qualifications, but on nationality, and not even discretely. There is a pecking order and Filipinos are at the top. An Ethiopian goes for $150, a Sri Lankan for $200, and a Filipino for $450 and are advertised so in the paper I work for in Lebanon. Filipinos are considered by Lebanese to be the most prestigious – intelligent, educated and able to speak English.

The newcomers on the market are the Nepalese- paid less than half the salary of their Filipino counterparts. It’s a terrible prospect that as competition builds among the migrant worker community agencies will be forced to drive down the price to a wage that means an average maid’s living will more closely resemble slavery than gainful employment.

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