Malagasy maids mistreated in Lebanon

2011-02-08 14:05

Antananarivo - Young Malagasy women, facing poverty at home, continue to flock to Lebanon to work as maids, despite large scale exploitation and mistreatment there.

Saya died there in June 2009. A photo taken before she set off shows a serious fresh-faced high-school leaver of 19. A second photo, shows the same face swollen, bruised and burned beyond recognition.

"They say it was suicide, that she fell from the sixth floor of the building. We don't believe that story," said Elsa, Saya's aunt, holding a photo in each hand.

In the past year the bodies of 17 Malagasy women have been repatriated from Lebanon, according to an NGO that looks after the victims and their families.

They had all signed three-year contracts to work as maids for $150 a month. The Madagascar government counts more than 6 000 women working as domestic servants in Lebanon.

Elsa slips the photos into a pouch. Today there are more pressing matters: her younger sister is still in Lebanon and is complaining she is mistreated by her employers.

Horror stories

Elsa has, therefore, come to seek help from the NGO. Dozens of women wash up here every week at the association's headquarters in a villa on the outskirts of Antananarivo to tell their horror stories about working in Lebanon.

"The girls who arrive here complain of different kinds of exploitation: the non-respect of working hours, the non-payment of salaries or being obliged to engage in prostitution," explained Norotiana Jeannoda, who heads the NGO SPDTS.

In 2010 alone the group counted more than 500 workers who came back to Madagascar before the end of their contract.

"Some of those who come back don't even know who they are any more or where they live. They're in a state of shock or they've been drugged. We take them to the psychiatric hospital," Jeannoda said.

Officially the Madagascar authorities have no longer been delivering the paperwork needed to go work in Lebanon since November 2009.

But social workers say young Malagasy women are still heading out there in large numbers, often via Mauritius or the Seychelles, recruited by agencies acting illegally and with the complicity of corrupt public servants.

Treated badly

"There is a network. We need to break it but it's difficult," Jaona Andriamboahangy Ramandasoa, a top official at the Population ministry.

At the end of January the government announced it would soon be chartering a plane to fly back any workers who wish to return home.

"We intend to bring around 78 women back from Lebanon. More than 1 000 families have put in requests but not all the girls necessarily want to come back," said Ramandasoa.

Patricia, 33, came back in December. After she ran away several times her employer allowed her to leave. Now she is trying to help a friend she met there to come home.

"She's being treated badly and is trying to raise the money to come home. She's already run away but the son of her boss is in the police," she explained, accusing the Lebanese legal system, which she says does not protect Madagascar workers.

Recruitment agencies

Since the announcement about the plane families have been flocking to SPDTS to request repatriation of their daughters. In the yard some three dozen people are waiting for the daily briefing.

The government also plans to take a closer look at the list of approved recruitment agencies.

"We're going to see which agencies have not carried out their duties properly," said Marguerite Aurette Razanazafy, a high-ranking official at the labour ministry.

The agencies, who come under fire on a regular basis, insist that they welcome the new initiative.

"We're not perfect. We need to put in place checks and balances so that these things don't happen," says Joelle Ravelonjatovo of the Madagascar recruitment agencies' guild.