Moving pictures: Harrowing tales of housemaids
Lebanese filmmaker Dima Al-Joundi’s documentary, “Bonne … Vendre/Maid
for Sale,” about the plight of Sri Lankan domestic workers in Lebanon,
will be screened by Courrier International in Paris next month.
Lebanese filmmaker Dima Al-Joundi never did care much for the
stereotypes about her country: “The Paris of the Middle East,” “The
Riviera of the Arab World,” “The Swiss-like Arab country...”
So when she set out to make a film about the plight of Sri Lankan
domestic workers in Lebanon, she had no qualms about exposing some of
the less rosy aspects of her motherland.
Al-Joundi’s cleverly named documentary, “Bonne … Vendre/Maid for
Sale”, couldn’t come at a more opportune time.
A string of reports have come out in the last year, both in
newspapers and from human rights organizations, highlighting the abuses
and exploitation of African and Asian domestic workers face, especially
Sri Lankan maids.
Human rights groups contend existing laws don’t protect foreign
domestic workers in Lebanon, and the country does not have a clear
national policy to fight abuses against workers.
Human Rights Watch in Lebanon released a report in August that said
that 95 migrant domestic workers had died in Lebanon since January 2008.
About 40 of the cases were suicides, while 24 were described as workers
falling from high-rise buildings, often in an attempt to escape their
employers, the report concluded.
A classic documentary filmmaker, Al-Joundi told MENASSAT that “Bonne
… Vendre” was her attempt at shining a light on the situation, “and to
give voice to these silent women” who have been suffering within a
system that Al-Joundi doesn’t hesitate to characterize as “modern day
In a way, the subject chose her.
Al-Joundi was living and working in Sri Lanka in the nineties, just
when Lebanon, which was starting to recover from the 1975-1990 civil
war, was becoming a destination of choice for the Sri Lankan recruitment
agencies. She remembers the scene vividly.
“It was dawn and I was on a bus with these Sri Lankan women - there
must have been 60 of them, and they were all going to Lebanon to work as
maids. The women were squeezing me against the window as they rushed to
say a last goodbye to their families,” Al-Joundi recalls.
“They were crying and I found myself crying with them. I said to
myself, ‘There is something wrong with this situation. These women are
leaving their own babies behind!’ So I decided to begin researching the
subject, which is when I discovered that there was this major business
in domestic workers between Sri Lanka and the Middle East.”
Back in Lebanon, Al-Joundi embarked on a one-and-a-half-year
cinematic project to highlight the life of the Asians in Beirut’s
streets, the markets, the beach and in the Lebanese homes where they
To set the stage, the film introduces Janika, a domestic worker from
Sri Lanka, in her traditional pink maid’s uniform, cleaning vegetables,
preparing dinner and washing the dishes in the home of her Lebanese
“While working I think always about my country,” says Janika. “My
heart is with my husband and my children. Although I am here, for more
than three years I have cried for my daughter.”
Soon, Al-Joundi decided she had to go back to Sri Lanka to find the
other side of the story. As a Lebanese woman in Sri Lanka, it wasn’t
hard to find.
“Every time I would take a ‘tuk-tuk’ or the bus, men would ask me,
‘Madame, can you please take my wife to Lebanon?’ It got so bad that
after a while I started telling everyone that I was French.”
The maids and their employers are only part of the story; the
recruitment agencies are another.
A lucrative business
In her film, Al-Joundi highlights the role of the Sri Lankan
recruitment agencies that target the poor, the uneducated and the
In one scene, a woman doesn’t have the money to pay for the burial of
a loved one. So in a matter of minutes, a recruiting agent is able to
convince her to sign a contract.
As part of their recruitment campaign, Sri Lankan agents often lure
these women by presenting Lebanon as a land of plenty and a place where
one can earn high salaries.
Many women go into debt in order to pay the fees for training, visa,
travel expenses and guaranteed work abroad.
At the same time, the Lebanese employer typically pay up to $3,000 in
fees to the recruitment agencies. The agency collects on both ends.
Once they arrive in Lebanon, the maids discover the reality of being
a domestic worker in the Arab world.
“For the Lebanese, maids are like having a DSL connection where you
pay a monthly fee and you have 24 hour access, and when you leave the
house you leave it connected because anyway it won’t affect your bill,”
There is little the maid can do once she is in the country.
Her legal status in Lebanon depends on the “kafalat,” or guarantee,
that the employer has obtained on her behalf for the duration of her
contract. To protect their ‘investment,’ recruitment agencies encourage
the employer to confiscate the maid’s passport and other identity
“I put it to the Sri Lankan recruiter I interviewed for my film like
this: ‘What if I take you out of your country, take away your passport,
make you work more than 20 hours a day for only $100 per month as well
as lock you in the house? What would you call this? It’s not only
racism, it’s slavery.”
Training schools in Sri Lanka offer newly exported domestic workers a
10-day Arabic course, household appliance training and how to please
their new employer.
“I was the first in 1996 to visit these training schools, which no
one from the outside had ever seen before,” says Al-Joundi.
“This is where the women learn how to tend to their household duties
because the Arab woman is very picky about hygiene.”
According to the Sri Lankan Bureau of Foreign Employment, there are
now over 86,000 Sri Lankan women employed as domestic workers in
They constitute the largest population of female migrant workers in
the country. (Women from the Philippines, another big category, are more
often employed as nannies.)
The economic impact of the domestic workers trade in Sri Lanka is
In 2006, Sri Lanka received $3.4 billion in remittances from migrant
workers abroad, making it the second-highest form of foreign exchange,
and twice the amount the country receives in foreign aid and direct
foreign investment. In fact, domestic workers now surpass tea as a Sri
Lankan export product.
Recently, Kingsley Ranawaka, chairman of the Sri Lanka Bureau of
Foreign Employment (SLBFE), was quoted as saying that Sri Lanka is
planning to cut the number of women migrants exported to the Middle East
due to the growing number of complaints of ill-treatment, breach of
contract, sexual and physical abuse and unpaid wages. Menassat