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The New Arab

Lebanese activists hold fashion event for foreign domestic workers

Now in its fourth year, the fashion show is organised by local NGO Insan [AFP]

Date of publication: 17 May, 2016

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Lebanon's NGO Insan holds its fourth fashion show for the country's foreign domestic workers in Beirut, in an attempt to combat often discriminatory and exploitative attitudes towards migrants workers.

A modelling show organised by local NGO Insan in central Beirut saw dozens of Lebanon's domestic workers strut down a black-and-white tiles of a trendy coffee shop on Sunday.

The show comes as part of an effort to humanise an estimated 250,000 foreign domestic workers who toil in the kitchens and living rooms of Lebanese families.

Now in its fourth year, the show aims to give domestic workers the opportunity to be seen as something other than the hired help.

Forty-three-year-old Anna Fernandos, who left her native Sri Lanka 21 years ago, works as a maid in Lebanon to provide for her children back home.

"Even if I work like a maid, I am a human being," she says backstage, dressed in high heels and a strapless ball gown and her eyes thick with mascara.

Other participants echoed the same message.

"At this fashion show we want to tell all these people we are not only domestic workers," 22-year-old Sumy Khan from Bangladesh says.

Rights groups accuse Lebanon and Gulf States of racist and degrading treatment of migrant domestic workers, who are often referred to simply as 'Sri Lankans' regardless of their actual nationality

Sunny would have loved to have studied journalism at home in Bangladesh, but she had to leave two years ago to support her family.

Now in its fourth year, the show aims to give domestic workers the opportunity to be seen as something other than the hired help [AFP]

Rights groups accuse Lebanon and Gulf States of racist and degrading treatment of migrant domestic workers, who are often referred to simply as "servants" or "Sri Lankans," regardless of their actual nationality.

Working mostly as live-in maids, domestic workers commonly come from Asian countries including Philippines, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

They come into Lebanon under a restrictive sponsorship programme, called "kafala," which prohibits them from leaving the country without their employer's written consent. As a result, they are often unable to escape abusive working environments.

Some of the most common human rights violations against foreign domestic workers include working long hours, the withholding of salaries and physical abuse.

Migrant workers are not protected by Lebanese labour laws, despite the efforts of a new union begun for them early last year with the support of the country's federation of labour unions.

But laws in Lebanon do not allow foreigners to set up a union.

Lebanese Labour Minister Sejaane Azzi said, recognised "new laws are needed to improve the situation for housemaids."

Insan's fashion show is just one of several civil society initiatives which seek to combat often discriminatory and exploitative attitudes towards domestic workers

Insan's fashion show is just one of several civil society initiatives which seek to combat often discriminatory and exploitative attitudes towards domestic workers.

Last year, a domestic help agency in Lebanon put out an advert on Mother's Day that was slammed by activists as racist and wildly dehumanising.

The fashion show was held in a trendy coffee shop in the Beirut neighborhoud of Gemmayzeh [AFP]

"For Mother's Day indulge Ur Mom & offer her a housekeeper. Special offer on Kenyan & Ethiopian nationalities for a period of 10 days," read a text message sent to thousands of mobile phone users and subsequently picked up by media.

The American University of Beirut last year surveyed 1,200 employers in Lebanon on their views of domestic workers, and Lebanese rights group Kafa has turned the results into an online campaign.

"Fifty-one percent of Lebanese women think [their] domestic worker is not trustworthy – although she takes care of their children," reads one line.

Last year, Lebanese authorities were refused to renew the residence permits of children born to migrant domestic workers, Human Rights Watch said.

Authorities later began deporting children, often separating them from their mothers.

Agencies contributed to this report

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