When maids are slaves

SLAVERY / The desperate struggle for justice in a country with no labour laws protecting foreign domestic workers.

Intrigued that while living in Beirut she never actually saw those working for her neighbour, filmmaker Puk Damsgaard decided to investigate the lives of maids in the Middle East. But what she found was way beyond her imagination and most likely will be way beyond yours as well.

Modern slavery

When talking about modern slavery, most often we think of sweatshops, factories, and people working in the mines. But one lesser-known, but painfully common, form happens inside regular homes, a kind of abuse inflicted by people that come across as regular, people with families and jobs.

Slavery in the form of domestic work happens everywhere in the world but seems most prevalent in the Middle East. The Secret Slaves of the Middle East – part of The Why Foundation’s «Why Women programme» – digs into the hurt caused by this phenomenon, its internalities, and the systemic issues that preserve and facilitate it. It reveals its perverse nature, something so cruel happening in what should be a family home. The film is available for free on YouTube and has been seen over 3.4 million times. And you should watch it too.

Secret Slaves of the Middle East-MTR1
Secret Slaves of the Middle East, a film by Puk Damsgaard, Søren Klovborg

The Philippines to Lebanon

The film focuses on Lebanon and to a good degree focuses on maids coming from the Philippines, and more specifically on Mary Jo, a young woman who was promised work in a hotel but ended up abused in a home. Labour laws protecting foreign domestic workers in Lebanon are inexistent. The system is such that, at the time of the film, she was stuck in a women’s shelter unable to go home. The special Arab Kefala-system in place makes it impossible to leave the country or change employer. The one who has to facilitate her return is the employer she had, the abuser she escaped. And months passing, this unseen abuser has no interest to help her go home.

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Looking at the bigger picture, most maids like Mary Joy come from Asia and Africa. While their circumstances and the specifics of the abuse may differ, the core of each story is essentially the same. These are women coming from impoverished areas, taking a leap of faith getting a job abroad in hope of bettering their lives. The demand for maids is very high and the lack of proper laws or implications from the government makes illegal recruiting agencies rampant and any means of protecting these women virtually inexistent. Anything can happen. And it does.

To hire a Philippine maid in Lebanon will set you back 5000 dollars a year. If that’s not in your budget, an Ethiopian one will cost 1800. For this money, a woman will leave her family and, most often, children behind to travel thousands of kilometres to be in your home, clean for you, cook, do every household chore you ask her to do with absolutely no day off. You read that well.

Secret Slaves of the Middle East-MTR2
Secret Slaves of the Middle East, a film by Puk Damsgaard, Søren Klovborg


Mary Joy is only one illustration of what life is like, or often ends up like, for such a maid. The employer can then feel entitled to turn into an owner, working these women to exhaustion, restricting their food, their right to go out, and often not paying them at all. Accounts of beatings, rapes, and unspeakable physical abuse surface from the few that manage to escape at great risk. Some die trying to run, some die because after what they endured they cannot bear to live.

Back in the Philippines, two-week courses train women like Mary Joy to become servient, operate household appliances, and become skilled at all possible chores. During these courses they are also advised to cover up, no short pants, no lipstick, if possible no identity at all – not to make the ‘madam’ jealous or the ‘sir’ feel ‘invited’. But that, and many other things, happen anyway.

Linked to Mary Joy’s story, the film collects a multitude of other accounts. Hearing these stories, the word ‘abuse’ is too mild to convey the degree of hurt, humiliation, and desperation involved. Perhaps most painful to watch is the raw amateur footage, often shot in secret, of maids being beaten, crying for help after being raped, or trying to escape at all costs, jumping from balconies or trying to take refuge in their country’s consulate, only to be dragged away by their employers. The film pushes the limits of one’s ability to comprehend to the point of confusion and rage.

The film pushes the limits of one’s ability to comprehend to the point of confusion and rage.

In all cases but one, these employers remain anonymous and unknown. But surprisingly, the film gets access to a family that not only has maids but runs a recruiting agency, one they say respect the maids and respects the – weak – law. They also say they treat their maids like family, but no comment or special effort is needed to see that certainly isn’t so. This statement set against the interaction with their maids on camera – which probably they believe is kind – point to the banality and common lack of questioning of the disbalance of power in this kind of employer-maid relation. The scenes in which the maids are asked in front of these employers to tell if they are happy with their circumstances will make you cringe because their best performance makes it clear that even in what seems the best scenario is not good at all.

The film will leave you asking yourself ‘why’ without an answer. And we should all ask ‘why’ and we should care because such issues need the public eye and shaming to put pressure on governments to take action. And nothing else but properly defined and implemented laws can make things right and protect these vulnerable women, scattered throughout Middle Eastern homes.

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Bianca-Olivia Nita
Bianca-Olivia Nita
Bianca is a freelance journalist and documentary critic. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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