We stopped the car at an anonymous-looking building just outside Beirut that nearly disappeared behind an enormous yellow billboard. A blue drawing covers half the space of the ad. It pictures an Asian woman in an apron shyly proffering a tray of tea. Her look is submissive, the message eloquent. Even to customers who cannot read Arabic.

Inside, the manager of the company, the Manco Group, is all business, seated in front of an empty desk. A brisk offer of coffee to the visitors, then, she plunges into a sales pitch. “From my experience, Ethiopian is the best,” she says. “Sri Lankans run away after two days and Filipinas are too expensive.”

The harshness of the declaration sounds strange to an outsider’s ears, but we try not to look surprised. After all, in Lebanon, buying a maid is as common as buying a car. And just like cars, maids are imported.

Business is booming in Lebanon for companies that recruit foreign women to work as maids, housekeepers and nannies. In this country, ruined by 30 years of civil war and a never-ending political crisis, running an agency has become a safe and easy way to make money.

In five years, the number of such employment agencies has nearly doubled from 250 to 418. This tiny Middle Eastern nation of only four million people has an estimated 120,000 maids, most of them from Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Africa. According to The Daily Star, a Lebanese newspaper, one out of every 16 individuals in Lebanon is a foreign maid.

These women are part of a massive global industry that moves manpower from poor developing countries around the world to richer, or in some cases, marginally less poor nations, where they care for children and clean houses.

Workers are exported and imported by means of a sophisticated network of job agencies across the world. Each Lebanese agency has its counterpart in the country of origin of the migrants. One furnishes the maid; the other, the employer. But the business is largely unregulated, notwithstanding that the products being marketed are human beings.

Foreign workers rarely have anyone to defend their interests, ensure that they are paid or protect them from abuses. There is little incentive. Employment agency profit margins can be as high as 50 percent in Beirut, for instance, and the workers’ home countries often live off the millions of dollars they send back in remittances.

The worldwide demand for cheap labor appears to be increasing, meaning that more and more developing countries are eager to encourage people to leave their homes and families for uncertain jobs abroad.

What is especially odd in Lebanon is that even war and political violence have not dampened the demand. For many families, a foreign maid is a status symbol – although that does not protect these young women from being abused, hit and cheated. Beirut employment agencies promote them as merchandise or, in extreme case, as pets. They offer advice about which nationalities are supposedly docile, easy to maintain or “harder to break.”

Don’t let her out

At Manco Group, we presented ourselves as a couple looking for a maid. The saleswoman handed out a blue plastic binder. It was a catalogue with some 40 descriptions of the merchandise. Each page has two photographs of a young woman and her personal details, including name, city of origin, age, date of birth, height, religion, languages spoken, family situation and professional experience. Most of the girls come from Ethiopia. Some of them are married and have children. A few have come before to work as maid in Lebanon.

The agency offered us plenty of advice. One example: confine and lock the maid in the apartment when leaving.

“If you allow her to go out, she will meet run-aways or marry a Syrian man,” the woman said. By restricting the maid’s freedom of movement, the family is told, it can protect its investment.

The claim is that the agencies advise this to keep the maid from bad influences. But experts on foreign labor said the end result is that foreign workers are treated as prisoners.

“This form of imprisonment has become part of the normative expectations of the employment relationship,” said Nayla Moukarbel, a sociologist who wrote a thesis about Sri Lankan maids in Lebanon.

The sales pitch continues:

“You’d rather choose someone who has no former professional experience,” the woman advises.

Don’t they work better if they already know what to do? we asked.

“Maybe, but if the girl has been a maid here, she’ll be harder to break. If she is new, you will teach her exactly what you want. You’ll train her exactly the way you want.”

The maid industry matures

The woman knows what she is talking about. Lebanon has a long history of domestic employment. Before the civil war, families employed local and foreign Arab women. The term Kurdiyeh, which became a euphemism for “domestic worker,” comes from the 1920s, when Kurdish refugee women worked as maids in Lebanon. During the same period, there were also foreign women from Syria, Palestine and Egypt, along with Lebanese Shia from the eastern rural area of Baalbek.

Usually, girls entered the household at the age of 10 and left as women when it was time for them to get married. Their parents would visit sometimes to collect their wages. The family of the domestic worker was known to the employing family and a duty of care and honor remained an important obligation.

Because of the political tensions during the civil war among the Syrians, Palestinians and Lebanese, families stopped employing Arabs in their homes. The Egyptian government also stopped the emigration of their female nationals to Lebanon. The demand in the local labor market opened up for Asian workers.

By the time the first recruitment agency in Beirut opened its door to Asian migrants in 1978, a significant number of Sri Lankans as well as Filipinas had already entered the Gulf states following the oil boom. After the hostilities ceased, the number of work permits issued to Asian workers in Lebanon more than doubled between 1993 and 1999, going from 16,500 to 40,000, according to the Ministry of Labor.

At the same time, the industry of importing maids matured. Because it was largely unregulated during the 1980s and the 1990s, agencies imported groups of girls and then placed each of them with an employer. “Such a practice was very close to trafficking and the Lebanese government finally took measures,” explained Moukarbel.

Since 1998, each maid has to be “sponsored” to enter the country. She must register when she arrives at the airport. Her name and address, as well as those of her sponsor, are now computerized. The maid comes with a three-month visa, pre-arranged by the Lebanese agency, which includes the name of the employer written in her passport. The passport is taken from her at the airport and given to the employer.

The agency usually receives around $1,500 from the employer to arrange the maid’s trip. This sum includes the price of the plane ticket plus such charges as notary costs and medical fees. Agencies pay $700 for insurance and other expenses. That amounts to an immediate profit, or finder’s fee, of $700 for each maid they place. In a country where the median wage is about $300, that is a sizable payment.

During the first three-month visa, the agency remains responsible for the woman. If there is anything wrong, the employer is allowed to bring her back and ask for a new maid. When this “guarantee” period is over, the employer becomes responsible. Legally, the agency is not concerned anymore until the end of the contract.

If a maid runs away, the employer generally goes to the police station to register a complaint.

“Acting so, the sponsor is no more responsible for the worker. She becomes an illegal migrant,” explained Habib Zakhoul, a Lebanese lawyer specializing in defending maids against former employers. “Some employers used to call the agency but this one has no ability to find back the run-away. Now, sponsors are informed that they just have to go to the police.”

A contract in name only

The contract signed by the employer and the maid at the agency is left vague. Salary typically depends on the nationality of the maid. An Ethiopian goes for $150, a Sri Lankan for $200, and a Filipina for $450. Filipinas are considered by Lebanese to be the most prestigious – intelligent, educated and able to speak English. The family commits to paying and feeding her. Such details as working hours and days off are not mentioned in the agreement.

For Zakhoul, “a contract is only ink on paper.” At Manco Group, the woman in charge confirmed: “It is just a signature; it is not obligatory.”

The length of contracts varies between one and three years maximum. By law, employers are obliged to provide domestic workers with insurance that covers medical, disability, accident, burial and repatriation costs. They also must renew their papers each year and pay the taxes required. Some unscrupulous employers don’t. In those cases, maids become illegal and cannot depart for home.

The countries of origin tried to impose certain regulations. The Philippines, for instance, established an explicit policy to supervise its nationals. Before coming, Filipinas must participate in “pre-departure orientation seminars.” In Lebanon, licensed agencies are required to use the embassy’s “master employment contract for domestic helpers.” But some offer a subterfuge to prospective employers to avoid it. “I can get you a Filipina for US$ 200 by importing her from Syria or Dubai,” the woman of Manco Group proudly explained.

In 2000, a standard “contract of employment for domestic helpers from Sri Lanka in the Middle East” was also introduced in Lebanon. It says that “the employer must treat his employee with equity and humanity. No violence can be exerted on the employee.”

Patterns of abuse

When abuses occur, the confiscation of the maid’s passport comes first. Reports of confinement, the withholding of payment and food, limitations on communication with the outside world and the suspension of days off are quite common. It is hard to prove physical violence and sexual abuse inside households, but reports in the local press about maids being hit, burned and sometimes raped are frequent.

Ann is a young Filipina who has been living in Lebanon for three years. We met at a Starbucks with her friends, all of them Filipinos. Drinking orange juice, Ann told how her first employer tried to rape her.

“During the seminar I attended in the Philippines, they taught me how to clean the house, wash clothes but I was not prepared to reality,” she said. After the “mister” tried to abuse her, he brought her back to the agency. The agent sold her to another employer.

“It was worth (it),” she recdalled. “The madame always beat me with a wood spatula. She was crazy.”

Ann said she ran run away by jumping from the balcony. Wearing just pajamas in the cold November night, she walked the streets, crying.

That is where Joy, a former maid who is also from the Philippines, found her. “I knew what to do because I faced a similar situation,” Joy said.

When she arrived in Lebanon in 1999, Joy worked seven months as a maid but said her employer gave her “no salary, no food, nothing at all.” Her mother, who settled in Lebanon 28 years ago, helped her. Now it is Joy who is trying to return the favor by helping other frightened and desperate foreign women.

Because they belong to the first wave of migrants who came to work as domestics in Lebanon, Filipinos now form a structured community. There are many free-lancers among them. As foreign workers, they are the most respected.

But other maids in Lebanon have no one from their own community to turn to for help when their employers abuse them. Some come to see Father Martin McDermott, a 75-year-old Jesuit priest who settled in Lebanon 30 years ago. He has become notorious for defending maids. His blue eyes shining with indignation, he told us sordid stories about maids who were raped ande impregnated. Some committed suicide.

Even if Lebanese don’t like to hear about it, the abuses are well known. “Lebanese women are a little nervous,” confessed the manager of Richka, an employment agency in Beirut. The “madame” is the one who manages the maid on a daily basis. “With you,” he comforted us, “there will be no problem. You’re a Westerner. You’ll treat her as a human being.”

No doubt, agencies are aware of mistreatments. “Problems of sexual harassment are frequent, he related. “Sometimes, those who’re doing it are important persons like generals or politicians. If I denounce them, they can use their influence to close the agency. Plus, it’s delicate to tell the madame that her husband is cheating on her with the maid.”

Violence may even take place inside the agency. According to Nayla Moukarbel, some companies keep an informal “after sales service.” It happens that the employer threatens the woman that she will be returned to the agency where she will be taught “a lesson.” If they are returned, “the agent threatens or beats the girl and asks her to say ‘sorry’ to the madame.”

The boom continues

The business of importing and selling maid is prospering because it is highly profitable. “If you want to be rich, get an agency,” Father McDemottt said, pointing out that 80 agencies opened in 2007 in Beirut alone.

And the boom continues. “We are 418, but it is still not enough,” the manager of Richka said.

Because of political tensions in Lebanon, traditional Asian migrants prefer to go to the Gulf states, where they are better paid. But as long as there is demand, there will be supply. This is one reason Lebanese agencies are now recruiting girls from Africa. As domestic workers, they belong to the last wave of migrants, coming from Ethiopia or Nepal.

The business is also profitable for the exporting countries. The Philippines and Sri Lanka have pursued active policies for overseas employment as a way to alleviate unemployment and generate foreign income.

“For countries with serious trade deficits, remittances from migrants abroad can be significant”, Moukarbel explained. Though the data on Lebanon is not available, the sociologist noted, the 1.2 million Sri Lankans working abroad sent back to their country $1.5 billion in 2005.

That is one reason why exporting countries are embarrassed to pressure the Lebanese government and why their embassies or consulates remain helpless in Lebanon. “It’s complex to act against agencies here,” M. Amanul Farooq, the ambassador of Sri Lanka, said. “Three agencies have been blacklisted in Colombo as well as their counterparts in Lebanon. It raises problems because the 4,000 women who went through these agencies became illegal and can not go back. Agencies are supposed to pay for their plane tickets.”

Some 50 women who ran away from their employers are now living in the Sri Lankan embassy, in Hazmieh. When we talked with the ambassador, we asked to meet them. A few came down, looking sad and miserable. Ranging in age from 17 to 36 years old, they were from poor areas of Sri Lanka, and, most of them were married with children. Their English, as well as Arabic, was poor. “Madame beat me… not paid… I run away,” they said and repeated. Their names: Sanda, Sangilimuttu, Galagedanage, Renuka, Kumari.

Kumari is 24. She is beautiful and speaks passable English. When we met, she said her madame was a “nice school teacher.”

“Once you go back to Sri Lanka, I’ll pay you,” she told Kumari. But when the woman brought her back to the airport, she gave her maid $500 in cash and forgot to give her her passport. That is why Kumari arrived at the embassy. “She is very innocent,” commented the translator with an air of resignation, and “she asked me what is dollar.”

They are only three employees of the embassy responsible for calling agencies and families. Most of the time, they are facing Kafka-esque situations. One employer said he lost the passport. One does not want to pay. Another has not answered the phone, and the agent said he won’t cooperate because he is not responsible.

The maids in the embassy are discarded products that nobody wants anymore. Most have not been paid, and had been beaten and escaped. Now, they are nobody’s business. They have no passport, no money and only think about one thing – going back home. They will stay in Lebanon for months before being allowed to return to their families and children. In limbo, they wait.

And every day, more women, just like them, arrive.