Prime minister’s wife stirs debate saying Lebanese could work as domestic workers

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - The wife of Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab has come under fire for suggesting that the Lebanese could take low-skilled jobs traditionally held by migrant workers, including domestic workers or janitors, as poverty and unemployment soar in the cash-strapped country.

Nuwar Muwlawi's comments come as the country faces a dire economic crisis yet where many unskilled or semi-skilled jobs are almost exclusively held by foreign nationals.

"We could dispense with migrant workers," said Nuwar Muwlawi in an interview with state-run Radio Lebanon on Friday. "Women sitting at home could work in homes ...That is a simple example. Janitors, fuel stations [jobs] would be for locals."

Mrs Muwlawi's comments sparked debate on social media with some championing her comments and others using the derogatory hashtag "Hassan, control you wife", a play on words in Arabic with the Prime Minister's surname.

"All governments in the world are trying to improve the conditions of their people except for Hassan Diab's wife, she wants girls and women to work as maids and housekeepers," tweeted one user.

Like many who expressed outrage at Mrs Muwlawi's words, the user displayed his allegiance to Mr Diab's predecessor and fierce critic, Saad Hariri, on his Twitter account.

Lebanese soldiers clear the road next to a burning bank branch, set ablaze by demonstrators following the funeral of protester Fawaz al-Samman, in the northern port city of Tripoli. AFP

Lebanese demonstrators chant anti-government slogans while they walk through the streets of the capital Beirut. AFP

Anti-government protesters attend a protest against the collapsing Lebanese pound currency and the price hikes of goods in Beirut. EPA

Riot police members withdraw money from an ATM at a local Bank Audi SAL bank branch during an anti-government demonstration in Beirut. Bloomberg

Riot police line up outside the headquarters of the Lebanese central bank during an anti-government demonstration in Beirut. Bloomberg

A demonstrator gestures during an anti-government demonstration outside the headquarters of the Lebanese central bank in Beirut. Bloomberg

Protesters wearing protective face masks light candles during an anti-government demonstration outside the headquarters of the Lebanese central bank in Beirut. Bloomberg

Lebanese riot police stand guard during an anti-government protest against the collapsing Lebanese pound currency and the price hikes of goods in Beirut. EPA

Lebanese army soldiers accompany demonstrators as they chant anti-government slogans while they walk through the streets of the capital Beirut. AFP

Lebanese police stand guard after demonstrators hurled petrol bombs at the central bank headquarters in the southern city of Sidon (Saida). AFP

A Lebanese policeman, wearing a protective mask, distributes masks to protesters during a demonstration in the capital Beirut. AFP

Lebanese protesters walk past a wall bearing graffiti of a hanging politician and a guillotine during a demonstration in the capital Beirut. AFP

Lebanese protesters wave the national flag in front of riot police in the capital Beirut. AFP

A barefoot Lebanese protester lies on the tarmac in front of riot police in the capital Beirut. AFP

A Lebanese protester sits in front of riot police in the capital Beirut. AFP

A Lebanese policeman reacts as his jeep is engulfed in flames during clashes between protesters and Lebanese soldiers in the northern port city of Tripoli. AFP

Lebanese riot police guard a bank in the capital Beirut. AFP

Demonstrators throw pieces of concrete during a protest against growing economic hardship in Beirut, Lebanon. REUTERS

The prime minister's office issued a statement on the same day to defend Mrs Muwlawi, clarifying that she meant that the "Lebanese must depend on themselves in light of the difficult economic conditions that Lebanon is going through."

Mrs Muwlawi declined to comment on the debate.

Explaining the backlash, economist and former labour minister Charbel Nahas said the suggestion that Lebanese could take low-skilled jobs is a deeply held taboo.

"Mrs Muwlawi's words may be glaringly obvious, but they hurt the sense of superiority of the Lebanese," he told The National.

Those siding with Mrs Muwlawi shared the hashtag "there is no shame in work."

"With more than 33 per cent of Lebanese citizens living under the poverty line with almost no food and proper housing, what she proposed makes sense and would be an opportunity for these people to have some income," tweeted user Sara Faraj.

Some highlighted the misogynistic nature of many of the attacks against Mrs Muwlawi, a professor of English and linguistics at the Lebanese American University.

"So happy the hashtag #[There is no shame in work] is getting more tweets than that other misogynistic hashtag," wrote one user.

Lebanon is experiencing its worst-ever financial crisis. The local currency has been in freefall for several months. Officials anticipate poverty to increase to nearly half the population and for unemployment to rise above 35 per cent.

Lebanese families employ an approximate 200,000 workers from Africa and Asia, with few labour protections and many in conditions that human rights organisations have repeatedly compared to slavery. Withholding passports, salaries and preventing time off or proper places to sleep are commonly reported as is physical and mental abuse.

In 2017, Lebanese intelligence agency General Security said it estimates at least two migrant workers die every week, mostly from suicide.

One of the major draws for workers coming to Lebanon was that the local currency was pegged to the dollar. Migrant workers could, therefore, send dollars home to support their families.

But with the dollar disappearing from the local market and the Lebanese lira crashing in value that incentive is gone. Thousands of migrant workers have returned home in recent months after losing their jobs or when employers switched paying salaries to the local currency. Several embassies, including the Filipino embassy, has been actively helping repatriation flights and assisting with expenses.

Low-skilled labour from Asia and Africa started arriving in Lebanon during the civil war in the 1980s and soared in the following decade as the country launched a massive post-war reconstruction effort.

A live-in maid from the Philippines or Sri Lanka, sometimes paid as little as $200 a month, became a fixture in many Lebanese households. Foreign men were favoured in restaurants, construction or as janitors.

According to a study led by Mr Nahas when he was labour minister between 2011 and 2012, Lebanese households hired foreign maids to display affiliation to a high social status in a society plagued by corruption and nepotism.

"We suspected that several variables could explain why people hired a maid: whether both the husband and wife worked; whether there had young children; or whether there were elderly or handicapped people in the household," he said.

"What was surprising was that none of the variables had any influence on whether people had a maid or not. Only income had an impact. That means that people hired maids because they were important for their social status, not because they responded to a need described by the variables," he said.

Despite many foreign workers leaving, there is little chance that the Lebanese will take their jobs, especially as maids, said Mr Nahas.

"There will be a fierce resistance. Working as a maid is stigmatised now and once that happens, there is very little chance for that to change."

Updated: May 17, 2020 10:41 PM

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