Who hires foreign domestic workers? Evidence from Lebanon

By Ali Fakih (Lebanese American University) and Walid Marrouch (Lebanese American University)


Published under the same title in the Journal of Developing Areas, volume 48, issue 3, pp. 339-352, 2014.

Policy Brief:

The past decades have seen a marked increase in the inflow of foreign migrant domestic workers from South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Africa to the Middle East region driven by a strong demand for affordable domestic help. According to the latest statistics by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the number of foreign domestic workers stood at 53 million around the world in 2013. In the Middle East, their number amounted to 1.4 million. As a matter of fact, the Middle East has attracted a great deal of attention regarding the adverse employment conditions of foreign domestic workers originating from low-income countries.

This study examines the determinants of the demand for foreign domestic workers in Lebanon, which is a middle income country. In such countries, foreign domestic workers’ employment is an important economic activity delivering significant market and non-market services. First, foreign domestic workers provide care services for dependents living in the household. Second, the presence of these workers in the household may play a crucial role in determining the female labor force participation decisions in the destination country. Third, the ease of access to foreign domestic workers in the destination country provides low cost domestic labor, which allows more middle-class households to have access to domestic work services. This is in contrast to rich countries where the cost of hiring domestic workers is high and the demand is limited to wealthy households.

Our study provides new evidence on the demand for foreign domestic work. It is the first attempt aimed at identifying factors that affect the demand for foreign domestic workers in the Middle East. We use a nationally representative sample of all Lebanese households drawn from the National Household Budget Survey (2005). The sample includes 7,431 Lebanese households distributed across all 6 governorates of Lebanon. We consider a set of explanatory variables related to the socio-economic characteristics of households, the characteristics of the household head, and the dwelling characteristics.

Contrary to popular beliefs, we find that the size of the household and the presence of elderly persons are not important determinants of the hiring decision of foreign domestic workers, while the probability of hiring a domestic worker is significantly higher for households with children and disabled persons. This result is in line with well-established evidence in the sociology literature that indicates that downward solidarity (from parents to children) is stronger than upward solidarity (from children to parents). The likelihood of hiring a domestic worker is also increasing in the level of educational attainment of the household head. This finding is in line with the theory of human capital predicting that the level of education is inversely related to the time allocated to household tasks. Interestingly, we find that the number of rooms in the residence rather than its total surface area or type to be the only relevant dwelling characteristic. In fact, in Lebanon most foreign domestic workers reside with their employers, which explains why dwellings -after controlling for size- with more rooms are more likely to have a domestic worker. Finally, our results show that the two most rural and poorest governorates are associated with the strongest negative and significant regional effect on the likelihood of employing a foreign domestic helper.

Important policy implications transpire from our study. Our results highlight the need for increased public investments in care provision in order to provide households with a choice between private and public institutional care, especially for households with children or persons with special needs. Furthermore, it is shown that the trade-off between institutional care and care provided by foreign domestic workers can be more severe in rural areas. Therefore, we suggest several possible solutions, such as reducing the costs of hiring foreign workers in rural areas to provide a short-term substitute for the absence for institutional health care in those areas that lack the adequate infrastructure. Our results also make it possible to speculate about the future demand for domestic workers. At the current trend, smaller households are less likely to hire domestic help yet households with higher educational attainment will be doing the opposite. Such factors make it difficult to predict the final impact of socio-economic trends on the future demand for foreign domestic workers in Lebanon.



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