Amnesty decries ‘shameful’ treatment of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon

Rights group blames ‘kafala’ sponsorship system for widespread abuses

Domestic workers from various nationalities demonstrate in Beirut
Domestic workers from various nationalities demonstrate in Beirut

Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are being subjected to “shameful” human rights abuses due to the laws that govern their employment, a new report has claimed.

A months-long investigation by Amnesty International found that an “inherently abusive” migration sponsorship system was to blame for the poor treatment of women domestic workers in the country.

Testimony collected from more than 30 domestic workers living in Lebanon revealed “significant and consistent patterns of abuse”, including human trafficking, withholding salary, physical and verbal abuse, restrictions on freedom of movement and deprivation of food.

The kafala (sponsorship) system, common across the Middle East, ties the legal residency of migrant workers to their employer, which gives them “total control” over the employees’ lives. The system has been described as modern-day slavery by campaigners.

“It is outrageous that successive Lebanese governments have turned a blind eye to the catalogue of abuses that migrant domestic workers are being subjected to in their place of employment. Under kafala, these private homes have turned in many instances into little more than prisons for workers who are often treated with breathtaking contempt or outright cruelty,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and north Africa director.

There are an estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, most of them come from Ethiopia, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The majority come from impoverished backgrounds and work in private households to send money back home to their families. Often they are not aware of the conditions they might face in Lebanon.

Ethiopia, Nepal and the Philippines have all introduced bans on their citizens coming to work in Lebanon because of the high level of abuse. But many find a way around the ban, and large numbers still seek work here.

A 2017 report by The New Humanitarian, citing official Lebanese government figures, found that an average of two domestic workers were dying every week. The figures included natural deaths, but suicides and deaths from botched escape attempts – often workers who jump from balconies of apartments where they work – are common.

Amnesty interviewed 32 migrant domestic workers, as well as diplomatic officials, employers and recruitment agencies for the investigation.

Eva, a 38-year-old domestic worker from the Philippines, told Amnesty she was locked inside her employer’s home for three years before managing to escape.

“I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone. If I opened the window and waved to other Filipinas, she [employer] would pull my hair and beat me. For three years she locked me in the house. I never got out,” she said.

Mary, a 33-year-old domestic worker from Ethiopia, faced similar circumstances. She said she was locked up for a year by an abusive employer.

“They treated me like a donkey and locked me in the house... I was not allowed to talk to the neighbours or use the telephone. For one year, I couldn’t contact my family,” she said.

Research suggests that the practice of employers locking domestic workers in their homes is common in Lebanon. A 2016 study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that 22.5 per cent of employers always or sometimes locked workers inside their homes. The ILO said the actual number may be much higher due to the stigma of admitting to the practice. The same study found that 18 per cent of those employers believed they were legally entitled to do so.

The Amnesty report found that this isolation and the dependence on their employer put domestic workers at risk of physical and sexual abuse. Six of the 32 women interviewed by Amnesty said they were subjected to abuse, including “slapping, beating or choking them, pulling their hair and hitting their head against the wall”.

“Underlining the power imbalance between employers and migrant domestic workers, many said they were particularly subjected to such abuse when they tried to challenge their employers,” the report said.

Despite the high levels of abuse, many migrant domestic workers fear going to the police. Because the kafala system links a worker’s legal status to their employer, simply escaping from an abusive employer can put them at risk of detention.

Amnesty interviewed eight women “who had run away from what they reported as abusive working environments, forced labour or trafficking”, and who did not bring legal claims because of the precarious of their residency situation.

Eva managed to flee from her employer after three years of abuse when they forgot to lock the front door, but she has been living undocumented since her escape.

“Since 2014, I am without papers. I work illegally. I have to pay the overstay penalty if I want to go back home, but I don’t have the money. I don’t feel safe going out because I don’t have papers. I am afraid the police would take me to jail,” she said.

A representative for a Lebanese agency that recruits migrant domestic workers told Amnesty that abuse victims are unlikely to find justice in the Lebanese legal system.

“You cannot get justice for migrant domestic workers in cases of violence in Lebanon. We all know that the perpetrators are not punished for what they do. People who do such things know that they have power and that they are untouchable by the law,” the agency representative said.

In its response to the report, Lebanon’s labour ministry said it had drafted a new law concerning the protection of migrant domestic workers, and is in the process of setting up a task force to present recommendations to reform the kafala system.

Amnesty said Lebanon’s minister of labour, Camille Abousleiman, has “responded positively” to the report, but added that it was calling on the government to “end the kafala system and extend labour protections to migrant domestic workers”.

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