In what has been called a “victory” against the kafala system in Lebanon this week, employers will no longer be allowed to file criminal complaints against migrant domestic workers – including cleaners, nannies and carers – who “run away” from their workplace.
But human rights experts in Lebanon say there is still a long way to go to ensuring migrant domestic workers are afforded their rights as this week’s decision “still squarely places the power in the hands of the employer.”
The kafala system ties migrant domestic workers to their employer making it impossible for them to leave exploitative situations without risking the violation of residency laws and criminal charges. This system is present in many other countries and the U.K. has recently come under scrutiny for a similar policy.
As L’Orient Today reports, if an employee leaves without the permission of their employer, employers can report them to authorities, often accompanied with false accusations of theft so criminal proceedings are subsequently launched against the employee and the employer can “eschew their responsibilities.”
Farah Baba, an advocacy and communications officer at migrant rights group the Anti-Racism Movement explains:
“They cannot technically report a domestic worker for running away, but they can falsely accuse them of trying to steal from or harm them…And this would almost always end up with a criminal case.”
These criminal charges made it difficult for migrant domestic workers to access justice and leave Lebanon.
After the Lebanese General Security’s decision last week, employers now report an employees’ departure without involving the judiciary, replacing the criminal process with an administrative one.
As Marlene Atallah, the acting Director-General of the Labor Ministry explained:
“Previously, there were incidents where migrant workers were being prosecuted without legal justification…This way, it is a much more straightforward process for employers to effectively end contracts.”
Migrant workers will also now no longer be described as “running away” when leaving employers, moving terminology away from terms related to enslavement.
In a report published in September, KAFA found that in 40 out of 50 criminal cases involving migrant domestic workers, they were formally accused of “running away” from their employer’s home, using the Arabic word al-farar.
“This language is implicit of the slave-like relationship between domestic workers and their employers in Lebanon,” Andary told L’Orient Today.
While the decision was welcome in advancing the rights of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, much work remains to be done to ensure they are adequately protected from exploitation.
Leaving an employer remains a risk for migrant domestic workers, as their visas remain tied to a single employer, meaning they would still be violating residency laws and are therefore vulnerable to fines, detention, and deportation.
Migrant domestic workers will only be truly protected when kafala systems around the world are abolished and replaced with fair working contracts.
You can add your voice calling for governments to protect migrant domestic workers from exploitation and abuse by signing Freedom United’s petition urging world leaders to ratify the Domestic Workers Convention.