An Ethiopian domestic worker is taking her employer and recruiter to court in Lebanon over the abuse and exploitation she alleges she experienced at their hands. This potentially ground-breaking case represents “an opportunity to open the door for abolishing the kafala system,” according to Fatima Shahade, Lebanon programme manager at Legal Action Worldwide.
MH’s story: Exhaustion, isolation and torture
Middle East Eye describes the survivor’s account, referring to her as “MH” to protect her privacy:
MH worked in a household in Lebanon for around 15 hours a day, daily, for almost eight years. Her employer never allowed her to take days off or holidays. Her employer also failed to pay her most of her earnings. When MH asked for her salary, her employer verbally and physically abused her.
“It was a nightmare. I was tortured, abused psychologically, physically, and verbally. I was not allowed to see anyone. When I asked to call my family, she used to tell me to wait for them to remember that they had a daughter to check on,” MH said in a statement reported by UN Women.
How Lebanon’s kafala system facilitates forced labor
An estimated 250,000 migrants carry out domestic work in Lebanon. They are often asked to sign a contract in Arabic before they leave their home country, meaning they are usually unaware of the conditions of their employment. In Lebanon, they are regulated by the notorious kafala sponsorship system which ties them to their employer. In practice, this means they cannot move to another job without their employer’s permission. Alternatively, they risk detention and deportation.
The kafala system, which has long been denounced by human rights groups, leaves migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation. Survivors have reported serious mistreatment, such as confiscation of personal belongings and documents, physical and verbal abuse, and withholding of wages. According to Lebanese General Security, an average of two migrant domestic workers die each week in the country. Many cases are assumed to be suicides, often with limited investigation from the police; others are reportedly caused by falls from buildings during attempts to flee.
Shahade of Legal Action Worldwide, the organization that took on MH’s case in 2019, told Middle East Eye: “The litigation doesn’t only target the legal aspect of MH’s case, but it also aims to change the behavior and perception of the community towards the kafala system […] The arguments are that MH’s treatment constitutes slavery, human trafficking, racial and gender discrimination according to domestic and international law.”
Urge Lebanon to stop enabling slavery
Lebanon is currently facing serious economic and political instability, aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. These conditions have further increased the vulnerability of foreign domestic workers living in the country. Together with our partners, Freedom United has written an open letter to Lebanon’s Ministry of Labor, demanding they demonstrate improved protection of migrant workers’ rights.