A migrant domestic worker is taking her former employer and a recruitment agency to court in a landmark case which could be groundbreaking for migrant worker protection in Lebanon and the Gulf.
The case’s latest hearing was held on February 10 in Baadba, Lebanon. The plaintiff, a 40-year-old woman from Ethiopia, was subjected to slavery by her employers, according to her legal team.
Isolated and abused
While employed as a domestic worker, the plaintiff, who is identified by the initials MH, claims to have experienced conditions amounting to modern slavery.
She says she was locked inside permanently and cut off from the outside world. She endured physical and psychological abuse.
Her employers reportedly forced her to work 15 hours a day for seven days a week. Her legal team says she only received wages for seven of the eight years of work she carried out.
The Kafala trap
MH’s testimony is reminiscent of the experience of many migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. Exploitation is rife in the sector due to the country’s infamous migrant worker sponsorship scheme, known as the Kafala system.
Under this system, migrant workers are tied to their employers, meaning they cannot move to another job without their permission. Leaving an abusive employer could lead to detention and deportation.
A potentially groundbreaking case
Human rights groups have long denounced this system, and some survivors have previously filed civil lawsuits to recover withheld wages. However, MH is the first worker to pursue a criminal case on the grounds of slavery.
Lawyers from Legal Action Worldwide (LAW), the U.K.-based rights organization representing MH, say the case could have “huge legal ramifications”.
LAW’s Lebanon programme manager Fatima Shehadeh said that the case “has the potential to be groundbreaking”.
“We are arguing that the circumstances that she was living under constitute slavery, slave trade and torture, racial and gender discrimination,” she said.
“If it is successful, it will open the door for many thousands of migrant workers living in similar circumstances across the Middle East to be more encouraged to seek their rights.”
Rise up against the injustice of the Kafala system
Around 400,000 migrant domestic workers are at risk of extreme exploitation in Lebanon. The COVID-19 pandemic and the country’s economic crisis have further increased their vulnerability. We must take action urgently to ensure they receive the protection and support they need.
Together with our partners, Freedom United has written an open letter to Lebanon’s Ministry of Labour, demanding they demonstrate improved protection of migrant workers’ rights.
Join the Freedom United community to call out this flagrant injustice. Add your name to the open letter today.