“Employers literally control our freedom. Many of them are abusive with no one holding them accountable.” – Tsigereda Brihanu is a former domestic worker and activist
Undeterred by the worsening economic crisis in Lebanon, migrant domestic workers continue to unite and campaign for an end to the exploitative kafala system in the country that traps these workers in exploitation, abuse and domestic servitude. The effects of COVID-19 and a collapsing local currency is only increasing the urgent need for migrant domestic workers to be afforded their rights in line with international standards.
Lucy Turay is founder of the Domestic Worker Advocacy Network and campaigner working to raise awareness of the dangers of the kafala system facing domestic workers in Lebanon. In her home country of Sierra Leone, she campaigns for greater protections for migrant domestic workers, recalling her own experiences of being a domestic worker in Lebanon.
Here, she explains exactly what’s wrong with the system:
“The situation of slavery is because of the sponsorship system because the person knows they are entitled to … and because of that, most people treat us like slaves. We [experience] much abuse. Not only from Sierra Leone but many other countries, like Ethiopia, Ghana. We don’t want a sponsorship visa, we are advocating for a work visa. We want people to help us to abolish the kafala system.”
Lebanon is host to an estimated 250,000 officially registered migrant domestic workers making up 4% of the country’s population of 6 million. These workers are overwhelmingly women who have migrated from countries such as Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Sierra Leone, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, and are employed in private households on sponsored visas, hired to help with cleaning, caring for children and the elderly, cooking and other household tasks.
As a result of the economic crisis, the situation for domestic workers has become dire with some dumped by their employers outside of their embassies without their owed wages, their passports, or any financial means to return to their country of origin. For some, returning without their wages isn’t an option. Without the financial support their working in Lebanon promised, some women report fearing retaliation from their communities, including the risk of violence and death.
We are concerned that the law is not providing adequate protection to domestic workers from exploitation. Freedom United has signed an open letter coordinated by partners at This Is Lebanon urging Lebanon’s Ministry of Labour to issue clear guidance on migrant domestic workers’ rights to payment of wages and retention of legal documents.
Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are excluded from the country’s Labour Law and are instead governed by the kafala system, a sponsorship system whereby the workers’ right to work and live in the country is tied to their employer. Exploitation of domestic workers is inevitably facilitated under these conditions. Employers are secure in the knowledge that their employee cannot leave their employment without risking detention and deportation, and so an extreme power imbalance drives exploitative labor conditions while leaving migrant domestic workers with little recourse to grievance and justice mechanisms.
Tsigereda Brihanu is a former domestic worker and co-founder of Egna Legna, an organization campaigning for migrant domestic workers’ rights in Lebanon and Ethiopia. Tsigereda explains how the kafala system impacts migrant domestic workers in their day-to-day lives:
“Many of them pay very little, not even minimum wage, they pay for example 150$ for Ethiopian workers. They don’t pay our salaries on time and sometimes they don’t pay us at all. We do not have the freedom or choice to quit or change our jobs. So you can tell that the situation under the sponsorship system is already very bad to the extent that 2 domestic workers commit suicide every week in Lebanon.”
Pressure has been building on Lebanon’s Ministry of Labour to address this unjust system governing labor rights that positions domestic work as an undervalued form of labor, despite the dependence on domestic workers who perform some of the most vital work in our communities. The active disempowerment of these workers under the kafala system is further compounded by intersectional discrimination against migrant domestic workers as predominantly migrant women of color who are subjected to structural racism and consistent dehumanization that allows for the extreme exploitation of migrant domestic workers to thrive.
In 2019, the International Labour Organization coordinated a Working Group on Kafala Reform, established by Lebanon’s former Minister of Labour, Camille Abousleiman. Human rights organizations including Amnesty International were invited to contribute to the Working Group’s work to establish a pathway to dismantling the kafala system, and in March 2020, the plan of action and revised draft contract was discussed at the National Consultation on Kafala Reform.
Later that year, Lebanon’s caretaker Minister of Labour, Lammia Yammine issued the revised Standard Unified Contract to govern relations between migrant domestic workers and their employers, a move that indicated an important start to the eventual dismantling of an inherently exploitative system. The ILO reported:
“The contract stipulates clearly that domestic workers can leave the household during their weekly day off and annual leave, and that they are not required to pay recruitment fees or related costs. It also prohibits employers from withholding wages and confiscating passports and other personal documents.”
However, efforts to improve access to basic labor rights for migrant domestic workers have stalled as the implementation of the contract came to a halt in October 2020 following pushback from recruitment agencies in Lebanon as “the Syndicate of the Owners of Recruitment Agencies submitted a complaint to the Shura Council on September 21 requesting the council to block and annul the labor minister’s two decisions to adopt the new standard unified contract for migrant domestic workers.” Almost 90% of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are recruited through agencies, and as such, these recruitment agencies wield considerable influence.
Under the current kafala system, migrant domestic workers would lose their residency status and can’t change employers without their employer’s permission, even in cases of abuse which are common.
Amnesty International reported in 2019 that over half of migrant domestic workers they interviewed in Lebanon were forced to “work more than 10 hours a day and were allowed less than eight continuous hours of rest […] Among the live-in domestic workers, only five out of the 32 said that they were allowed to keep their passports with them.”
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