JASMIN LILIAN DIAB
Lebanon is currently home to more than 250,000 migrant domestic workers, predominantly women, who moved from African and Asian countries in order to work in private households. According to the Ministry of Labor, a total of 186,429 female migrant domestic workers held new or renewed work permits as of November 2018. However, migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are not governed by the country’s labour laws, but are rather confined by an archaic Kafala system, an inherently abusive migration sponsorship system, which puts them at an increased risk of being subjected to labour exploitation, forced labour and human trafficking.
In their report ‘Their House is my Prison’: Exploitation of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon, published in April 2019, Amnesty International found steady patterns of abusive treatment toward this community from their employers. Examples included forcing domestic workers to work unethical hours, denying them days off and sick days, withholding their salaries or applying unannounced deductions, seizing their passports and other forms of identification, severely restricting their freedom of movement and communication, depriving them of proper accommodation, subjecting them to verbal and physical abuse, as well as denying them access to basic health care and sanitation. This damning report also documented other extreme cases of forced labour and human trafficking patterns.
Concerns about exploitation and the lack of legal protection for migrant domestic workers in Lebanon led a number of their countries of origin, including Ethiopia, Nepal and the Philippines, to impose a ban on their nationals from travelling to work as domestic workers in Lebanon.
The Kafala system emerged in the 1950’s with the aim of regulating the relationship between employers and migrant workers in many countries in West Asia. It remains routine practice in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and also in the Arab states of Jordan and Lebanon. The sponsorship system’s economic objective was initially to provide short-term, rotating labor that could be swiftly brought into the country in periods of economic boom, and then expelled during less prosperous periods. But just as the region is consistently met with political, economic and social turmoil, this law, like many other laws, has been overlooked for decades – rendering it a simple unquestionable part of the countries’ realities.
In April 2019, Lebanon’s Minister of Labour at the time, Camille Abou Sleiman, invited Amnesty International to take part in a Working Group tasked with generating a reform plan aimed at replacing the Kafala system. The Working Group, headed by the International Labor Organisation (ILO), submitted its plan of action to Lebanon’s Ministry of Labuor in June 2019. The plan of action underlined the mandatory reforms necessary in order to dismantle the Kafala system, over both the short and medium terms. Unfortunately, in a sudden turn of events, Sleiman resigned soon after the outbreak of Lebanon’s 2019-2020 revolution, prior to adopting any of the recommended measures and reforms.
The call to action to improve the working and overall human rights conditions of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon is as old as time. The Lebanese government must ensure migrant workers’ rights are protected. A national dialogue on the country’s abusive Kafala sponsorship system was reportedly launched on 11 March 2020 by the ILO, Lebanon’s Ministry of Labour, as well as stakeholders with the aim of discussing short- and long-term measures to ensure decent work for migrant workers across the country.
The national consultation on reforming the Kafala system, which ties the legal residency of domestic workers to the contract they have with their employer, is organised by the ILO in collaboration with Lebanon’s Ministry of Labour. The system denies this group of migrant workers the basic human right to freedom of movement. The employer controls the mobility of the worker under the sponsorship system, by withholding their passport and legal control over their ability to change employment and exit from the country legally.
The national dialogue took place in Beirut between 11 and 13 March 2020, and it aimed at starting an important conversation on the measures needed in order to improve working conditions for migrant workers. But the outbreak of yet another difficult period in Lebanon, as well as the country’s most recent declaration of a state of health emergency due to the outbreak of COVID-19, meant that once more, little or no progress has been made. With the country recovering from its aforementioned Revolution, as well as its current ongoing battle with the state’s debt and currency devaluation, priorities are consistently shifted away from the groups of people hidden on the sidelines – but whose rights are actually in need of the most attention.
Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis, during its period of post-revolutionary political and societal transition, is now exacerbated by as its current battle against Coronavirus. This has intensified the situation for migrant workers that were victims of stereotypes, racism and discrimination even prior to the aforementioned. According to Amnesty International, many of Lebanon’s migrant workers have reported that the value of their salaries has decreased by around a third because of the recent currency crash – also making it difficult for their employers to pay them in USD rather than in Lebanese Pounds.
And the truth of the matter is that these people are stuck. Under Kafala, migrant workers cannot leave their employers without losing their immigration status. The situation is particularly precarious for domestic workers as Kafala lays a foundation (as well as the legal framework) for human rights violations to take place.
The consultation represented a significant opportunity to adopt a revised Standard Unified Contract for the Employment of (Migrant) Domestic Workers. Amnesty International is leading calls for Lebanon’s new Minister of Labour, Lamia Yammine, to ensure that the revised draft includes the necessary provisions to address the current power imbalance between the employer and the worker, as well as other human rights violations within the system.
In line with international human rights and labour standards, such as the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, the new contract must prohibit the confiscation of workers’ travel and identification documents by their employer, and should outline the right of all workers to resign and terminate their employment contract at will, without immediately losing valid immigration status. Ensuring the right of all workers to change employer without the consent of their current employer is vital, as is enables live-in domestic workers to freely leave the household during their time off and have a clear working schedule. Conclusively, ensuring that all domestic workers are eligible for the national minimum wage will end discrimination based on the nationality of the worker.
Jasmin Lilian Diab is a Canadian-Lebanese researcher, author, manager and consultant in the areas of Conflict, Migration, Refugee and Gender Studies. She is a Research Associate currently working on the Political Economy of Health in Conflict Workstream at the American University of Beirut, Global Health Institute. Follow her work @jasminldiab