Lebanese government must end exploitation and shocking abuse of migrant domestic workers
Lebanon’s new government must seize the opportunity to end the kafala (sponsorship) system which has trapped migrant domestic workers in a nightmarish web of abuse ranging from exploitative working conditions to forced labour and human trafficking, said Amnesty International, launching a new report and campaign today.
‘Their home is my prison’: Exploitation of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon sheds light on the serious human rights abuses that many of the country’s 250,000 migrant domestic workers, mostly women, face at the hands of their employers. Despite years of calls from the human rights community to end the kafalasystem, past Lebanese governments have failed to meaningfully address these abuses or to provide effective remedy to victims.
“It is outrageous that successive Lebanese governments have turned a blind eye to the catalogue of abuses that migrant domestic workers are being subjected to in their place of employment. Under kafala, these private homes have turned in many instances into little more than prisons for workers who are often treated with breath-taking contempt or outright cruelty,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Director.
“Lebanon’s new minister of labour has committed publicly, as well as directly to Amnesty International, that he will take concrete measures to protect migrant domestic workers’ rights. The new government has a chance to distance itself from the past and prioritize ending the inherently abusive kafala system.”
Amnesty International interviewed 32 domestic workers, as well as diplomatic officials, employers, recruitment agencies, migrant activists and NGOs focusing on migrant workers’ rights in Lebanon. The organization met with the minister of labour and subsequently shared its findings and recommendations with the ministry of labour and interior.
The minister of labour Camille Abousleiman responded positively highlighting that the ministry has prepared a draft law on the protection of domestic workers, promising to implement several of the recommendations made in the report and inviting Amnesty International to join a task force on reforming the Kafala system. The minister also asked Amnesty International to “provide the ministry with a list of violations so that [it] could take immediate action” and agreed that there needed to be accountability for recruitment agencies that abuse migrant workers’ rights.
Migrant domestic workers come from African and Asian countries including Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Kenya to live and work in private households in Lebanon.
All these workers are excluded from the Lebanese Labour Law and are governed instead by the kafalasystem, which ties the legal residency of the worker to the contractual relationship with the employer. The worker cannot change their job without the employer’s permission. This allows unscrupulous employers to coerce workers into accepting exploitative working conditions.
If a migrant domestic worker refuses such conditions and decides to leave the home of the employer without the latter’s consent, the worker risks losing their residency status and would as a result, face the risk of detention and deportation at any point in time.
“The horrifying testimonies in this report show how the kafala system grants employers almost total control over the lives of migrant domestic workers. The system isolates workers and ensures they are dependent on their employer. This facilitates exploitation and other abuse while at the same time limiting the worker’s access to redress,” Heba Morayef said.
The women interviewed by Amnesty International had not reported their employers to the authorities or taken them to court for fear of arrest or other reprisals, highlighting the current barriers facing migrant domestic workers’ access to justice in Lebanon and the urgent need for the authorities to ensure they are protected under the law.
Exploitative working conditions
The workers interviewed by Amnesty International were subjected to exploitative working conditions by their employers. These included employers forcing them to work long working hours, denying them rest days, withholding their pay or applying deductions to it, severely restricting their freedom of movement and communication, depriving them of food and proper accommodation, subjecting them to verbal and physical abuse, and denying them health care.
“Eva”, a domestic worker from the Philippines, whose name was withheld for security reasons, told Amnesty International that she was isolated in her employer’s home for three years before she managed to escape:
“I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone. If I opened the window and waved to other Filipinas, she [employer] would pull my hair and beat me. For three years she locked me in the house. I never got out.”
“Mary”, an Ethiopian domestic worker whose real name is also withheld for security reasons, told Amnesty International she worked for 19 hours every day from 5am until midnight, seven days a week without a break or a day off.
At least six women told Amnesty International that their working conditions had led to them having suicidal thoughts or that they had attempted suicide.
Many women interviewed by Amnesty International reported being subjected at least once to humiliating and dehumanizing treatment by their employers. Being called “donkey”, “bitch”, “animal” and other derogatory names were a common occurrence, they said.
Forced labour and human trafficking
The report documents eight cases of forced labour and human trafficking. In each case, the women interviewed could not leave their jobs and were compelled to work because they feared the consequences of quitting. Some women experiencing abuse asked their employers to return them to the recruitment agencies or to their home countries, but their employers refused. Other women reported being asked by their employers to reimburse them for the money spent on their recruitment when they asked to leave.
Sebastian, a domestic worker from Côte d’Ivoire, told Amnesty International that she was overworked, mistreated, locked up in the home and not paid for three months. She said: “When I asked her to send me back to my country, she [employer] said, ‘You have to work for the US$3,000 we paid’.”
In the most serious cases of labour exploitation documented in the report, Amnesty International found evidence that four workers had been victims of human trafficking.
Banchi, from Ethiopia, came to Lebanon through a recruitment agency in 2011. She told Amnesty International that the owner of the recruitment agency had moved her from one household to another and withheld her passport and salary for several months:
“For six months, I worked for free. The owner of the recruitment agency was giving me as a gift: once to his son’s fiancée’s family; another time to his daughter and her husband’s family… It is like living in a prison.”
Barriers to justice
None of the women interviewed by the organization had reported their employers to the authorities or tried to take them to court. Amnesty International interviewed eight women who had run away from what they reported as abusive working environments, forced labour or trafficking. Yet they felt that their precarious legal situation prevented them from bringing legal claims before the courts.
These women either feared arrest or were afraid they would not be able to obtain a new employment, or that they would be falsely accused of theft – which human rights organizations have consistently reported.
Urgent labour reforms needed
The kafala system is incompatible with domestic laws that safeguard freedoms and human dignity, protect workers’ rights and criminalize forced labour and human trafficking. It also directly contradicts Lebanon’s international obligations.
In recent months Lebanon’s newly appointed Minister of Labour Camille Abousleiman has publicly promisedto take concrete measures to protect domestic migrant workers’ rights. During a meeting with Amnesty International last month he reiterated these promises.
Amnesty International is calling on the Lebanese authorities to end the kafala system and extend labour protections to migrant domestic workers.
The organization is also calling on the Ministry of Labour to take immediate measures such as revising the current standard unified contract for migrant workers to address the inequalities between the employer and the worker, establishing a complaint mechanism specifically designed for migrant domestic workers, ensuring the ministry’s hotline for reporting abuse is fully activated and raising awareness about its existence among migrant domestic workers, as well as improving the monitoring and inspection of recruitment agencies.
Campaign launch event
A campaign event organised by Amnesty International and the Anti-Racism Movement is being held on 24 April in Beirut, at which group of women migrant workers will speak about their experiences. The event marks the launch of Amnesty International’s new campaign End Kafala: Justice for migrant domestic workers.