Demand on migrant domestic workers in Lebanon is significantly growing. Despite the imposed ban from concerned countries on their citizens to travel to Lebanon for domestic work including Ethiopia, Madagascar, Nepal and the Philippines, more than 50,000 migrant workers reside in Lebanon today, in addition to the 200,000 already working in Lebanese households as of 2012.
The ban, initially brought to light to protect citizens of underdeveloped countries from abuse and exploitation, did not completely prevent the travel of women willing to migrate to Lebanon for domestic work. Indeed, recruitment agencies in Lebanon can contribute to facilitating the illegal migration of domestic workers to the country, which exposes them to higher risks of human trafficking. Out of the 700 plus agencies operating in Lebanon, 200 had their licenses terminated by the Labor Ministry in 2016 under the mandate of former Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi. Minister Azzi's efforts follow continuing history of advocacy for labor law rectifications in relation to article 7 that excludes domestic workers living in private homes from government protection.
Contemporary slavery in Lebanese society
A major factor that promotes dominance over domestic workers in Lebanon is the kafala or sponsorship system, that puts workers under administrative dependence of the employer. That being said, the system offers employers the right to act freely in what concerns workers: freedom of movement, monthly salary, ownership of passport, physical and mental safety etc. In 2011, former Labor Minister Charbel Nahas denounced the kafala regime and spoke out to abolish it. However, his early resignation has led to a loss of attention on this initiative.
The salary fixed and fees submitted to recruitment agencies also puts employers in a situation of greater responsibility, according to Mona, employer of a Filipina worker. "If she chooses to meet a friend, get pregnant or flee, I am the only one held responsible for this. I'd guarantee her stay at home and avoid problems", said Mona in an interview with the Middle East Sight.
Restricting movements of migrant domestic workers, especially when combined with consecutive working hours of up to 18 hours a day, physical and/or emotional abuse, lack of nutritional intake, etc. can easily leave workers in a situation of despair and eventual depression.
Unlike normal employment adhering to the Lebanese labor law, a domestic worker cannot choose to quit or work for another employer without the consent of the current employer. They normally have to complete the contract duration prior to renewing their services. Upon recruitment, migrant domestic workers will have to sign a contract that states clearly the rights of employer ownership. One section highlights three conditions under which the contract can possibly be terminated by the worker: non-payment of salary for three consecutive months, physical or sexual abuse and forced work in places or occupations not specified in the contract. However, this contract is written in Arabic, a foreign language to most migrant workers who are frequently persuaded of signing papers related to security, visa or government purposes.
Al Arabiya English: Migrant domestic workers, hold banners demanding basic labor rights as Lebanese workers, during a march at Beirut's seaside, Lebanon
Protecting the rights of domestic workers in Lebanon
Domestic workers are excluded from the Lebanese labor law, which exposes them to higher risks of abuse and exploitation with little or poor sanction on abusive employers. In other words, workers wishing to claim being abused or to file a lawsuit against the employer will generally not be facing justice and protection. It is also difficult for the worker to show or prove evidence reflecting the way the contract is being implemented, and in other cases, workers being often undermined and stigmatized as living with mental health issues.
in 2011, Lebanon ratified the International Labor Organization's convention no. 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Wokers, but is still not working as a member country of this convention.
In 2014, six Lebanese workers have addressed the Labor Ministry in request to form a Domestic Workers Union that "includes domestic workers and others who provide care in homes for the elderly and those with disabilities, those who provide cleaning services in homes and offices, and other similar categories", shares a Human Rights Watch publication on labor law protections. The request was later claimed as illegal by former Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi. Despite threats, the union has been working towards reaching a public and legal acknowledgement of human rights for all concerned workers.
To ensure basic human rights and protection of domestic workers in Lebanon, Anti-Slavery International and tens of concerned civil organizations recommend "abolishing the kafala regime, extend the protections of the Labour Law to domestic workers, improve recruitment processes, expedite the process of court cases, implement Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) agreements, ratify ILO convention no. 189 and the Migrant Workers Convention".
The process is long and challenging, but multiplied efforts renew hope for domestic workers to coexist with employers, when one chooses to employ.
What is She Worth? An urgent call for the protection of the rights of Nepali migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, Anti-Slavery International
Lebanon Shuts down nearly 200 domestic worker recruitment agencies, Lebanon News, The Daily Star
Access to Justice for Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon by Najla Chahda, Director of Caritas Migrant Center and Frank Hagemann, Director of the Decent Work Team of ILO Regional Office of Arab States
Lebanon: Stop Abuse of Domestic Workers, published by Human Rights Watch