For those who have traveled to or lived in the Middle East, there is one thing that will inevitably catch your eye. Surprisingly, it is the prevalence of migrant domestic workers in nearly all venues imaginable. From my first visit to the Middle East in 2008 to my second time in 2010-2011, I have had many conversations with people who were shocked and appalled at the mistreatment of migrant domestic workers by their Arab employers. I will emphasize that not all migrant domestic workers are mistreated by their employers. However, after working and researching with Ms. Kathleen Hamill, Esq., through Kafa (meaning “Enough”), a local gender-based violence and exploitation prevention organization, we concluded that the migrant domestic worker system in Lebanon leaves too much room for abuse, neglect, and in some cases forced labor or slave-like conditions.
Background and findings
Lebanon has a population of 4 million people and employs 200,000 migrant domestic workers to do everything from basic household cleaning and child-care to in-home elderly and disabled persons care. This means that there is approximately one Filipina, Sri Lankan, Bengali, Malagasy, Ethiopian, or Nepalese worker to every 10 Lebanese persons. The goal of Ms. Hamill’s study, entitled, ‘Trafficking of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon: A Legal Analysis,’ was to explore the link between human trafficking and migrant domestic labor in Lebanon. As Ms. Hamill explains, “…the aim [of the study] is to identify structural factors that create systemic vulnerabilities for migrant domestic workers during their migration to Lebanon and their work upon arrival in the country.” (See Trafficking of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon: A Legal Analysis, pg. 1)
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, human trafficking is defined “as an act by means of coercion or deception for purposes of exploitation including forced labor, servitude, slavery or practices similar to slavery.” (Id., pg. 46) Some of the structural factors that have contributed to the link between human trafficking and migrant domestic labor in Lebanon are: 1.) The sponsorship or “kafala” system; 2.) The recruitment process, and 3.) The lack of labor protection and legal redress. These factors create a situation of vulnerability for women, and are possible contributing factors to human trafficking and forced labor, servitude, or slavery.
The challenges with the “kafala” system stem from the fact that each migrant worker must be linked or sponsored by a specific Lebanese employer. Without this sponsorship, migrant workers would not have the proper paperwork or visa to maintain a legal status in Lebanon. Essentially, each migrant worker is at the mercy of her employer, and is often subject to restrictions on her movements and living situation. Because their movements are restricted, it can contribute to a situation of forced labor, and therefore be linked to human trafficking.
The primary problem with the recruitment of migrants is the calculated deception that inevitably occurs at each stage of the process. This duplicity is most often seen in negotiations of expected salary, expected contract life, and expected workload. Many countries, cognizant of the fraudulent hiring practices of many Lebanese employers, have banned their female citizens from leaving their home country to work in Lebanon. These restrictions, however, have not stopped hundreds of women from circumventing the bans and getting to their destination. Not surprisingly, the deceptive recruitment process increases the migrant domestic workers’ vulnerability to human trafficking.
Finally, issues with the lack of labor protection and legal redress simply come from the fact that Lebanese labor laws do not protect migrant domestic workers’ rights. There are virtually no legal resources available for the women who face abuse or mistreatment in their employer’s home.
Although there have been other studies detailing the poor conditions of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, Ms. Hamill’s pilot study sought to determine if the workers were being trafficked into a situation of forced labor, servitude, or slavery, though this is very difficult to determine as modern legal definitions of slavery are vague, at best.
After conducting 100 interviews with migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, in addition to interviews with stakeholders in the community, Ms. Hamill concluded that women migrants were indeed vulnerable to human trafficking. She writes:
“[f]uture work and research is needed in this area. It is urgent that recognition be paid to migrant domestic workers in Lebanon who are vulnerable to human trafficking. Research will serve to diagnose the precarious situation of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon from a human rights angle. Accordingly, such efforts may also enable the use of international legal frameworks and instruments that Lebanon has already endorsed – and could develop further – vis-à-vis human trafficking, in defending and protecting migrant domestic workers from this point forward.” (Id., pg. 47)
Current initiatives to help migrant workers in Lebanon
This is a complex and sensitive issue that cannot easily be solved. However, thanks to the work of activists on the ground in Lebanon, there have been some small improvements to the conditions of migrant domestic workers. Wissam Al-Saliby’s blog, Ethiopian Suicides, documents reported suicides by workers in Lebanon and brings awareness to their vulnerable situation. Nasawiya and Migrant Workers Task Force (MWTF) hosts training sessions for Arab employers and English and Arabic classes for the migrant domestic workers.
While grassroots organizations are on the right track in helping to ameliorate the situation of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, it is also important to address and improve the inherent structural issues of the sponsorship system itself. This may include allowing migrant domestic workers to freely change employers without being bound to a single employer. In addition, it is necessary to follow through with the prosecution of abusive employers and private agencies in cases of slavery, forced labor, or confiscation of identity documents.
As Ms. Hamill’s study concludes, this is a complex situation and therefore, questions remain surrounding these issues. What is clear is the importance of taking immediate action and bringing global awareness to the plight of Lebanon’s migrant domestic workers in order to prevent the further abuse of vulnerable human beings caught in a corrupt system.
For a thought-provoking perspective, please watch “Being a Domestic Worker: Sri Lankiete Libanieh,” a short satire film about a Sri Lankan woman as the “Madame” and a Lebanese woman as the maid.
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