WED 18 - 9 - 2019
Apr 26, 2019
The Daily Star
Amnesty International slams Lebanon’s kafala system
Abby Sewell| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Lebanon’s kafala sponsorship system has increased the risk that employees are subject to extensive violations, including sexual abuse and labor exploitation, Amnesty International has found.
The human rights watchdog’s report, released Wednesday, comes at the same time as a new campaign to reform the country’s legal framework for migrant domestic workers.
Amnesty researchers interviewed 32 women who came to Lebanon as migrant workers from Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Madagascar and Ivory Coast. Under Lebanese law, the residency of foreign workers is tied to the sponsorship of their Lebanese employers, and they are not subject to many of the protections of Lebanese labor law.
The system has long been decried by advocates as opening the door to abuse. The Amnesty report drew the same conclusion, calling for an overhaul of the “inherently abusive migration sponsorship system, which increases their risk of suffering labor exploitation, forced labor and trafficking and leaves them with little prospect of obtaining redress.”
The release of the report comes amid promises of reform from top officials. Labor Minister Camille Abousleiman last month announced the creation of a committee to reform the labor law and “break” the country’s kafala system.
Six of the women interviewed by Amnesty reported that they had experienced physical abuse, “such as their employer slapping, beating or choking them, pulling their hair and hitting their head against the wall.” One woman said she had been a victim of sexual abuse. Others said their employers had called them insulting names, such as “hmara” (donkey), or imposed humiliating rules such as not being allowed to sit on the couch “because I would pass on my bacteria.”
A majority of the women interviewed said they had been required to work more than 10 hours a day, the maximum number of hours they should work under the Standard Employment Contract for domestic workers, and some reported working 18 or 19 hours a day.
Fourteen of them said they were also denied their weekly day off.
Some of the women also reported that their employer had withheld their first two or three months of wages to compensate for the fees paid to recruitment agencies, paid them late or paid a lower wage than had been specified in their contracts.
A majority of the workers also reported that their employers took their passports away, and 10 of them said that their employers did not allow them to leave the house unaccompanied, sometimes going as far as to lock them in.
Many of the women also said they had been denied medical care - for instance, being given the painkiller Panadol instead of being allowed to see a doctor when they complained of pain or health issues.
A number of the women reported suicidal thoughts or attempts related to their living conditions.
Mary, an Ethiopian worker whose real name was not disclosed, told researchers, “I stayed in this house for one year. I was crying every day. I tried to kill myself three times that year. Their house is my prison. ... I lost parts of my mind after this.”
None of the women interviewed had reported abuse or violations such as withheld salaries to Lebanese authorities, according to the report.
Some feared that if they reported abusive former employers, they themselves would be arrested and deported for residency violations, such as having left the employment of their sponsor without consent.
Amnesty researchers said that none of the women were aware of a hotline that was set up by the Labor Ministry in 2015 for domestic workers to report mistreatment.
However, the report also noted that it was not clear the hotline was even functioning - the ministry did not provide figures on the number of calls received, and Amnesty staff tried calling the number 12 separate times on four different days without ever receiving an answer.
In a written response to the Amnesty findings sent April 18, Abousleiman said the ministry was in the process of fully activating the hotline, and committed to broader reforms in the system.
“It is my and the Labor Ministry’s priority to foster a more tolerant, humanitarian approach to dealings with migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, keeping in mind the lack of balance in bargaining positions between employers and migrant domestic workers,” he wrote.
Abousleiman said his ministry had prepared a draft law that aimed to protect domestic workers, and had recommended the formation of a task force, which would include Amnesty, that would recommend reforms to the kafala system.
Later Wednesday evening, at an event marking the launch of the campaign, Farah Salka of the Anti-Racism Movement, a group advocating for migrant workers’ rights, said the kafala system needed to be ended, not merely reformed.
“Hopefully the changes they [government leaders] are promising will not be just plasters but will be real changes,” Salka said.
A number of migrant workers shared their own stories at the event.
Several women said recruiters had given them false information about the jobs they would be doing and the working conditions before they came to Lebanon.
One of them, an Ethiopian woman who came to Lebanon in 2011, said she had been told she would be working in an office as a secretary.
Upon her arrival at the Beirut airport, a woman took her passport, and she found that she would actually be a domestic worker.
She said she felt helpless to do anything about it.
“What can I do if I don’t have money and don’t have my passport?” she said. “If I ran away, they would have put me in jail and sent me back to Ethiopia.” Under the kafala system, she said, “They think that we’re not human.”
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