Date: May 21, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Lebanon’s kafala system explained
Timour Azhari| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Calls to abolish Lebanon’s kafala sponsorship system for migrant domestic workers have been on the rise after recent high-profile reports detailed shocking levels of abuse, in line with years of similar evidence.

The system “has trapped migrant domestic workers in a nightmarish web of abuse ranging from exploitative working conditions to forced labor and human trafficking,” according to a recent report by Amnesty International.

Following years of pressure, newly minted Labor Minister Camille Abousleiman has made repeated calls for the system to be reformed, and has brought together a working group of NGOs to put forward recommendations.

But what makes the kafala system, which ties the legal residency of migrant domestic workers in many Arab countries to their contractual relationship with their employer, so bad? How, for example, does it compare to other systems under which foreign workers are employed in the region and abroad?

According to a number of experts, the main issue in Lebanon is a lack of legal protections, coupled with the broad powers enjoyed by employers. At the same time, wide-ranging abuses - though illegal - have gone largely unchecked.

Two domestic workers are estimated to die in Lebanon each week, many in suicides or botched escape attempts. Just Sunday, a domestic worker, reportedly from Sri Lanka, was found hanging from a tree in Tyre, the state-run National News Agency reported.

In Lebanon, domestic workers are explicitly excluded from the labor law by the legislation’s Article 7. This means that the estimated quarter of a million domestic workers residing in the country are not afforded the labor protections that other Lebanese or foreign workers are granted, including daily and weekly rest hours, overtime compensation and annual, maternity and sick leave.

Jordan and Bahrain are the only Middle Eastern countries to explicitly include domestic work in their labor laws.

But Lebanon and Oman stand alone in the Middle East as having no laws at all governing the profession.

The lack of any legal provisions protecting domestic work comes despite Lebanon being party to the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The CEDAW Committee, which monitors implementation of the convention, in 2009 called for states to protect domestic workers under “labor laws, including wage and hour regulations, health and safety codes and holiday and vacation leave regulations.”

“Legal protections are worse here than nearly anywhere else, because there just are none,” Aya Majzoub, a Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Daily Star.

Lebanon’s lack of regulation contrasts starkly with laws in parts of Europe and the United Kingdom, for example. In the U.K., domestic workers are afforded labor protection including a minimum wage, annual leave and sick and maternity leave, and stringent health and safety regulations are in place.

The only real regulation for domestic work in Lebanon is the Standard Unified Contract, which in 2009 was made mandatory by a Labor Ministry decree. The contract - signed by the domestic worker and employer - set maximum work hours at 10 hours a day and included language on annual paid and sick leave, among other broad provisions.

However, these protections are fewer than those that would be afforded by the labor law, according to Diala Haidar, a Lebanon campaigner for Amnesty International. Haidar said it was exceedingly difficult for domestic workers to report violations and end their contracts in the case of abuse.

This stems from the fact that the legal residency of domestic workers is tied to their employers, rather than secured by an employment visa or similar document, as in many countries. Under this system, a domestic worker’s residency becomes illegal as soon as the employer terminates their contract, which opens the door to fines and imprisonment.

“[This relationship] makes it easy for employers to blackmail their domestic workers into staying with them, even in abusive conditions, in order to maintain their residency,” Haidar said.

In much of Europe, including France and Belgium, domestic workers are free to terminate their contracts at any time, without prior approval from their employer.

They can then switch to another employer or leave the country.

Tying the residency relationship of domestic workers to the government, rather than individual employers, would do a lot to limit abuse, Haidar said.

And there have been some moves in that direction in the region.

Bahrain in 2017 introduced so-called flex visa permits, whereby domestic workers can travel to Bahrain under the sponsorship of the government, and then find employment in the country, which means they aren’t tied to a single employer.

On top of the lack of legal protections, domestic workers are subject to a wide range of illegal abuses - including the confiscation of passports, withholding of wages, and physical violence - yet there are many barriers to legal recourse.

Amnesty in its report found that few domestic workers report abuses over fears their cases would not be treated fairly and the potential consequences it could pose for their residency. Majzoub said authorities showed favoritism toward employers in legal disputes.

Local newspaper Al-Akhbar reported last year that some judges were using preprepared verdicts for cases involving domestic workers with the crimes - such as “theft” - already written out. Judges were simply writing in the names and nationalities of domestic workers, the newspaper reported.

Abousleiman and Justice Minister Albert Serhan could not be reached for comment.

As Abousleiman looks to reform the kafala system, rights groups - including Amnesty and Human Rights Watch - are calling for it to be entirely scrapped, and for domestic workers to be covered by labor laws.

Abousleiman has said he is not seeking the system’s complete abolishment. “I don’t think I will come up with 100 percent of what the NGOs want, because there are other constituencies that I have to consult,” he told The Independent earlier this month. He said he was seeking to “break” what he called “dependency on the employers’ goodwill, and consent to change job.”

But Farah Salka of the Anti-Racism Movement, a local NGO active on migrant workers issues, told The Daily Star the kafala system should be abolished, and “a new just, fair, clear system should be created that safeguards rights of all parties, employers and employees alike.”

“No one should be in position of full control of another human being,” Salka said.