Lebanon: Migrant workers face ignorant officials, negligent prosecutors in battle for justice


Migrant domestic workers call for an end to the slave-like sponsorship system at a labor day rally in 2012 in Beirut. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

“As for the domestic workers who go out on Sundays, what about the employer? He has children, what about their safety? What if she goes out on Sunday and is infected with AIDS?”

Thus spoke the president of Beirut’s Labor Arbitration Council, Hiam Khalil, on Friday at the release of a detailed study examining the obstacles to justice facing migrant workers in Lebanon. The joint study was released by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center (CLMC) at a workshop attended by over 70 people and held in Beirut.

The study found that negligent prosecutors, exclusionary laws and a lack of access to information are but some of the obstacles facing migrant domestic workers in Lebanon.

As the president of a council meant to settle disputes between workers and employers in Beirut, Khalil’s remarks suggested a fourth obstacle to justice: the very officials who are supposed to be helping workers.

“Domestic workers shouldn’t benefit from the labor code,” she said during a panel discussion at the workshop, adding that they should not be afforded the protection of Lebanon’s Code of Labor because they don’t pay rent and utilities.

“We are talking about a 625,000 LL ($417) minimum wage, but this would be four times their salary in their countries of origin,” Khalil added, although she failed to specify which countries she meant.

“Protection should not be given to domestic workers to the detriment of their employer’s interests,” said Khalil, referring to the workers as banat, or “girls.”

Representatives from government ministries, employment agencies, embassies and NGOs attended the workshop organized by the sponsors of the report. Some of those present voiced concern over the ideas conveyed in Khalil’s remarks.

“I wish the discourse would evolve beyond the idea that the women will go out and get infected with HIV,” said ILO senior gender specialist Emanuela Pozzan, also speaking at the panel discussion. “Domestic workers are not commodities and the way you have been talking about them makes me think you are talking about them as commodities… It’s diminishing. It’s unfair.”

“We’re going to be here in 20 years discussing the same things,” she added.

Nabil Abdo, an ILO national coordinator, pointed out that migrant domestic workers themselves were absent from the room.

“We are talking about them is if they were minors, not adults,” he said. “Even the terminology used here — they are not ‘girls,’ they are workers.”

Physical, psychological and sexual abuse

The study, entitled “Access to Justice of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon,” examined the cases of 730 Ethiopian migrant domestic workers who have sought aid from the legal assistance arm of CLMC since 2007 and found that nearly two-thirds were facing forced labor situations, defined by the ILO as any work extracted from a person under threat of punishment and without free consent.

While factors like the kafala, or sponsorship system, and migrants’ lack of awareness about their rights play a part, the report also reveals systematic judicial negligence, documenting instances when the public prosecutor declined to pursue justice for workers who were bruised and otherwise wounded. The 100-page report recommends extending labor laws to cover migrant workers and regulating employers more effectively, among other measures.

“The report constitutes a formative step towards understanding the legal and administrative challenges faced by Lebanon in dealing with the victims of exploitation and human trafficking,” said Frank Hagemann, Deputy Regional Director of the ILO Regional Office for the Arab States, in a set of prepared remarks delivered on Friday at the workshop. “Access to justice is far from a reality for migrant domestic workers in Lebanon.”

Forced recruitment, poor working and living conditions, the difficulty of leaving abusive employers, and coercive measures of restriction were among the indicators of forced labor the report examined.

More than half of the 730 workers reported working over 85 hours per week, and a similar proportion said their documents had been confiscated by employers.

While stories of domestic workers hanging themselves or leaping from balconies have always suggested an epidemic of abuse in Lebanon, the joint study brings the full picture into focus.

One in three came to CLMC escaping physical abuse, one in four were escaping psychological abuse, and one in ten of the 730 is a survivor of sexual violence perpetrated in Lebanon.

These figures, which represent only those who managed to escape their situation, are an unsurprising product of the kafala system, which places workers under a kind of house arrest at the mercy of their employers.

“There is a lack of fair laws in Lebanon which makes migrant domestic workers victims of thekafala system, which is characterized by feudalism and slavery,” said Father Paul Karam, the president of Caritas Lebanon, during his remarks at the workshop on Friday. “The kafala system has disfigured our civilized image, and our generosity, hospitality and kindness as Lebanese.”The sponsorship system is rooted in a confusing network of Ministry of Labor requirements and decrees issued by Lebanon’s intelligence agency, General Security. It forbids workers from leaving their employer’s home without permission, or from seeking a different job without their employer’s consent.

Migrant workers who feel threatened enough to leave — or “escape” — their employers can thus face civil and criminal charges, and they often do, as the study shows.

Of the 441 CLMC legal cases involving Ethiopian migrant domestic workers between 2008 and 2012, a mere 10 percent were brought with the worker as plaintiff, while the remaining cases saw workers defending themselves from charges like irregular residence, theft, prostitution and illegal entry, according to the report.

A judge anonymously quoted by the report said that exploited workers, fearing prosecution, are encouraged to not complain.

Judiciary: Negligent or actively hostile

Even workers who have successfully escaped their employers can face incredible difficulty in achieving the cooperation of Lebanon’s judiciary.

“In some cases, we didn’t understand why the public prosecutor didn’t initiate legal proceedings when notified of violations committed against migrant workers,” said Alix Nasri, a co-author of the report.

Public prosecutors sometimes declined to pursue cases against employers, even when workers had visible bruises and lesions, according to the report.

In other cases, they prosecuted the worker instead.

Tiruye Yilezu Meperia’s employer withheld $3,400 worth of wages over a period of 29 months. The employer declined to pay and the case reached the public prosecutor, who instead fined the worker 200,000 LL ($133) for holding expired documents.

Meperia was deported before the dispute was resolved, suggesting that simply reaching the courts is no guarantee of a just resolution for migrant domestic workers.

Indeed, workers are often deported before a verdict is reached, according to Sarah Wamsa, a legal researcher with the Beirut-based NGO, The Legal Agenda.

“The public prosecutor is creating a trial in absentia, 100 percent,” said Wamsa, who has separately examined over 450 cases involving migrant domestic workers.

The public prosecutor can deport a worker regardless of whether she’s the plaintiff or defendant, Wamsa added.“The public prosecutor refers her to General Security, and the Director General of General Security Abbas Ibrahim decides whether she stays in the country or not,” Wamsa said. “He personally decides. Usually the decision is that she can’t stay in the country and is deported.”

General Security sent Colonel Elie Deek as a representative to Friday’s workshop, according to report co-author Alix Nasri. Colonel Deek left 75 minutes into the five-hour workshop, and could not be reached for comment.

Deportation visits emotional and financial hardship on workers, who can be forced out of the country simply for going to the police to try to claim missing wages from their employers.

As a phenomenon, systematic deportation hinders any progress for migrant workers in Lebanon, said Wamsa, because the workers are often long-gone once the verdict is even reached.

The way forward

The report outlines three complementary approaches to improving access to justice for migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, falling broadly into the categories of legislative reform, abuse prevention and measures for winning the cooperation of key stakeholders.

Migrant domestic workers should be afforded the protection of the Lebanese Code of Labor, the report suggests. Article 7 of the Code specifically excludes domestic workers from its protective powers. As a result, the employment of migrant domestic workers is presently regulated by the private sector and General Security, with little input or oversight from the Ministry of Labor.

The report also recommends the adoption and implementation of Law no. 164 which criminalizes human trafficking, and improved judicial control over private employment agencies, which are often complicit in the abuse of workers.

Among suggestions for better legal representation for workers, the report suggests the creation of a special human rights prosecutor that workers could complain to directly.

The report argues for the adoption of a standard contract in compliance with international norms and also suggests workers be given the right to bargain collectively.

“The labor code doesn’t recognize domestic workers as workers,” said Castro Abdallah, the head of the Federation of Trade Unions of Workers and Employees in Lebanon.

“Many domestic workers have died here in Lebanon and nobody knows about them,” Abdallah added. “They should have the right to go out and the right to rest.”

“My wife gave birth to my child and our domestic worker took care of our child, our most precious thing,” Abdallah said. “They are helping us. Without her help my wife could not go back to work. We are calling for the protection of women’s rights in Lebanon.”

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