Push back against Lebanon’s kafala system gains traction
By: Rana Harbi
Published Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Lebanon’s civil society and humans rights organizations are taking an unyielding stand against Lebanon’s notorious kafala (sponsorship) system that reinforces the status of migrant domestic workers as victims of human trafficking and forced labor.
Human rights organizations are determined to put an end to a wide range of human rights violations experienced in Lebanon by more than a quarter of a million migrant domestic workers – about five percent of Lebanon’s population.
According to a report by the rights organization KAFA (enough) Violence & Exploitation, titled, “Dreams for sale: The Exploitation of Domestic Workers from Recruitment in Nepal and Bangladesh to Working in Lebanon,” and published on September 8, most migrant domestic workers are coerced to work and live in conditions that rarely match what deceptive recruitment agencies in their home countries promised them.
Upon the workers’ arrival, the kafala system – which puts far too much power in the hands of the employer-sponsor – traps them in exploitative situations as they forfeit any legal status if they decide to leave their workplace.
Recruitment agencies: where the journey of abuse starts
Private recruitment agencies in the workers’ countries of origin and placement agencies in countries of destination have complete control over the recruitment process. This starts with providing the employer and the potential migrant worker with credible and accurate information and includes facilitating the necessary logistical arrangements.
According to KAFA’s report, migrant domestic workers “are deceived [by the recruitment agencies] about their work and living conditions in Lebanon.” For example, six percent of the migrant domestic workers surveyed said “they were promised different jobs such as security guards, secretaries, hospital or hotel employees, or freelance workers.” While 81 percent of those surveyed were “promised a specific salary,” 53 percent of them received “a lower amount.”
Moreover, “important information is either hidden from workers, or brokers and agents provide them with false or misinformation.” About 84 percent of the surveyed were “not informed about the working hours, 78 percent did not receive any information about weekly days off … 64 percent did not possess any information about the employer’s household … [and] 61 percent did not know whether or not they would be allowed to get in touch with their families.” Shockingly, 82 percent “felt they were forced to work,” and 88 percent said they would not have come to Lebanon “had they fully known the reality.”
Moreover, recruitment and placement agencies impose exorbitant fees on the workers, leaving them with debt which, as stated in the report, “considerably reduces the bargaining power of migrant domestic workers regarding their work and living conditions.”
The majority, 63 percent, of the surveyed workers took loans at usurious interest rates, ranging between $100 and $1,000, to cover their recruitment expenses.
Throughout its experience addressing domestic workers rights, KAFA repeatedly recommended the introduction of bilateral and multilateral agreements that calls for the immediate implementation of a standard contract for domestic workers, drafted in both the languages of the employer and the worker, which also includes details on the recruitment and placement processes and the living and working conditions of migrant domestic worker. Bernadette Daou, a program coordinator for migrant domestic worker issues at KAFA, told Al-Akhbar English that KAFA has been trying to engage the Syndicate of the Owners of the Workers Recruitment Agencies in Lebanon in all of the studies related to migrant domestic workers in the hope of a mutual cooperation that can ultimately lead to positive reforms. However, the syndicate hasn’t always been responsive.
“Even though we invited the head of the syndicate and other recruitment agencies to the workshop we had regarding this report, nobody showed up,” Daou said. “Nevertheless, the syndicate expressed its readiness to cooperate and discuss different ways we can address the violations committed by private recruitment agencies.”
“In order to limit exploitive practices by agents and brokers, the role of the governments in managing the recruitment and placement of migrant domestic workers must be reinforced,” Daou added. “The Lebanese, Bangladeshi, and Nepali governments should closely monitor the work of placement and recruitment agencies to ensure they are respecting the existing regulatory framework.”
The kafala system: the face of “modern day slavery”
The existence of the recruitment agencies, and how they function would not have been possible without the kafala, or sponsorship, system.
Due to that, migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are bound strictly to their employers, which in turn heightens the risk of physical, emotional, and at worst, sexual abuses for workers.
“KAFA outlined the main problems arising from the kafala system and suggested recommendations for how the entire process, introduced in the 1946 legal code, could be revamped,” Daou declared. “The removal of the sponsorship system would allow for increased rights for the domestic workers.”
As the report reveals, none of the domestic workers surveyed by KAFA knew of the impact of the kafala system on their lives. In addition to the kafala system, migrant domestic workers are excluded from Lebanon’s labor law, which reinforces the potential for abuse and exploitation and denies them basic rights and privileges provided for by the labor law.
“If a domestic worker leaves her sponsor – even under abusive conditions – she automatically loses her legal status and is at risk of being detained and deported,” Saadeddine Shatila, Human Rights Officer at al-Karama Foundation told Al-Akhbar English. “Having broken her work contract, she not only loses her ticket to a flight home but also her passport and other forms of identification,” Shatila added.
In terms of abuses, the report shows that 62 percent experienced “verbal abuse,” 36 percent were subjected to “physical violence such as beating, pushing, slapping, hair pulling, stick or belt beating, biting and hair cutting,” and 10 percent claimed “sexual violence such as unwanted sexual advances, molestation, or rape.”
About 77 percent of those surveyed worked “at least 14 hours a day and were denied rest periods during the day.” Ninety percent were prohibited from “going out alone,” while 91 percent were “denied the right to a day off.”
Moreover, 50 percent were “locked inside the house,” and 43 percent were “not allowed to contact their families.” About 60 percent of the surveyed workers did not have “a private place to sleep” and 32 percent were also “denied other rights, such as to medical treatment, or to take sick leave.”
When it comes to salaries, 50 percent of those surveyed said that their wages were not paid on a “monthly basis” and 40 percent stated that their employers “deducted the equivalent of three months of their salaries.”
Putting an end to injustices: “We are on the right track”
The KAFA report was unequivocal about what needed to be done. It stated:
“[U]ntil a political decision is made to establish government-to-government agreements to regulate the recruitment and placement processes, cancel the kafala system, and grant migrant domestic workers full legal protection, including the inclusion of domestic worker under the Labor Code.”
In an attempt to put an end to these injustices, KAFA introduced a draft proposal to replace the sponsorship system for migrant domestic workers in Lebanon in 2012.
Similarly, then Minister of Labor Charbel Nahhas introduced major amendments to the Labor Law, but they were not adopted for “bureaucratic reasons.” Both KAFA and the former minister asserted the need to include domestic workers in the labor law and recommended a contract for employers and their workers whereby salaries are paid into a bank account monthly, a measure that will serve as a proof of payment. Ongoing dialogue and discussion sessions are being held between KAFA, and other rights organizations, with the Ministry of Labor regarding a Standard Unified Contract that grants domestic workers basic rights such as the right to a weekly day off outside the house and the right to terminate the contract in case of abuse,” Daou stated. “We believe we are on the right track and many employees at the Ministry of Labor are cooperating.”
So far, the amendments are yet to be adopted.
For migrant workers, the road to justice is long and complex but not impossible. A recent, joint report published by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and Caritas, the largest service provider for migrant workers in Lebanon, stated that migrant domestic workers’ “quest for justice has been delivering results” even though the process is still “slow and challenging.” According to the joint report, titled, “Access to Justice of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon,” the first time a Lebanese court ruled in favor of a migrant domestic worker was in 2005. The judge ruled for the payment of approximately $330 to a migrant domestic worker, legally represented by Caritas, who was found to have been abused and exploited by an employer in the Bekaa Valley.
Since then, many domestic workers in Lebanon have taken their cases to court. Today, compensation for abuse and forced labour can reach up to $20,000.
“We are on the right track to making access to justice a reality for all migrant domestic workers in Lebanon,” Joseph Aoun, a lawyer at Caritas, told Al-Akhbar English.
“Ten years ago migrant domestic workers weren’t even allowed to file a complaint, now Lebanese courts are ruling in favor of many migrant domestic workers.” Aoun said Lebanese courts are starting to differentiate between migrant domestic workers who escape their employer because they want to stay in Lebanon illegally and those who escape because they are abused and exploited.
“In the past, migrant domestic workers seldom managed to seek legal redress and compensation because they, under the kafala system, become illegal resident simply by leaving the workplace without the employer’s consent,” Aoun explained. “Now things are slowly starting to change and in recent cases those who have escaped abuse didn’t lose their legal status and were able to file a complaint.”
A recent example occurred in August 2014. Caritas managed, after seven years, to get a ruling in favor of a Filipina domestic worker, named Jennifer, who was forced to leave Lebanon without her wages because she refused to renew her contract. An An article by ILO about Jennifer’s case stated that Jennifer decided to “fight the kafala system” and “take her case to a Lebanese court.” Seven years later she won the case, something “that would have seemed impossible to achieve a mere decade ago.” Jennifer’s landmark ruling and other similar rulings,in ILO’s opinion, are “trickling down through society, slowly changing how many Lebanese perceive migrant domestic workers and their rights.”
“Access to social protection and legal recourse is of high importance,” Daou said, echoing the sentiments of ILO’s conclusions.
“Caritas, KAFA and other rights organizations have been working closely with a great number of lawyers and judges to ensure justice is in reach of all migrant domestic workers across Lebanon.”
Overall, human rights organizations and activists have succeeded in highlighting the plight of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, and pressured modest changes both in court and parliament. Despite these results, as groundbreaking as they are, the road toward justice for these exploited workers remains far.
Rana is a staff writer for Al-Akhbar English. Follow her on Twitter: @ranaharbi