Beirut, Lebanon – Human rights advocates hailed a recent court ruling as a milestone for migrant domestic workers’ rights, after a worker successfully sued her employer for the first time in Lebanon.
This summer, a migrant domestic worker from the Philippines sued her employer in Lebanon’s Summary Affairs Court to retrieve her passport, which the employer had confiscated, arguing the worker left before the end of their contract. The presiding judge, Jad Maalouf, found the employer had denied the worker’s right to freedom of movement, violating Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is incorporated into the Lebanese constitution.
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“To our knowledge [this ruling was] the first of its kind [in Lebanon],” said Sarah Wasan, a legal researcher at Legal Agenda, a Beirut-based NGO. In the past, migrant domestic workers have usually been defendants in Lebanese court hearings: A 2010 Human Rights Watch report found this was the case in 74 percent of 114 examined trials.
But while Judge Maalouf’s ruling was a key victory, rights groups say significant challenges remain for Lebanon’s migrant workers.
Approximately 200,000 migrant domestic workers currently reside in Lebanon, constituting about 5.6 percent of the total population. Mostly from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia, the workers live and work under the kafala system, which leaves migrant workers’ legal and visa status in the hands of their in-country sponsors and binds them to their employers.
The kafala system was first introduced at the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1991. Before the war, most domestic workers in Lebanon were from neighbouring countries, including Palestine, Syria, and Egypt, according to Ray Jureidini, a professor at the Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics in Qatar who specialises in labour migration studies.
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During the war, agencies began recruiting Sri Lankans to work in Lebanon, eventually leading to the lucrative industry that still thrives today, Jureidini said.
“Employers pay a lot of money to recruitment agencies and if [the worker] doesn’t want to work there anymore, then they lose their money … they use this as an excuse, like an insurance policy, to hold their passports so they can’t abscond [and] can’t leave without breaking the law,” Jureidini said.
Migrant workers are explicitly excluded from all existing labour laws in Lebanon, as each law begins with a statement indicating it does not apply to domestic workers. Lebanon is also not a signatory to the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Decent Work for Domestic Workers convention, or the United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.
Farah Salka, cofounder of the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM) in Lebanon, said the laws that actually dictate this sponsorship system are murky at best and are governed by several different governmental institutions, including the Ministry of Labor and General Security in the Ministry of Interior.
“There’s not one document written anywhere that says, ‘This is the sponsorship system,'” Salka told Al Jazeera.
The ambiguity of the sponsorship system, combined with the workers’ lack of legal status in the country, has created an environment in which migrant workers are vulnerable to an array of human and labour rights abuses. Cases of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse are common, along with a widely accepted practice of locking workers in houses and withholding their passports.
Lucienne, a migrant domestic worker from Madagascar that has lived in Lebanon since 1996, had her passport taken from her when she arrived in the country. After a dispute with her then-sponsor, she located her passport and fled the home. “We are human beings too. Why are [employers] holding my passport? It’s written on the passport that we are supposed to hold our own passports,” Lucienne, who now has a new sponsor that gives her the freedom to work where she wants, told Al Jazeera. “Hopefully everyone can win [their passports back], God willing … Lebanese people have to change the situation.”
right to hold on to her passport and keep it with her in her room with her other possessions.”]
Another worrying trend was highlighted last month by Human Rights Watch (HRW), in which a dozen female migrant workers approached NGOs to complain that they were denied residency renewals for themselves and their children. General Security, the agency in Lebanon responsible for residency renewals, confirmed to HRW its new policy was to deny residency renewals for “Lebanon-born children of low-wage migrants and their migrant parents”. HRW has since urged Lebanese authorities to revoke the directive, saying it “interferes with the right to family life”.
The situation has forced some migrants to leave or stay in the country illegally, meaning their children cannot attend school or easily access healthcare, and they are under constant threat of imprisonment.
A 2010 report by KAFA – a Lebanese NGO focused on gender equality and non-discrimination – examined Lebanese employers’ attitude towards migrant domestic workers, and found that 88 percent agreed the employer had the right to keep a worker’s passport “in order to prevent her from escaping“. Another 31.3 percent admitted to locking domestic workers in their houses, while 80 percent said they would not allow workers to take a day off and leave the premises.
Adel Zebyan, a lawyer at the Legal Affairs Office of the Ministry of Labor in Lebanon, told Al Jazeera that a migrant domestic worker has the “right to hold on to her passport and keep it with her in her room with her other possessions.”
But another government official, who is prohibited from speaking to the media, told Al Jazeera: “While officially [confiscating a migrant worker’s passport] is not allowed, we usually turn a blind eye to these things”.
The only legal protection that migrant domestic workers have in Lebanon is the contract they sign with their sponsor. In 2009, the Lebanese Ministry of Labor, in cooperation with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the ILO, created a standard contract for all migrant workers. The move was widely heralded as a step in the right direction for migrant domestic workers, as the standard contract outlined several basic rights, such as receiving full salary payments each month with receipts, and restrictions on the maximum number of work hours per day.
But the contract does not address issues such as withholding passports and employees being locked in houses. The contract is also only offered in Arabic, which most migrant domestic workers cannot read, meaning they often do not know what they are signing.
While the recent court ruling may set a new precedent for future rulings in cases related to Lebanon’s migrant workers, Wasan pointed out that the Summary Affairs Court does not have as much influence as higher-rank courts.
Still, “this court verdict can be used by other judges as a precedent”, she said. “There is a very new current judiciary who are starting to make a good change in this justice system.”
But Salka says the case highlights just how far Lebanon still has to go: “It’s really sad to say that in 2014, a historical moment is a judicial ruling related to returning a passport to its owner.”