Invisible victims in Lebanon

Migrant workers in Lebanon are forced to cope with constrained conditions and little judicial support from the state.

Migrant workers
Migrant workers often come from South East Asia and are treated harshly by their employers in Lebanon  [EPA]

Beirut, Lebanon – Lebanon is home to 1.2m foreign migrant workers out of which the domestic migrant worker (DMW) population is estimated at 400,000 and almost all female. The incremental growth in domestic workers has been due to a combination of Lebanese views on social status and feminism where household chores are viewed as lowly and unworthy of middle and upper middle class wives. As these female domestic maids live in the houses of employers, they have inevitably become the most vulnerable demographic amongst foreign workers, invisible to the outside world and perceptible to abuse.

Where are the activists?

In 1998, academic Lina Abu-Habib published a paper in which she highlighted the dearth of civil society movements concerned with migrant rights in Lebanon. She noted that within the Lebanese NGO community and women’s groups, there was a general lack of interest in the topic. ‘They came here of their own free will’, ‘they would have starved to death in their own countries’, and ‘they’re stealing jobs away from Lebanese’ were some of the recurring sentiments that Lina encountered.

The country was still recovering from both the mental and physical after-effects of the civil war years resulting in indifference towards the migrant population. Large parts of the country still lay in ruins and former PM Rafiq Hariri’s economic revitalising schemes were yet to take root in society. To put it bluntly, the Lebanese was preoccupied with more pressing issues to be concerned with their new labour force. 

More than a decade later, apathy towards the plight of these workers persists where Bourgeoisie Lebanese often carry an unapologetic attitude in relation to domestic workers imported in large numbers because they emanate from countries with stark poverty. Lebanese employers often manage to ignore their maids being restricted to the kitchen, even outside working hours. But then again, in cases where these maids live in the houses of the employers, there are often no fixed working hours and the chores continue from dawn to dusk at the whims and commands of those paying. In this sense the maid becomes a purchased commodity from which the purchaser seeks maximum use.

Despite a handful of initiatives and organisations, the NGO sector and academic research still lack support from legal frameworks and government led initiatives to corroborate their efforts.

Empowering migrants

Imagine two striking Asian women, on screen, in their summer clothes and oversized shades hurrying towards the beach talking excitedly with interludes of animated gesturing. Mid stride, they come to a sudden halt. An invisible barrier seems to stop them at the steps leading to a private beach in Beirut. The frame freezes and a text appears on the screen. It reads ” 56 per cent of private beaches limit access for migrant workers”.

This is a scene from the latest video campaign by the Migrant Workers Task Force (MWTF), the most active grassroots movement one can presently find in Beirut. The initiative was started by expatriate NGO workers who could not help noticing the obvious mistreatment of migrant workers, especially of domestic maids.

There is indeed an invisible barrier that delineates a clear social distinction where an outside ‘migrant class’ is separated from mainstream Lebanese society. Alex Shams, co-founder of MWTF, could not help noticing this rampant problem.

“It seemed like this massive elephant in the room, in the sense that we have this large group of people who are systematically denied their legal human and workers’ rights as well as systematically abused by a wide cross section of members of Lebanese society, and yet no one seems to be talking about it,” he explains.

The mission of the organisation, still in its nascent phase, is a “direct and individual” approach to the endemic mistreatment of migrants workers in Lebanon. But, MWTF is only able to help those workers who are permitted to step out of the houses to which they are assigned. The unfortunate reality is that 85 per cent of MDWs do not get a single day off and hence become invisible victims.

In Alex’s experience even well educated, liberal people he knew, thought that “the Geneva Convention stopped at their front door and that locking up a woman in their house for two years was a normal or justifiable act,”

Access to justice

HRW’s latest report titled ‘Without Protection’ chronicled 114 cases of legal complaints by migrant workers in Lebanon but did not find one single case in which the employer who had confiscated the employee’s passport, confined the person within the house or denied basics such as food, was legally charged with a crime. The report also confirms that the protracted legal procedures, accompanied by “lack of judicial support for the workers, fear of counter-charges, being held in detention and restrictive visa policies” create an impossible situation for the MDWs.

Such research is evidence of a clear lack of commitment from government authorities, recruiters and employers towards changing the status quo of migrant workers socially and legally. This sense of apathy has clearly permeated the society and the system.

The vicious cycle

Based on prevalent experiences reported by abused workers, this is the typical chronology of the vicious cycle that entraps domestic help entering Lebanon. The process of systematic discrimination starts at the port of entry, where immigration authorities hand over the worker to the sponsoring ‘owner’ who is then advised to withhold the passport of the worker as a precautionary measure. If at any point during the contractual period, the worker is faced with issues such a non-payment of wages, abuse or inhumane treatment, he or she would usually take it up with the employer who is then free to terminate the contract without legal repercussions.

In cases where the worker is able to file a complaint against the employer with the police, the authorities are required to conduct an investigation, the average response time from law enforcement agencies has been 21 days. In rare instances where the case reaches Lebanese courts, the worker is faced with a protracted trial, expensive fees and little to no support from the state or the local recruitment agencies that brought the worker into the country.

At any stage of this cycle the foreign worker’s permit to remain in the country can be made null and void on the employer’s sole discretion due to a Kefala or sponsorship system that bestows disproportionate amount of power to the sponsor. ‘Sitting on the bench’ is not a legal option for workers who are in the process of challenging their employers.

‘Kefala’ – Modern day slavery?

The Kefala system adopted by some of the largest receivers of migrant workers in the Gulf states and Lebanon, has become synonymous with ‘modern-day slavery’ amongst human rights groups. Although the manner in which the system is implemented has certainly created a situation of inequity in terms of a just legal recourse for the migrant workers, it is not the system itself that is inherently racist or even unique to the Middle East. Most immigrations schemes around the world are based on the sponsor, who is usually the citizen, in need of services from a foreign worker.

The Kefala system, an official term used in Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries, is a visa scheme similar to that of temporary workers in most countries across the world. Under this system, the work permit of the MDWs is fully reliant on the sponsor/employer (kafeel) with extremely limited to no options for the migrant worker to change jobs whilst being inside the country. “Those who leave their sponsor/employer without permission from both the sponsor and the government (and for whatever reason) are immediately classified as illegal aliens and are thus subject to arrest, detention (imprisonment) and deportation.”

Research by Ray Jureidini at The Centre for Migration and Refugee Studies claims that 52 per cent of MDWs are verbally abused, 14 per cent physically abused, 7 per cent sexually violated. These figures are shockingly high and underline the proliferated nature of violations.

Legislation first or change in attitude?

“There is a systemic arrangement that creates a structural vulnerability for migrant domestic workers in the Middle East, and as such it is a human rights issue”.

Jureidini’s observation, when coupled the inherent racism that has permeated a majority of Lebanese households, calls for urgent action by local civil society and reform in the domestic legal system. The conundrum is whether societal views have shaped the current judicial process that fails to protect non-Lebanese workers or if the lack of legislation has encouraged a glaring lack of response from society and its individuals. What should lead, what should follow and what is most plausible in practice?

A viable start would be for the Lebanese courts to implement the “deprivation of liberty” act present in their penal code (also known as Hajez Huriyat) towards currently normalised practices such as confiscation of passport and restriction of movement of the worker. Protecting the migrant workers under whistle-blowers acts which enable them to voice complaints of non-payment without having to leave the country is another imminently needed legislation. As part of the next step, Lebanon could look towards neighbours such as Jordan that have incorporated domestic workers’ rights into their national labour laws that guarantee basics rights such as 10-hour work days and direct wage payments.

Others, such as Singapore, are undertaking measures to monitor abuse of MDWs and publicise cases that reach the courts. As pointed out consistently by research and reports, reforming an inherently abusive sponsorship system can be accomplished through quick and simplified resolution mechanisms. But this requires initiative from the government, change in attitude from Lebanese society, at large, and mobilisation by citizens to remedy their non-Lebanese residents’ grievances.

Why should the Lebanese care?

To begin with, understanding that domestic work does not constitute a violation of the rights of an emancipated woman is important for feminism to evolve in Lebanese society and for a more pragmatic introspection in a society where even middle class families have ‘servants’ because it is signifies an elevated social status. Reality is that many of these roles can and should be filled by citizens who remain unemployed. Certainly, the 20 per cent of the Lebanese population that lives below the poverty line could use such employment.

In the long term, as generations of foreign domestic workers continue to arrive and manage to escape from their contracts and their employers due to rampant abuse, it could lead to formation of disparate, isolated migrant communities that become microcosms within Lebanese society. This would add to the socio-psychological dysfunctionality that already exists in Palestinian camps of Lebanon, where illegal migrants, Roma and other pariah communities have increasingly sought refuge, creating ghettos and squats in the areas.

Adding to this population without representation would only increase the woes of the state of Lebanon that already struggles to provide social services to its registered citizens. In a country with a population of just over 4 million, a disgruntled demographic of over 400,000 presents a sizeable issue that needs immediate attention.

Preethi Nallu is a freelance producer/reporter based in Southeast Asia.

Henrik Andersen specialises in Middle East studies and Arabic. He studies at the School of African and Oriental Studies.