Civil liberties at stake for migrant domestic workers in Lebanon
In Lebanon, an estimated 250,000 female domestic workers are immigrants. Deprived of their basic rights, returning to their home country is difficult, if not impossible.
Le Journal International went to Lebanon to meet some of these women and talk to some local charities, to find out more about what seems to be a form of modern slavery.
“To earn some money”
In the early morning they can be seen at the windows of Beirut’s apartments, shaking out the blankets and pillows, still warm from the night before. Afterwards they go and sweep and clean the house before preparing their employers’ meals. They will eat after the family have enjoyed their traditional Lebanese mezze. Dishes washed, errands ran, children taken care of, dinner prepared, house tidied and more dishes done, then at last she can have a rest.
It is hard to miss the presence of these women in Lebanon, dressed in their blue uniforms, the solitary workers of so many of the country’s homes. The popularity of contracting women to work as maids is linked to an old Lebanese tradition, even if the practice has evolved over the last 40 years. Historically, domestic workers would come from poorer Lebanese families, but now the women are mainly from Ethiopia, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. It is estimated that 250,000 of these women work as migrant domestic workers in this small Mediterranean country.
Maria Salme, general coordinator of the local NGO, INSAN, explains that “these women come [to Lebanon] on their own to sign a contract, just like any other work contract. They want to earn some money and then go back home to help their family, or perhaps even help their family from here by sending back some of their monthly earnings.”
Much more than a simple work contract, the role of these women speaks volumes about the practices within the traditional Lebanese family. Perpetuating stereotypical gender roles, the domestic worker usually works under the guidance of the wife – ‘Madame’ – who is responsible for household duties. The husband normally takes care of the financial aspects, in agreement with the recruitment agency from which the worker is hired. The worker lives with her employers and her role wavers between permanent family member and an immigrant multi-purpose maid.
Putting aside the problematic issue of how indispensible the female maid has become for the Lebanese family, the worker herself is placed in a precarious position, both as woman and as a migrant worker.
The kafala: a restrictive law for immigrant domestic workers in Lebanon
The kafala system, equally present in many of Lebanon’s neighbouring countries, affects all migrant workers and consequently, all foreign female domestic workers. The kafala is an old tradition, becoming common practice over the years, without ever becoming a part of official legislation. The custom requires that each domestic worker has the right to enter, live and work in the country with the approval of a sponsor. The legal status of the female migrant worker depends solely on her sponsor or ‘kafeel’, who ensures the validity of her residence and work permit.
In concrete terms, this dependence on the employer prevents the employee from leaving the job without permission. Doing so would revoke her legal status and even risk deportation. It is therefore quite common for women to leave their jobs as domestic workers and find themselves working and living illegally in the country. Without a valid residence or working permit, they do odd jobs here and there, working illegally or ‘freelance’ to earn a bit of money. These women live in the poorer areas of Beirut such as Nabaa, sharing makeshift houses with other freelance workers. Saving what little they can, many hope to eventually return home to their native country. After years of living and working in this way in order to save money for a plane ticket, they find themselves turned away at the airport by police as they are deemed to be ‘illegal’.
Not only a risk to the legal status of these women, the kafala contributes to the idea of domestic workers as temporary residents. Even after years spent working in the country, they remain legally tied to their kafeel with no way out. In terms of social integration, the kafala is a huge obstacle for migrant female domestic workers living in Lebanese society. Granted very little independence, they are frequently the targets of discrimination. In Lebanon, they are seen as immigrant workers first, women second.
We ask a Filipina woman in her fifties, “For how long have you been living in Lebanon?”, to which she responds ironically “But I am a Lebanese citizen!”. After 27 years working and living in Lebanon, she still does not have the right to reside in any accommodation other than her employer’s home. Nor does she have the right to have children, as they would be refused legal status unless recognised by a Lebanese man.
A lack or complete absence of human rights
Beyond the imprisoning power of the kafala, migrant domestic workers also face exclusion from Lebanese labour laws. This means that these women do not have access to the same rights as the rest of Lebanon’s workers, and therefore are not entitled to, for example, a legal minimum wage.
The few rights that the migrant domestic worker is entitled to are included in the labour contract signed by them and their sponsor on employment. The document is available only in English and Arabic and contains 18 articles, which, among other things, include the worker’s right to a salary, decent working conditions, one day off per week, regular contact with their family and a return plane ticket home paid for by their employer.
Despite the existence of this contract, it is not always followed by the letter, and does not necessarily guarantee protection for migrant domestic workers.
The worrying disparity between tradition, common practice and law
The loopholes in the contract, along with the tradition of the kafala in customary law, lead to a general sense of ambiguity for the employer. Practices have developed over the years in Lebanon to become social norms, without ever actually becoming law. This grey area is one of the most worrying aspects of what is happening in Lebanon.
A study carried out by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) shows that 94.3% of Lebanese employers surveyed admit to having confiscated and kept their maid’s passport. 51.1% of employers believe they have the right to confiscate the passport, 23.3% know the contract does not give them the authority to confiscate the passport, and the remainder do not know. What these figures demonstrate is a general ignorance and lack of interest in the specific clauses of the employment contract. Generally speaking, it seems that people can get away with a lot, following an unofficial and ambiguous law. The social legitimacy given to this legal grey area is a real cause for concern.
In international law, the detention of an individual’s passport is illegal. Article 9 (no.189) of the Domestic Workers Convention (not ratified by Lebanon) states that “domestic workers have the right to keep their identity documents in their possession”.
However, this loophole in Lebanese law is allowing for such acts to be committed. The employment contract itself is vague on the subject, and does not explicitly forbid confiscation. Faced with this ambiguity, the worker’s right to access their own identity documents relies once again on the good will of their employer.
On top of this, the contract fails to include anything on the worker’s freedom of movement. Yet again, this legal grey area has led to an increase in freedom-infringing practices among Lebanese employers. According to the ILO’s study, 22.5% of employers either occasionally or systematically lock their domestic worker in the house. 56.3% of these employers believe that the kafala system gives them the right to do this, and even more alarmingly, 37.1% know that the kafala does not give them the right, but do so anyway.
The vague nature of the contract leads to these liberticidal practices becoming a part of normal tradition whilst remaining illegal in civil law. The issue lies in the kafala system itself, which greatly benefits the employer whilst not according sufficient rights to the domestic worker, leading to an excess of control and power in the hands of the employer.
Regarding this situation, the ILO urges Lebanon to abolish the kafala system and to include migrant domestic workers in labour laws. Some progress has been made on a proposed bill for improving rights for migrant domestic workers to bring them in line with international law. This would primarily be achieved through labour law reform. However, the bill is on hold. In a country faced with a Syrian crisis at the border and frequent power cuts, migrant workers’ rights do not seem to be a priority. In terms of the kafala, the possibility of its abolishment has not even been discussed. All of Lebanon’s neighbouring countries practice this system of sponsorship for migrant workers. Despite the amount of warnings from international charities, most countries seem reluctant to make any immediate changes.
If the kafala is here to stay, how can the situation of these women be improved?
While legislative change is essential to improving the state of domestic workers, work to raise awareness, both on the part of the employers and employees, can already be carried out.
The above examples of poor practice just go to show that more attention needs to be drawn to the actual content of the employment contract. If the clauses of the contract were correctly understood and applied, this would minimise cases of abuse against domestic workers. Attributing some value to the document rather than just regarding it as a piece of paper, signed and discarded without a moment’s hesitation, would help to improve the relation between employer and worker, establishing a clear code of professional rights and responsibilities.
A number of NGOs have proposed events to raise awareness of domestic workers’ rights. Empowerment and language courses also allow newly-arrived female domestic workers who arrive in an unknown country to learn these professional skills.
This dynamic helps to combat the condescending attitude towards domestic workers and helps her to demand respect and sufficient human rights. In 2012, the Lebanese Ministry of Employment, in partnership with the ILO, published an information guide for migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. Available in six languages, the guide details migrant workers’ rights in an interactive way, providing contact details for public services, charities, embassies, etc. The guide is distributed to domestic workers before they arrive in Lebanon or upon arrival at Beirut airport.
In framing the domestic worker as a professional who can benefit not only herself but also the employer by being treated fair and equally, the trust between employer and employee is greatly improved. Trust is the key: many employers admit to limiting the domestic worker’s freedom out of fear that she runs away. Employers also worry that by giving her a day off, she might leave and succumb to the influence of other, more experienced domestic workers. By instating basic rights and responsibilities of both parties, a mutual respect can be achieved. This sense of trust is important in any professional relationship between employer and employee. A proper salary, 8 hours of uninterrupted rest, one day off per week and sufficient living conditions are the foundations of any domestic worker’s wellbeing, and therefore help her to carry on with her work.
The particularity of domestic work in Lebanon cannot be ignored, with the migrant female worker living and working in her employer’s home. Creating a more professional interpretation of Lebanese traditions would reduce cases of poor practice and would help avoid misunderstandings of domestic work in general. If we still have to wait for migrant workers in Lebanon to be guaranteed the same rights as other workers, then perhaps the first step in reaching equality is to improve professional relationships and understanding.