Lebanon crises increases suffering of migrant domestic workers

    CountriesBangladeshLebanon crises increases suffering of migrant domestic workers
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    Lebanon crises increases suffering of migrant domestic workers

    Around 250,000 women migrant domestic workers in Lebanon from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and the Philippines earn as low as US$ 150 a month and work under slave-like conditions.

    The civil war in Syria and other political tensions in the Middle East hurt Lebanon’s economy. A World Bank report released in June 2021 warned that the country was facing an economic crisis, calling for reform of its “bankrupt economic system”.

    The Lebanon crises has increased the suffering of around 250,000 migrant domestic workers from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Philippines and Ethiopia. They carry work permits and earn as low as US$ 150 a month. The salary largely depends on the workers’ nationality, their experience and their language proficiency.

    These women migrant domestic workers (or WMDW) have been among the worst impacted by the recent economic crisis in Lebanon. Many have been left without a job. But those who remain in work are subject to Lebanon’s infamous “kafala” or sponsorship system. The system has been likened to modern slavery because it puts the women at the mercy of their employers.

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    “The recruitment agencies and employers treat us as if we are human commodities!”, one worker in Beirut says. “Sometimes I am beaten and denied food. But I cannot choose to work somewhere else, or go back home because of my contract. My employer said ‘I bought you. Pay me US$ 2,000 and then you can leave wherever you want.’”

    Kafala system

    The kafala (or sponsorship) system emerged in the 1950’s to regulate the relationship between employers and migrant workers in many countries in West Asia. But it has turned into institutionalised exploitation.

    Migrant workers brought to the country to work under the kafla system cannot terminate their work contract without the consent of their employer. The system gives employers almost complete control over workers’ lives, and makes them vulnerable to all forms of exploitation and abuse. Their stay in the country becomes illegal if and when they escape.

    Once they enter the system, the workers’ most basic human rights – such as the right to work specific hours; the right to keep personal documents such as a passport or residence card; and the right to rest, move freely, communicate with friends and family, and enjoy other personal freedoms – are thrown to winds, not respected, according to human rights sources.

    The kafala system makes workers increasingly vulnerable to abuse. Workers sign a standard employment contract available only in Arabic language. Their owner, or kafeel is entitled, by a customary system, to cancel WMDW’s residency and deport them without prior notice. The kafeel is also entitled to change employment conditions, leaving the worker with no choice but to surrender to unfair terms of employment. This entitlement of the kafeel is also used to justify lowering of their wages and deficient living conditions.

    The kafeel covers travel costs, medical insurance and residence permits, and is the legal guardian of the worker. The country’s labour law do not contain adequate provisions to guarantee the basic human rights of WMDWs. On the contrary, the government practically generates, facilitates and foments the abuse of kafala workers.

    Where do WMDW come from?

    Lebanon is a middle-income country and one of the top nations relying on WMDW with over 250,000 WMDW working in private households. The largest proportion of WMDW comes from Bangladesh, the Philippines, Ethiopia and Sri Lanka, with the great majority being recruited through recruitment agencies.

    The recruitment of Bangladeshi workers has the lowest cost, as the travel costs are often deducted from their salaries. The recruitment of Filipino workers has the highest cost, as they are smuggled through Gulf countries after the ban that the Philippines had established against domestic work in Lebanon, a 2017 research study notes.

    Researchers have documented instances of injuries and psychological trauma among Sri Lankan WMDW returning home and documented widespread complaints concerning confiscation of travel documents and restriction of movement.

    Edited by Khushi Malhotra

    Image: IOM/Muse Mohammed.

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