How safe are migrant workers in Lebanon?
By LB THAPA FOR THE ROAMING POST
In 2014 I visited Lebanon for the second time. I had been to this wonderful country in 2005-6; then I stayed about eight months. I would stay long but all of a sudden a bloody war between Israel and Hezbollah broke out and I had to leave the country abruptly. To live in Beirut and visiting the places of great interest was full of excitement. Moreover, the taste of Lebanese cuisine was truly a remarkable experience indeed. On top, a wide-open sea and majestic hills have made this country more special in the Middle East.
Over the years, living standard of the people of this country has vastly improved despite several years of gory civil war. Without doubt Lebanon is on the path of rapid economic development as its exports have registered a healthy growth in every passing year. Among others remittance has also occupied an important place in Lebanese economy. This year remittances inflow to Lebanon has been recorded at $7.6 billion. This has put Lebanon among the 15 largest recipients of remittances in developing economies.
This is the biggest paradox about this country. On the one hand, remittance itself plays an important role in its economy; on the other, migrant workers do not enjoy their rights more freely in Lebanon. Some past incidents of deaths of several migrant domestic workers in mysterious condition have raised more questions about the commitment of Lebanese government towards migrant domestic workers. There live over 200,000 domestic workers in Lebanon, who have come across Ethiopia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Nepal and India. The shocking news the Human Rights Watch has revealed recently states an average one migrant domestic worker dies in Lebanon every week, mostly by committing suicide. This report gets more support by a recent survey conducted by the Lebanese NGO, KAFA, that nearly 65% of migrant domestic workers have experienced physical and sexual abuse, forced labour or servitude.
“We are working with several other organizations to achieve our goal. We want no migrant domestic worker is mistreated in Lebanon. Their hard work must be acknowledged with remuneration they have been promised. KAFA is a committed organization which never shies away from its responsibilities. We work independently but also help other organizations to fight for their rights. All citizens including migrant domestic workers must live with all respect and dignity. We always watch with great caution that there should not be any violation of human rights. I am satisfied to see that today KAFA has won the confidence of many migrant domestic workers in Lebanon” said Rola Abimourched, project coordinator of exploitation and trafficking in women unit.
Sarah Chreif, community Developer at KAFA, said: “We are particularly serious about any issue related to woman. In every society women are always exposed and thus vulnerable. They have become the object of cruelty and exploitation. Take an example of any country; they are not safe in any part of the world…they are always at the risk of sexual exploitation to trafficking. It is true that we cannot fight alone, that’s why we have developed a good rapport with other organizations which fight for human rights and justice for women in general”.
It is believed, though no study has ever been conducted, there are over 17,000 Nepali migrant workers in Lebanon, among them over 90% are women. In fact Nepali government has put a deployment ban on Lebanon, despite the ban everyday about 50-60 Nepali men and women (mostly women) come to Lebanon to work as domestic workers. Most of the women coming to Lebanon to work as domestic workers are aged between 18-25 years old.
Stories we hear about domestic workers in Lebanon is not pleasing indeed. A wide range of abuses like verbal, physical and even sexual are committed against domestic workers. Complaints of confiscating of their identity documents and denying any day off have also come to light. Such cases of evil acts have eventually provoked many Asian and African countries to put deployment ban on Lebanon.
Sometime ago, Lila Acharya had managed to come to Lebanon to work as a domestic worker. She knew well about the deployment ban on Lebanon, but the agent in Nepal had convinced her that she need not to worry about anything. She flew to Singapore and from there she headed to Beirut, Lebanon, hoping a better life ahead. But it took no time for her to understand that her dream had already been shattered into pieces. She had already been trapped. Lila had to work round the clock without a day off. Moreover, she was also not paid for her hard work. But things turned bad to worse when her employer attempted sexual assaults. One day she managed to run out and asked for help but nobody could understand her language. Her employer dragged her back to the home. A few days later her body was found lying dead on the porch. It was reported that she had committed suicide by jumping off the balcony. Similarly, in 2012 a mobile video footage was leaked on media and went viral. It showed how an Ethiopian domestic worker was being dragged outside the Ethiopian embassy by her Lebanese employer and dumped into the car. The Lebanese media also aired the story. A few days later, it was reported that the victim had committed suicide. It was never known whether she had committed suicide or was murdered.
This is true that majority of domestic workers get no day off, they are trapped behind closed doors. They live in a precarious condition leading to vulnerability. For all such weaknesses, the Lebanese law has to be blamed which gives unlimited power to employers, leading to cruelty and brutality. It was this reason that some countries like the Philippines (2007), Ethiopia (2008), Nepal (2010), Madagascar (2010), and Kenya (2012) have put a deployment ban on Lebanon.
Much criticism has been made against the Sponsorship (Kefala) system. This system has given unlimited powers in the hands of sponsors. According to the Kefala system, a domestic worker becomes almost a personal property of the employer or the sponsor. The Lebanese law forbids migrant domestic workers’ freedom of movement. No migrant domestic workers can leave the house of the employer without employer’s permission. The employers are the legal custodians of the workers, and they can put their maids in confinement for years. Under such condition if a migrant domestic worker is not willing to work for one employer, legally she can’t change her employer unless and until she can prove in the court that her employer manhandles, pay no wages, or she is sexually assaulted. These are such things which are difficult, for migrant workers, to prove in the court.
The recruitment process is also controversial. The local recruitment agencies do take hefty sum from the sponsors to bring migrant domestic workers from countries which have imposed deployment ban on Lebanon. However, this ban does not pose any impediments as local agencies have already discovered safe routes to bring potential domestic workers to Lebanon. The government of Lebanon does issue working visas to the nationals, which governments have imposed deployment ban on Lebanon. This attitude of the Lebanese government has only encouraged local agents to work freely and bringing migrant workers from the Asian and African countries to Lebanon.
The ministry of labour in Lebanon has issued over 500 licenses to the recruitment agencies. These agents further work with the recruitment agents abroad and successfully bring migrant domestic workers to Lebanon from safe routes. The only complain these local recruitment agents make is that the whole things have become simply more expensive. Now the sponsors have to pay more money than before as many Asian and African counties have forbidden their nationals to go to Lebanon to work as domestic workers. Lack of labour protection has increased the vulnerability of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. This is the reason why many domestic workers have almost no protection under the country’s labour law.
To protest against the flawed migrant workers law of Lebanon, in the recent past hundreds of local activists and migrant workers both from Asia and Africa marched on the street of Beirut. They held placards in their hands that said “Give us the right to live”. The protestors gathered at the city’s Sanayeh Park, where they let loud angry slogans against ‘Kefala’ (sponsorship) system. Kefala system has given unchecked control of domestic workers in the hands of their employers. The main intention of the protest march was to draw government’s attention to abolish Kefala system.
While talking with this scribe, one of the employers agreed to share his opinion, on condition of anonymity. He thinks Kefala system is time relevant and safeguards the interest of employers. He opined: “We invest money into sponsoring the workers and we are legally responsible of them. Since we have invested so much money on domestic workers, we can’t allow them to leave us and work for somebody else. Most of the employers are very good and they take care of their maids very well. There may be a few nasty incidents but where such things do not happen”.
There are some organizations which have been doing their part of job selflessly. Among them a leading organization is KAFA (Enough Violence & Exploitation). This organization was established in 2005 by a group of multi-disciplinary professionals and human rights activists. KAFA is committed to make a society where all its citizens live free of violence and exploitation and where they have equal access to opportunities and their human rights are respected, protected and enjoyed.
Only this year a group of female Nepali migrant domestic workers have formed an organization they call it NARI (Group of Nepalese Feminists in Lebanon). They have celebrated their first anniversary of NARI on 12 January 2014 at Sabitch church, Beirut. NARI Group has been supported by KAFA.
Speaking with this scribe, the founding member of NARI, Laxmi Chhetri, said: “We have formed NARI group in 2013 and on 12th January 2014 we celebrated its first anniversary. This must be a piece of good news for everyone who thinks of the wellbeing of Nepali migrant women in Lebanon. We are guided by the spirit of justice and freedom”.
Migrant Workers Task Force (MWTF) has its office at Hamra, Beirut, Lebanon. This organization strongly believes that migrant domestic workers do not enjoy protection under Lebanese labour laws as they are vastly subjected to exploitation. This serious weakness in legal system has led gender-based and racial discrimination often resulting in migrant workers deaths.
Migrant Domestic Worker Permits issued in 2010
|Total of all work permit approvals||117941||100%|
Source: Lebanese Ministry of Labor.
In a very rare case of legal benefits in the favour of domestic worker came in 2009 when a Lebanese court ruled in favour of a Filipina woman, Jonalin Malibagu. This lady was inhumanly treated at the Philippine embassy in Beirut. If we leave this case apart, then there is nothing worth mentioning incidents that can bring little cheer in the faces of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon.
However, this scribe did also meet with several Nepali and other countries migrant female domestic workers, who said they were happy with their employers. They were having their day off regularly including other facilities promised to them. There are scores of Nepali women working in Lebanon for several years and they have no complaints about their employers.
Anju Subba is one of the active members in NARI. She came to Lebanon three years ago and since then she has not been to her home town Biratnagar. She was lucky enough to get a job at AUCE American University Beirut. Her happiness knew no bound when she met yet another Nepali girl who was working at the same University. Subba gets yearly leave with two way fare charge and this is really a good facility provided by the university. This year she has planned to go to her village in Biratnagar.
“I live here with complete freedom and I am very happy. Frankly speaking I am more than happy to work in Lebanon. I have made so many Nepali female friends and almost all of them are satisfied with their jobs. Guided by the spirit of generosity, I joined NARI and began working in a team. There are women from all walks of life who work with us to safeguard the interest of migrant domestic workers. Even local Lebanese men and women have joined our group and helping us to spread the message of NARI. I am very happy in the sense that our work has received wide recognition and this is a reward for our organization” says jubilant Subba.
Lebanon must respect migrant workers by providing legal protection. This will help developing a healthy relationship between those countries which have put deployment ban on Lebanon. Lebanese government’s positive attitude towards migrant domestic workers will certainly uplift the image of the country in the eyes of the world community. Time has come to scrape or bring necessary amendments in the Kefala system as it gives unlimited power to employers to reduce migrant workers a slave. Strict action must also be taken for forced labour and physical & sexual abuses. The Lebanese government must stop issuing work permits to the workers which countries have put deployment ban on Lebanon.
Photo captions from top to bottom: 1. Nepali domestic workers stage protest against domestic violence in Beirut, Lebanon (Phto 1&2) 2. Bodies of domestic workers lay dead on the road (Photo 3 by naharnet. com & Photo 4 by angryarab.blogspot.com) 3. A domestic worker is beaten on the road (Photo 5) 4. The body of yet another domestic worker (Photo 6) 5. She was beaten by her employer (Photo 7) 6. Yet another body of the domestic worker lay on road (Photo 8). Note: The blogger will mention the source of other photos as soon as I come to know.
ABOUT THE BLOGGER
LB Thapa is a travel blogger. He is also the author of six books. His books have been published by Nirala Publications, New Delhi, India and Himalayan Maphouse, Kathmandu, Nepal. His book, POKHARA AND ANNAPURNAS has been translated into seven foreign languages. LB Thapa’s books are also available on www.amazon.com
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