Amnesty International urges Lebanon to help end domestic worker abuse

Amnesty International surveyed 32 domestic workers employed mostly in and around Beirut and said it found "alarming patterns of abuse."
Wednesday 24/04/2019
Foreign nationals working as domestics workers take part in a parade to mark May Day and to highlight their plight on May 1, 2016, in the Lebanese capital Beirut. (AFP)
Foreign nationals working as domestics workers take part in a parade to mark May Day and to highlight their plight on May 1, 2016, in the Lebanese capital Beirut. (AFP)

BEIRUT - The estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are at high risk of exploitation and abuse under a sponsorship system that places them at the mercy of their employers, Amnesty International said.

Amnesty International urged Lebanese authorities to end what it described as an "inherently abusive" system, known as “kafala,” that excludes domestic workers from the protections of the labour law.

The kafala sponsorship system subjects migrant domestic workers to restrictive rules under which they cannot leave or change jobs without their employer-sponsor’s consent, giving employers a large degree of control over workers’ lives and placing the workers at risk of exploitation and abuse.

Under that system, the workers, most of them women working as maids and nannies in private houses, obtain legal residency through their employers.

"Amnesty International is calling on the Lebanese authorities to end the kafala system and extend labour protections to migrant domestic workers," the rights group said.

"The Lebanese parliament should amend the labour law to include domestic workers under its protection," including to allow them to join unions, the group said.

A report released April 24, titled "Their House is My Prison," detailed Amnesty International’s survey of 32 domestic workers employed mostly in and around Beirut, reporting "alarming patterns of abuse."

Ten of the women said they were not allowed to leave their employer's house and some said they were locked in. Twenty-seven said their employers had confiscated their passports.

Many said they worked overtime, 14 claimed they were not allowed a single day off each week and several said their monthly salaries were revoked or decreased, a breach of their contracts.

The Lebanese Labour Ministry introduced a standard contract for domestic workers in 2009 but the forms are often written in Arabic, a language many of the workers cannot read.

The government late last year said it had translated the contracts into several other languages.

Amnesty International said it registered eight cases of forced labour and four of human trafficking. Six of the workers reported severe physical abuse and most said they had been subjected to humiliating treatment and several were deprived of food.

"Sometimes I would get so hungry... I used to mix water with sugar when I was hungry and drink it," one worker said.

With the abuse taking a toll on their mental health, six said they had contemplated or attempted suicide.

Only four of those interviewed had private rooms. The rest were relegated to living rooms, storage rooms, kitchens or balconies, Amnesty International said.

"There is a man in the house who can enter the living room any time he wants," said one worker who was reportedly forced to sleep in the living room.

Activists accused the Lebanese authorities of being lax in bringing abusive employers to account.

Domestic workers in Lebanon are mainly from Africa and Asia. Ethiopia and the Philippines have banned their citizens from domestic work in Lebanon but still some of their citizens find ways to go to the country.

In 2008, Human Rights Watch said migrant domestic workers in Lebanon were dying at a rate of more than one per week from suicide or in failed escapes.

International and Lebanese human rights organisations routinely report credible claims abuse against migrant domestic workers, including non-payment of wages, forced confinement, refusal to provide time off and verbal and physical abuse.

Many other countries in the Arab world also follow the kafala system for household workers.