Slavery Revisited: The Foreign Maids of Lebanon

Slavery Revisited: The Foreign Maids of Lebanon

The recent incidents of Ethiopian maids being dumped by their employers yet again reveals how Lebanon’s unregulated Kafala system affects people of colour.

“We didn’t come from a dumpster. We have to go back home.” the young Ethiopian maid Lomi said while being filmed by BBC News.

“We are not garbage to be thrown out like that.”

Like Lomi, dozens of penniless Ethiopian maids were dropped outside the Ethiopian embassy in the Lebanese capital Beirut earlier this week.

Their employers have fired and abandoned them, citing financial constraints. The embassy shut its door in their face. They ended up spending the night on the nearby pavement.

Lebanon is simmering with anger and desperation and the country is caught in a spiralling economic crisis. Since last October, the currency has lost 70 percent of its value, sending the prices of even basic items through the roof and causing widespread unemployment.

The worst economic turmoil since the country’s 1975-1990 civil war, has sparked an unprecedented street movement against a political class accused of corruption, incompetence and taming sectarian attitudes.

The coronavirus-related economic crisis may be the reason for the mistreatment of domestic workers, and in most cases, those who come from impoverished African countries are usually at the receiving end of such behaviour.

But at closer glance, it’s a structural issue deeply embedded in violent and abusive slavery-like kafala system, which still exists in Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East.

Before coronavirus was only known to doctors in labs, dehumanising migrant workers and inflicting violence upon them was a practice deeply entrenched in the Lebanese society.

On March 13, 23-year-old Ghanaian domestic worker, Faustina Tay, sent a desperate text to the group of activists for help as she was suffering from physical abuse at the hands of her Lebanese employers.

“God please help me,” she wrote.

On the same day, she was found dead in a parking lot under the fourth-storey apartment where she used to work. It became clear that just days before her death, Tay sent dozens of texts and voice messages to human rights activists and her brother in Ghana, describing in detail how she was physically and mentally abused.

Last April, a Facebook “for sale” post sparked outrage on social media. Lebanese man Wael Jerro posted a passport photo of a Nigerian domestic worker on the popular Facebook page, “Buy and Sell in Lebanon,” which is used to trade items like home appliances, clothes and shoes.

“Domestic worker of African citizenship (Nigerian) for sale with a new residency and full legal papers,” wrote the Lebanese man in the post.

“She’s 30-year-old, active and very clean,” he continued, listing the woman’s price as $1,000.

Such incidents of inhumane treatment and blatant violation of human dignity, are neither the first nor the last in Lebanon. In fact, they are just the tip of the iceberg that is the kafala system.

“Modern-day Slavery”

Stemming from an archaic feudal concept, kafala (or sponsorship) system ties the legal residency of a migrant worker to their employer. The system gives excessive power to employers, making workers vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. The employers have an unchecked authority to terminate the employment contracts on a whim.

In contrast, migrant workers have no right to end the agreement. If they flee their abusive workplace out of desperation, they automatically become undocumented and expose themselves to the risk of detention, deportation or even death.

The system is a widespread problem in Lebanon as around 250,000 migrant domestic workers, mostly from African countries, work in the country which is populated with fewer than 7 million people.

Camille Abousleiman, Lebanon’s former labour minister, has called it “modern-day slavery”. Diala Haidar, a Lebanon campaigner at Amnesty International said the system is “inherently abusive”.

“Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are trapped in a web woven by the system,” Haidar told TRT World.

In its 2019 report, Amnesty International revealed significant and consistent patterns of abuse. Haidar said the abuses Amnesty documented “included employers forcing workers to work extreme working hours, denying them rest days, withholding their pay or applying deductions to it, severely restricting their freedom of movement and communication, depriving them of food and proper accommodation, subjecting them to verbal and physical abuse, and denying them health care”.

The numbers seem only to support Amnesty’s findings of physical abuse, or worse. In 2017, Lebanon’s own intelligence agency, General Security, said that two migrant workers die every week in Lebanon. Many of the deaths are suicides or failed escape attempts from the abusive workplaces in which migrant women choose to jump off buildings.

But where does the Lebanese law stand on this? Well, it doesn’t seem to be on the side of abused domestic workers as yet.

The Lebanese Labor Law explicitly excludes domestic workers -both migrant and local- and denies them basic protections enjoyed by other workers such as minimum pay, workplace safety, maximum working hours. Hence, the only legal document is the contract which gives enormous power and full authority to employers.

“The Kafala system is what prevents migrant workers from being included in Lebanon’s labour laws,”  Joey Ayoub, Lebanese researcher and writers told TRT World.

Ayoub said, “The priority of subsequent governments has always been to maintain the Kafala status quo.” Hence “the Lebanese government is actively complicit in the Kafala system,” he said.

The system of prejudice

“The Kafala system created an entire hierarchical structure in which migrant bodies could, essentially, be traded for cheap or free labour,” Ayoub said.

The unregulated and exploitative kafala system produces stereotypes and prejudices about the African and Asian workers.

Patricia, a caseworker at the migrant protection group, This is Lebanon, says the system has created a culture of xenophobia, racial superiority, sexism, and classism, which allows employers to think migrant workers are “inferior” or “subhuman” and they are their righteous “owners”.

“The system justifies racial and class discrimination, often leading to apartheid-style societies, where social interaction between migrant workers and the local citizens is frowned upon, and where each of them lives in separate segregated spaces”, Patricia, who uses a pseudonym for her safety, told TRT World.

Normalising discriminatory practices nurtures racist attitudes, allowing people to mock migrant workers and to use racial slurs and racist depictions.

As the murder of George Floyd has prompted a worldwide discussion on racism and racial injustices in the US, the Middle East is no exception to it. Lebanon in particular has a lot to do to overcome discriminatory practices against black and brown migrant workers. For many rights activists, dismantling the kafala system could be the first step.

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