This is a big step forward for the rights of the domestic workers in Lebanon. The first criminal case brought by a domestic migrant worker against her former employer was held in Beirut.
For almost 8 years, a 38-year old domestic worker from Ethiopia was held hostage at her employers in Beirut, reportedly abused and tortured, and forced to work 15 hours a day.
Meserat Hailu “was locked up in the apartment, unable to go out or escape as her passport was confiscated and not allowed any contact with her family for years. She was kept as a slave, tortured, and abused,” the international NGO Legal Action Worldwide (LAW) said in a media statement on October 19th.
The human rights organization LAW has been helping migrant workers in Lebanon by providing them legal assistance during their stay. It advocates for a change in behavior in the society toward migrant workers and an abolition of the Kafala system.
The Kafala system controls all aspects of the migrant workers’ stay in Lebanon.
It is a kind of sponsorship system between a family and a migrant worker that allows the sponsor to have total control over the foreign worker.
Through a signed contract, which foreign workers don’t understand most of the time since not written in their language, the Kafala has proven to be a “slavery system which makes your whole life under someone’s wishes,” LAW Lebanon program manager Fatima Shehadeh told 961News.
She indicated that “with the Kafala system, migrant workers are not included under the Lebanese labor law but only under this sponsorship system.”
The Kafala even sets no national wage minimum for migrant domestic workers, who are often subjected to discriminatory wages based largely on their ethnicity/nationality and at the whim of their employers.
“There is a gap in the Lebanese Law and this gives the right of a family to control the stay of the worker,” Shehadeh noted.
Sponsors have in fact total control over what their foreign workers do to the smallest details, making their daily life unbearable most of the time.
The Kafala even grants sponsors full authority to withhold the passports of their contracted workers, which impedes the mistreated or abused workers to break free. They can’t obtain another employment in the country or even return home.
This has caused many sufferings among the migrant workers, and some severe cases of abandonment in the streets without money and documentation, like largely witnessed last year, and even extreme cases like deaths.
The case of Meserat Hailu is the first to have ever reached court in Lebanon.
It attracted media attention thanks to the growing awareness in the country about the Kafala issue and the many actors of the civil society and NGOs working to abolish this slavery-like system.
“We hope that the case will bring light to the situation of the domestic workers in Lebanon, that it will contribute, with the huge attention from society and media, to a change in the behavior towards the migrant workers,” Fatima Shehadeh told us.
“After the society changes their views, a revision of the labor law would be possible, and we can then work toward the abolishment of the Kafala system as an ultimate goal,” she added.
The court session on this case was scheduled for October 19th but the accused employers failed to appear, and it had to be postponed to February 2nd.
If the defendants fail again to present themselves to court on that date, the lawyer representing Hailu can legally request from the judge to issue an arrest warrant against them.