Africa: Lebanon - Migrant Domestic Workers Subjected to Exploitation and Abuse - New Report

press release

Women reported being called 'donkey', 'bitch' and 'animal' - others confined to houses, with passports confiscated and wages withheld

Call for Minister of Labour to end 'kafala' system which facilitates exploitation of migrant workers

'For three years she locked me in the house. I never got out' - 'Eva', a domestic worker from the Philippines

Lebanon's new government must end the kafala system which is trapping migrant domestic workers in a nightmarish web of abuse ranging from exploitative working conditions to forced labour and human trafficking, said Amnesty International today, launching a new report and campaign.

The 37-page report - 'Their house is my prison': Exploitation of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, based on interviews with 32 domestic workers, as well as employers and recruitment agencies - shows that many of Lebanon's 250,000 migrant domestic workers (mostly women) face serious human rights abuses at the hands of their employers.

Many women interviewed by Amnesty reported being called "donkey", "bitch", "animal" and other derogatory names.

The report includes eight cases of forced labour and human trafficking, where the women could not leave their jobs and were compelled to work. Some abused women asked employers to return them to recruitment agencies or their home countries, but the employers refused. Others reported that employers demanded to be reimbursed for money spent on their recruitment when the workers asked to leave.

Sebastian, a domestic worker from Côte d'Ivoire, told Amnesty she was overworked, mistreated, locked up and not paid for three months. She said: "When I asked her to send me back to my country, she [employer] said 'You have to work for the US$3,000 we paid'."

"Eva", a domestic worker from the Philippines, whose name has been withheld for security reasons, told Amnesty that she was isolated in her employer's home for three years before she managed to escape:

"I wasn't allowed to talk to anyone. If I opened the window and waved to other Filipinas, she [employer] would pull my hair and beat me. For three years she locked me in the house. I never got out."

"Mary", an Ethiopian domestic worker whose real name has also been withheld for security reasons, told Amnesty she worked for 19 hours every day from 5am until midnight, seven days a week without a break or a day off.

At least six women told Amnesty that their working conditions had led to them having suicidal thoughts or that they had attempted suicide.

In the most serious cases of labour exploitation documented in the report, Amnesty found evidence that four workers had been victims of human trafficking. Banchi, from Ethiopia, came to Lebanon through a recruitment agency in 2011. She told Amnesty that the owner of the agency had moved her from one household to another and withheld her passport and salary for several months:

"For six months, I worked for free. The owner of the recruitment agency was giving me as a gift: once to his son's fiancée's family; another time to his daughter and her husband's family ... It is like living in a prison."

All these workers are excluded from the Lebanese Labour Law and are governed instead by the kafala system, which ties the legal residency of the worker to the contractual relationship with the employer. The worker cannot change their job without the employer's permission, allowing unscrupulous employers to coerce workers into accepting exploitative working conditions. If a migrant domestic worker refuses such conditions and wishes to leave the employer's home without their consent, they risk losing their residency status and risk detention and deportation.

Despite years of calls from human rights groups to end the kafala system, past Lebanese governments have failed to meaningfully address the abuses or provide effective remedy to victims.

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Director, said:

"The horrifying testimonies in this report show how the kafala system grants employers almost total control over the lives of migrant domestic workers.

"Under kafala, these private homes have turned in many instances into little more than prisons for workers who are often treated with breathtaking contempt or outright cruelty.

"Lebanon's new minister of labour has committed publicly, as well as directly to Amnesty International, that he will take concrete measures to protect migrant domestic workers' rights. The time has come for the new government to prioritise ending the inherently abusive kafala system."

Minister of Labour's promised reforms

In recent months, Lebanon's newly-appointed Minister of Labour, Camille Abou Sleiman, has publicly promised to take concrete measures to protect domestic migrant workers' rights. During a meeting with Amnesty last month he reiterated these promises. Amnesty is calling on the Ministry of Labour to take immediate measures such as revising the current standard unified contract for migrant workers to address the inequalities between the employer and the worker, establishing a complaint mechanism specifically designed for migrant domestic workers, ensuring the ministry's hotline for reporting abuse is fully activated and raising awareness about its existence among migrant domestic workers, as well as improving the monitoring and inspection of recruitment agencies.

Campaign launch event

A campaign event organised by Amnesty and the Anti-Racism Movement is being held in Beirut on 24 April (Beit Beirut, 6pm local time; RSVP: / + 961 81 712188), at which women migrant workers will speak about their experiences. The event marks the launch of Amnesty's new campaign "End Kafala: Justice for migrant domestic workers in Lebanon".

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