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The domestic workers resisting slavery in Lebanon

Lebanon
A Filipino worker in a Lebanese household shows a picture of her daughter, whom she hasn't seen in years. Credit: Matthew Cassel

‘I’ll give you a good young girl, so you can be sure she listens to you,’ the Lebanese broker tells us as he flicks through the pages of a large black book filled with photos of women. All their details are recorded: religion, height, weight, age and country of origin. ‘She will never need to leave the house without you,’ he assures us.

Posing as prospective employers looking for a maid, we have walked into a recruitment agency in Beirut. Business at the agency is brisk. Currently Lebanon, a country with a population of six million, has more than 250,000 migrant domestic workers. While Leban­ese families have grown increasingly reliant on this foreign workforce, overwhelmingly composed of women, the country’s employment legislation has remained purposely unregulated, allowing the exploitative system of sponsorship known as kafala to prevail.

As the Lebanese sponsor is key to the foreign worker being allowed to stay and work in the country, the control the former can exert over the latter is inordinate. Despite warnings of the dangers they face in Lebanon, many workers, often from East Africa and South Asia, cannot resist the false promises of a better future. Lebanese recruitment agencies liaise with smugglers and travel agencies in the home countries (eg the Philippines) to bring the workers to Lebanon, where they are presented to their madame.

Once handed over to their employers they are open to abuse. Lebanese law may acknowledge their rights to sick pay, for example, but few migrant workers actually see it in practice. According to The Legal Agenda, a local NGO working to defend such workers in court, 54 per cent of Lebanese employers do not give days off, with a further 23 per cent locking in their maids whenever they go out.

Challenging such practices is nigh impossible. This is largely due to the fact that workers become ‘illegal’ if the employment relationship ends for any reason – even if the employer failed to pay wages or was abusive. Consequently, abuse toward them is endemic, with a shocking death rate of two domestic workers per week.

For years local activists and solidarity organizations have been protesting against these conditions with demonstrations, general strikes and street rallies. International groups such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have released a series of damning reports, likening the kafala system to modern-day slavery in an attempt to apply pressure on Lebanon’s government to change the law.1 And while Camille Abousleiman, the Minister for Labour, says he will prioritize modernizing the labour law to start ‘treating foreign workers with respect’, he has yet to take concrete action.

A Filipino worker cleaning a kitchen in Lebanon. Credit: Matthew Cassel

Enter ‘This is Lebanon’

Sickened by the wall of silence and impunity, This is Lebanon, a small volunteer-based organization based in Canada, came up with a new tactic to achieve justice: naming and shaming abusive employers on social media.

‘Upon receiving complaints of abuse, we first contact the accused employers privately. We seek their version of the story first and try to deal with them informally,’ explains Dipendra Uprety, the group’s founder. ‘If employers refuse to reply, or to show proof of having paid wages, or don’t allow the workers to leave the house in the cases of abuse, their names get publicly exposed on social media.’

At first this tactic was simply ignored by employers. But as This is Lebanon’s Facebook page grew in popularity, it has become more effective. ‘We sort out around 50 per cent of reported cases of abuse without needing to go public,’ says Uprety. ‘But sometimes we are left with no other choice.’

Take the case of Halima, a Filipino domestic worker who began working for her Lebanese employer in 2007. Hearing nothing more from her after her arrival in Lebanon, her family tried contacting her employers through the Philippine Embassy and the local recruiting agency, but to no avail.

For 10 long years Halima’s family didn’t receive any news as she was forbidden by her employers to leave the house or use a phone.

Not knowing if she was alive or dead, the family contacted This is Lebanon, who ran a socia-media campaign against her employers, asking for her release. The campaign caught the attention of international media and finally, caving under public pressure, the family allowed Halima to return to the Philippines, albeit without payment for her 10 years of enslavement.

‘To date we have rescued 41 migrant domestic workers from abusive situations and we are working on 95 other cases,’ says Uprety. ‘We have had 1,492 workers contacting us for help over the last two years. More than five messages from workers in need land on our Facebook page daily.’

A Madagascan domestic worker sits outside the apartment she shares with other women. Credit: Matthew Cassel

Uprety, once himself a migrant worker in Lebanon, now lives in Canada under permanent protection status. He was detained for six months in Lebanon after challenging his employer for not legalizing his residency status. ‘I went to the police, reporting my employer for the abusive situation I was in. The police called him in and I was the one to get handcuffed.’

According to Uprety, This is Lebanon would have no reason to exist if migrant workers were able to genuinely access the country’s judicial system.

However, as effective as their tactics have been, they have also angered certain segments of the Lebanese public, drawing accusations of unjustly defaming employers as well as the damaging reputation of the country. Tony Khalife, a prominent Lebanese television presenter, went as far as describing This is Lebanon as a ‘mafia-styled gang organizing blackmailing campaigns to extort money from people’.

Uprety points out that blackmail and extortion rely on unwarranted demands, not on calls to stop abuse or be compensated for money owed. Nonetheless, publicly naming and shaming without a judicial verdict remains problematic, risking defamation if false claims are made. However, Farah Salka, executive director of the Anti-Racism Movement in Beirut, cautions against condemning This is Lebanon on these grounds.

‘Critics should first look at the failures of Lebanon’s non-existent legal justice system in relation to migrant domestic workers,’ she says. ‘Are all the cases on This is Lebanon’s site 100-per-cent accurate? I don’t know… But how does one really get evidence of all the atrocities that are happening in the houses around us in this country if the authorities don’t intervene?’

Intimidation attempts

The Lebanese authorities have intervened in other ways – by attempting to shut down the organization. Uprety was recently warned that a request for his arrest had been sent to Interpol after This is Lebanon reported the abuse of a maid working at the home of a high-ranking official.

The main instrument of intimidation is the Lebanese cybercrimes bureau, an agency with a flexible and ambiguous mandate, which comes under the aegis of the Internal Security Forces.

This is Lebanon’s website has been blocked many times and is currently inaccessible in Lebanon. ‘The authorities have also tried to close down our Facebook page,’ says Uprety. ‘But when we explained to Facebook what we do, they rehabilitated it instantly.’ Individual supporters have also reported intimidation. Journalist Dalal Mawad was contacted by the cybercrimes bureau a few days after sharing a This is Lebanon Facebook post, which outlined alleged abuses perpetrated by the son of a powerful local politician in Beirut. She was told to remove the post if she wanted to avoid being sued for defamation by the employer.

And Mawad is not alone. Three other people recounted to us the same experience of receiving intimidating calls from the cybercrimes bureau after sharing the same post.

Such calls are illegal. Wadih Al-Asmar, director of the Lebanese Centre for Human Rights in Beirut, confirmed that the cybercrime bureau can summon people for investigation only if requested by Lebanon’s attorney general. ‘They cannot ask for people to remove social-media posts until a judge has decided whether a post is illegal or not,’ he told us.

The strength of reaction against volunteer-run This is Lebanon is also an indicator of effectiveness. Despite their controversial tactics, they are one of the few groups who have managed to bring tangible change to the lives of migrant domestic workers while raising awareness within Lebanese society of the injustices implied in the kafala system.

According to Farah Salka: ‘If anyone has a better suggestion for bringing forth justice to domestic workers who have been violated but cannot speak up as they’re still imprisoned in those same houses where they are being abused, then let them please come forward and do a better job than This is Lebanon.’

New Internationalist issue 521 magazine cover This article is from the September-October 2019 issue of New Internationalist.
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