Tribute to “Mary” on the occasion of Workers’ Day


“I am a woman who works as a domestic worker. I’m not Lebanese and I don’t have legal papers [a residence permit]if i report to the police they will arrest me.[1]

This was the response I received from “Mary”, an Ethiopian domestic worker, when I asked her if she was considering filing a complaint against her employer for withholding the last six months of her salary and confiscating her passport. “Mary’s” response encapsulates the interlocking systems of oppression as well as social, legal and economic discrimination that trap migrant domestic workers in a web woven by the kafala system, an inherently abusive migration sponsorship system.

Without this intersectional lens, one can neither understand the reality of “Mary” nor the reasons why she does not turn to the police. Gender, ethnicity, color, class and legal status are all overlapping factors in isolating “Mary” as well as many other migrant domestic workers who find themselves socially, economically and legally marginalized by the kafala system.

On this May Day, which marks International Workers’ Day, we pay tribute to those workers who exemplify the cruelest and clearest forms of exploitation that occur when a worker is neither recognized nor protected by law. labor and is instead governed by an abusive migration system. A system that can turn a victim of exploitation into an offender for being undocumented, leaving the worker with little chance of obtaining redress. “Mary” is a good example.

the kafala system links the worker’s legal residence to the contractual relationship with the employer. If the employment relationship ends, even in cases of exploitation and abuse, the worker loses their status as a regular migrant. In addition, the worker cannot change employer without the agreement of the latter. This allows the employer to force the worker to accept abusive working conditions. If a migrant domestic worker refuses such terms and decides to leave her employer without her consent, as “Mary” did when she decided to leave her employer’s home due to unpaid wages, the worker stands to lose their residency status and therefore risk being detained and deported. The excessive powers granted by the kafala to employers hinder the ability of workers to access justice and bring perpetrators to justice. This is exactly what the kafala guarantees of the system to employers: impunity.

In Amnesty International’s May 2019 report, “Their Home is My Prison: Exploitation of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon”, we have documented consistent patterns of abuse. These included employers forcing migrant domestic workers to work extreme hours, denying them rest days, withholding or applying deductions to their wages, severely restricting their freedom of movement and communication, depriving them of adequate food and shelter, subjecting them to verbal and physical abuse and denying them health care. We have also documented some cases of forced labor and human trafficking committed by employers and recruitment agencies.

Yet none of the women interviewed by the organization reported their employer to the authorities for fear of detention and deportation.

With the economic collapse that hit Lebanon in 2019, the precarious situation of migrant domestic workers under the kafala system went from bad to worse. They were among the first to bear the brunt of the crisis, as dozens of workers were abandoned by their employers without pay, without their possessions or passports and without any employer being held accountable.

Faced with this shameful reality, the Lebanese authorities treat migrant domestic workers either as an investment made by the employer which must be protected with the interest of the recruitment agency against possible losses, or as a matter of security which authorities must control with regulations procedures and customary practices, even if they violate human rights. For example, when we wrote to Lebanon’s General Security to inquire about the legal text they rely on to compel workers to live with their employer, they described this requirement as a “precautionary regulatory measure” that protects workers of “criminal exploitation”. since “their salaries do not allow them to live independently”.[2] In doing so, the General Security restricts the right of the worker to freely choose her place of residence, making her more isolated and dependent on her employer and exposing her to a greater risk of exploitation and other abuses.

Perhaps the most striking example of the authorities’ failure to protect workers’ rights was when the state Shura Council, the highest administrative court in the country, has dealt a blow to the rights of migrant domestic workers by suspending the implementation of a new unified standard contract that the Ministry of Labor adopted on September 8, 2020. The unified standard contract included fundamental provisions which, if implemented, would provide safeguards against forced labour, and this would have been an important first step towards dismantling the kafala system.

The kafala system links the legal residence of the worker to the contractual relationship with the employer. If the employment relationship ends, even in cases of exploitation and abuse, the worker loses their status as a regular migrant. In addition, the worker cannot change employer without the agreement of the latter.

Mary, housekeeper

This decision follows a complaint lodged by the Syndicate of Recruitment Agency Owners with the Shura Council, asking the council to block and reverse the decision of former Minister Lamia Yammine. the Shura The Council ruled in favor of the recruitment agencies on the grounds that the contract involved a “serious attack” on the interests of these agencies. The Council made no reference to the rights of migrant domestic workers, which Lebanon is bound to protect under international law, but opted to protect a system that facilitates exploitation, forced labor and human trafficking .

Since April 2019, we have engaged with three successive Labor Ministries to push for the dismantling of the kafala system. We called for the Labor Act to be amended to include domestic workers as a critical reform step to protect workers from exploitation. In June 2019, as part of a working group including other human rights organisations, we submitted a revised unified contract, based on international standards, as part of a comprehensive action that outlines the reforms needed to dismantle the kafala short- and medium-term system, including the publication of circulars and/or ministerial decrees to ensure the proper application of the provisions of the unified standard contract, the strengthening of the inspection and complaint mechanism, the improvement of the level of control and inspection of recruitment agencies and the adoption of a mechanism to ensure the payment of workers’ wages.

However, we encountered one hurdle after another, the latest of which was a shocking new version of the Unified Standard Contract released in February as issued by the Department of Labour. The provisions of the draft contract do not respect basic international standards for the protection of human rights. Some of its provisions would promote the power imbalance between worker and employer and facilitate forced labour. In a meeting with the Minister of Labor on February 28, he denied that the draft had been published by his ministry and pledged not to adopt any contract that would constitute a step back for the rights of migrant domestic workers.[3]

So many promises are made, but only limited and imperfect measures to combat abuse are taken. Despite this failure by the authorities, migrant domestic workers continue their tireless fight for their rights. We will remain by their side, as allies and supporters. Winning the fight to protect and realize the rights of the most marginalized among us is a victory for all of us as workers and human rights defenders. It is a fight that is directly related to achieving social justice in our society and protecting human rights instead of fostering a web of commercial interests.

“Mary” and the thousands of migrant workers struggling under the kafala system deserve justice and dignity.

[1] Interview with “Mary” (a pseudonym used for security reasons), Beirut, March 10, 2022

[2] Letter from the General Directorate of Public Security to Amnesty International, 15 February 2019

[3] Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch meeting with Minister of Labor Mustafa Bayram at the Ministry of Labor, Beirut, February 28, 2022.

Diala Haidar

Lebanon Campaigner at Amnesty International

Feminist and human rights defender

This Op-Ed was first published in Daraj in Arabic.


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