Lebanon’s immigrant domestic workers remain vulnerable to abuse

Fighting to legitimize their union, immigrant domestic workers want to be protected under Lebanon’s labor laws

Miryam Kessaya is fighting for the rights of immigrant domestic workers in Lebanon. Employers of foreign workers routinely confiscate their passports, and, she has not been in possession of hers for seven years.
D. Parvaz/Al Jazeera

BEIRUT — At a meeting of domestic workers in the Wata El Msaytbeh neighborhood on a sleepy Sunday, 20 women from Asian and African countries gathered to do what seemed impossible just a few months ago: Create an action plan for a newly formed union to protect the rights of domestic workers.

In the Middle East, where domestic work is rarely classified as labor under the law, a formal proposal in late December for Lebanon’s government to form a union for domestic workers attracted international attention.

But little has changed since then, including what the women who work in people’s homes — cooking, cleaning and looking after children — say is their need for protection from unscrupulous recruiters and abusive employers.

Miryam Kessaya, 34-year-old from Ethiopia, said she wants a union because she has never felt she has any rights in Lebanon. 

“We are not humans in Lebanon. We are treated like animals or maybe a machine or a robot that they can charge to work,” she said. ”I’m not treated as a human. I’m not treated like a woman.”

Her current employer supports her efforts with the union. Most employers do not. It is common for employers to confiscate foreign workers’ passports, and Kessaya’s sponsor — the employer who originally brought her to Lebanon — took hers seven years ago. When the National Federation of Worker and Employee Unions in Lebanon (FENASOL) tried to contact her sponsor in an attempt to get her passport back, the FENASOL representative was told that the sponsor was withholding her passport in order to “humiliate her,” said the federation’s president, Castro Abdallah. 

While a worker's sponsor is often the initial employer, that person or company does not always remain the worker’s primary employer, and it’s not uncommon for workers such as Kessaya to change employers. Sponsors, can, however, hold a worker's passport and labor documents after the worker moves to a new employer.

D.H. Idrani Wijetathna, from Sri Lanka, said her sponsor has kept her passport for 10 years. Another Sri Lankan woman said she had to pay her sponsor $1,200 a year to renew her papers, which he did not do, leaving her vulnerable to deportation.

Some embassies step in to advocate on behalf of their nationals working in Lebanon, but most do not, and such apathetic responses have prompted protests by the women.

As is true elsewhere in the Middle East, including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, immigrant workers in Lebanon fall under the kefala, or sponsorship system. Under this system, immigrant laborers require a sponsor to work and remain in the country. Labor activists say recruiting agencies in the workers’ home countries and in their destination countries are complicit in the problems associated with this system.

The arrangement leaves immigrant workers almost wholly dependent on their sponsors and employers, because if they try to leave their jobs, they lose their legal status. Millions of immigrant workers across the region are employed under the kefala system or similar ones.

There are roughly 250,000 foreign domestic workers in Lebanon, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), which, along with the International Trade Union Confederation, facilitated the creation of the union by local labor activists.

Lebanon is not for lovers

Many workers like Wijetathna and Kessaya say they have felt totally subject to the whims of their employers and sponsors — a plight compounded since October 2014, when the Justice Ministry, via General Security, the national security agency overseeing immigration, issued a directive stating that Lebanese employers who bring in foreign domestic workers are responsible for ensuring that they may not have “any relationships whatsoever, be it marriage or otherwise.”

If they do, their employers — via a signed, notarized statement — are required to report them for immediate deportation.

Nizar Sagiyeh, an attorney and the executive director of Legal Agenda, a nongovernment organization focusing on legal activism and reform in the Arab world, said the directive has the effect of compelling employers to “violate the privacy of the domestic workers.” 

Employers spend roughly $2,000 to $3,000 to import a foreign domestic worker. Many of them see the workers — all of them women — as “an investment,” he said, and a woman distracted by a relationship or a child is a worker with less time or energy to make the investment pay off. 

“This [directive] will give some employers the pretext to abuse their employees,” Sagiyeh said.

“The state should encourage people to support human rights, not deny them,” he said, adding that there is no way of knowing how many domestic workers have been deported for having a relationship or a child. 

General Security spokesman Gen. Nabil Hannoun did not respond to Al Jazeera’s questions, which included a request for data on the number of deportations as a result of the 2014 directive.

“You know what’s worse than all of this?” asks Cameroonian Rose Mahi at the union meeting, referring to the abuse many workers suffer, including withholding wages, “We don’t even have the right to fall in love!” Mahi, 45, has worked in Lebanon for 17 years.

A union (of sorts)

FENASOL revised its bylaws last year, allowing it to create a union for the domestic workers in January

FENASOL’s Abdallah said the Ministry of Labor has yet to officially accept the union’s registration application and has issued a statement rejecting its legitimacy. Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi did not respond to requests for an interview.

Abdallah hopes that Lebanon, which voted in favor of adoption of the ILO’s Convention 189 (which reads that it concerns “decent work for domestic workers”), will ratify the convention and bring its laws into compliance with it. 

Even though the domestic union has roughly 400 members, a number he expects to double within the year, he said, “It’s difficult for even for Arabic workers to demand their rights, let alone for foreign workers.”

“Lebanon’s labor law is 69 years old, and it excluded domestic, agricultural and fishing labor as well as municipal employees,” Abdallah said.

Despite efforts to raise awareness and provide protection for Lebanon’s domestic workers, the situation is dire, with many committing suicide or hurting themselves in process of running away. Three died in 24 hours in April.

Manjoula, a 23-year-old from Sri Lanka, said that she informed her recruitment agency that she was being pressured for sex and threatened with murder if she didn’t comply.

“I tell the agency that my mister, he said to me, ‘If you don’t sleep with me, I’ll kill you,’ and they say, ‘Stay,’” said Manjoula, who went to Lebanon when she was 17 years old.

Her “madam” in a previous household cut off Manjoula’s thigh-length hair in her sleep and didn’t pay her for two years. 

Mary Joyce, a 20-year-old from the Philippines, was told by her employer that he would send someone from the recruitment agency to behead her if she did not agree to move with him to Morocco.

Many of the problems facing immigrant domestic workers in Lebanon spring from recruitment agencies, which can be unscrupulous or even illegal.

Mustapha Said, a senior specialist for the ILO’s regional office, said that people who want to work in Lebanon should have the option of going through their union to negotiate with household employers and the government directly rather than dealing with agencies.

Recruiters “should support international standards [requiring that] recruitment agencies not take money from the workers. [The syndicate] will deny this, but they do — they take maybe two months’ salary or more,” he said, adding that the fee paid by workers is usually based on their expected earnings. A domestic worker in Lebanon earns $200 to $300 a month.

“The syndicate of recruitment agencies should support the right of the domestic workers to organize, which they do not,” he said.

Hisham El-Bourji, the president of the 280-member Syndicate of Owners of the Workers Recruitment Agencies in Lebanon, denied that his members take fees from domestic workers, although he said the workers sometimes must pay $100 or so, which he characterized as repayment for cash advances. 

He questioned the union’s legitimacy and accused it of taking money from its members, the majority of whom he described as “illegal workers.”

Bourji said he is not against domestic workers organizing per se, but he disagrees with how their fledgling union has been established and doubts its legitimacy.

‘I ate one time a day. My madam, she pulled me like a dog. [She] treated me like an animal. When I’m at home, she doesn’t want me to wear any dress – mafi [nothing]. When my sir goes, I am in my bra and panties.’

Mary Joyce

immigrant domestic worker

Bourji said that nearly 40 percent of the agencies have stopped recruiting workers because they find dealing with the “mafia” in workers’ home countries “very dangerous.”

Women staying at a shelter for immigrant domestic workers in the mountains north of Beirut — one of several in the country run by Caritas, a Christian charity — would agree that being a domestic worker in Lebanon can be dangerous. 

They have been trafficked by unscrupulous recruiters, beaten and disgraced by employers and ignored by a system that allows it to happen. And the way things are set up in Lebanon right now, it is easy for recruiters and employers to exploit and abuse workers with impunity.

The unmarked shelter has a maximum capacity of 100 people but has at times overflowed. During the 2006 war with Israel, Beirut families fleeing the bombs often locked their domestic workers in their homes before leaving town. Many of the women jumped from balconies to escape the bombardment.

At any given time, the shelter houses no fewer than 60 women — some with children — taking English classes and getting counseling to deal with the trauma they have suffered. The women are not free to attend union meetings, and while they were willing to tell their stories, they were unwilling to give their full names.

Aieza, a 25-year-old from the Philippines, said she was tossed out of the family’s home where she worked with nothing but the clothes on her back after not having been paid for two years.

Mary, 21, from Kenya, said she was beaten and forced to work in three households instead of one.

Along with 82 other women, including Manjoula and Mary Joyce, they are at the shelter waiting for authorities to sort out their cases. Some, like Aieza, wish to work in Lebanon with a good employer. Others, including Mary Joyce, want to return home as soon as possible.

“I came here, and I didn’t know I was the product of ... human trafficking … I didn’t know anything … I came here illegally,” said Mary Joyce, who learned she was in Lebanon illegally only when she turned to the Philippine Embassy for help.

“I ate one time a day. My madam, she pulled me like a dog. [She] treated me like an animal. When I’m at home, she doesn’t want me to wear any dress — mafi [nothing]. When my sir goes, I am in my bra and panties,” she said, still visibly seething at the humiliation.

She pleaded to be sent back to the Philippines, but she said the recruitment agency told her she would first have to pay them $5,000. She managed to run away and is now waiting for the embassy to resolve her case.

“I’m never working overseas again. I’d rather stay in the Philippines to study and work,” Mary Joyce said.

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