Lebanonʹs Citizenship Act complicates the situation for children of migrant workers. A child whose father is not Lebanese is not eligible for Lebanese citizenship, even if they are born on Lebanese soil. They thus live in constant fear of being deported to a country they have never visited.

Judicial failure

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) review of over 100 judicial decisions in cases where migrant domestic workers were involved concluded that the Lebanese judicial system fails to protect the rights of these workers, while security agencies do not adequately investigate claims of abuse or violence in the first place.

The situation of maids is especially dire. Many are locked inside their employerʹs house, forced to work seven days a week for up to 20 hours a day and denied any contact with their family back home. Salaries are withheld. Frequently, live-in maids have to sleep in the living room, kitchen or even on the balcony, unable to enjoy any privacy.

Emotional and physical violence against domestic workers is rampant in Lebanon. In many cases, the abuse becomes so unbearable that the women will look for any possible means of escape, such as jumping from the balcony, even if that means serious injury or death. HRW found that every week one migrant domestic worker in Lebanon dies from unnatural causes, with suicide and attempted escape topping the list. However, the actual number of deaths is believed to be higher than that.

"All those involved – from the Lebanese authorities, to the workersʹ embassies, to the employment agencies, to the employers – need to ask themselves what is driving these women to kill themselves or risk their lives trying to escape from high buildings," says Nadim Houry, a senior researcher at HRW.

In a cruel twist, those domestic workers that survive their fall from the balcony or are able to escape, are taken into custody by the police and forcibly returned to their employers, where the abuse continues.

Small victories for migrant workers

As dire as the situation is for migrant domestic workers, they have allies in a number of non-governmental organisations working on their behalf. And, indeed, together they have achieved some victories. In a rare case several years ago, a maid sued her employer who had confiscated her passport and refused to return it under the pretext that she had not yet completed her contract. The judge ruled in favour of the worker, saying that her employer denied her freedom of movement.

Hundreds hit the streets of Beirut on 24 June 2018 to protest the kafala system, which strips migrant workers of their rights and binds them to their employers (photo: Antoine Abou-Diwan)
Bolstered by civil society support: while official progress remains slow, NGOs such as the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM) provide migrant workers with a sense of community and empowerment. Legal rights and safety workshops, computer classes, as well as language tuition in Arabic, English and French are all helping to boost the confidence of domestic workers determined to change the status quo

In addition, Lebanon has finally introduced a unified employment contract for migrant domestic workers and employers, says Ramy Shukr, programme officer of the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM), a Lebanese NGO. "But rarely do employers and migrants read the contract. Itʹs not written in the migrantʹs language," he says.

ARM has established several Migrant Community Centres across Lebanon, which offer migrant workers a sense of community and empowerment. Activities include legal rights and safety workshops, computer classes, as well as Arabic, English and French language instruction. "We do believe in migrant workers and everyone [should] have political rights," Shukr says. The public is now more aware of the vulnerability and exploitation of migrant domestic workers, he continues.

Meanwhile, Lebanonʹs community of migrant domestic workers is not waiting for the Lebanese government to have an epiphany, abolish the kafala system and include them in the labour law. They are increasingly vocal, taking action themselves and routinely calling for their rights at marches and rallies.

Antoine Abou-Diwan

© Goethe-Institut/Perspectives 2019

*All names have been changed.

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