Will Lebanon's new domestic worker contract end 'kafala slavery'?

Will Lebanon's new domestic worker contract end 'kafala slavery'?
In-depth: Lebanon's new labour agreement gives foreign domestic workers their basic rights, but activists remain cynical over its implementation.
6 min read
06 October, 2020
Migrant workers move to Lebanon seeking employment as a way to escape endemic poverty. [Getty]
Lebanon's labour ministry adopted a new contract for migrant domestic workers last month in a bid to abolish the abusive kafala system, a move that rights activists called "a step in the right direction".

The economic crisis-hit Mediterranean country is home to at least 250,000 migrant workers, mostly women from Africa and Asia, who toil away in people's homes as housekeepers, carers or nannies.

Originating from countries including Ethiopia, the Philippines, India and Nepal, most migrant domestic workers move to Lebanon seeking employment as a way to escape endemic poverty. Back home, immediate and often extended families rely on the meagre salaries of these migrant breadwinners.

Once inside Lebanon, migrant domestic workers are excluded from national labour laws. Instead they are governed by the kafala system, a sponsorship scheme dubbed by rights groups as a form of modern-day slavery.

The kafala system ties the legal status of migrant workers to their employers, who control not only the worker's salaries but also their legality to reside in the country and their ability to move and travel. It also allows employers to withhold a worker's passport, leaving migrant domestic workers at their mercy.

The employers themselves deal with migrant workers in an environment of impunity. Despite being residents of Lebanon, for a migrant worker, the country's government, police and the judiciary are at best absent and at worst complicit in upholding the system's abuse.

Lebanon's new labour contract aims to put an end to this.

Dismantling kafala       

Announced by caretaker Labour Minister Lamia Yammine on 4 September as a contract that "ends kafala", the new agreement allows foreign domestic workers to terminate their contract without their employers' consent and to keep hold of their passports.

It offers key labour guarantees that are given to other workers in Lebanon, which previously had been omitted for migrant domestic workers. These include a limit on work hours per week, a weekly rest day, overtime pay, sick pay, annual leave and a national minimum wage.       

Some campaigners have welcomed the detailed five-page document outlining workers' rights, but say it is only a beginning.

"The significance of the new contract is that it states basic human and labour rights that were discounted in the past," Zeina Mezher from the International Labour Organization (ILO) tells The New Arab.

"The ability of the contract to protect the migrant domestic workers will depend first on the ability of authorities to enforce it, and the intention to move to a system where equality and justice are the core of any work relationship," Mezher says. 

"Until domestic work is covered by the labour law, the contract is the only legal document that guides the employment relationship. Therefore, the protection of the labour law remains a high priority," she adds.

While the new agreement seeks to end the culture of abuse, campaigners say that authorities in Lebanon need to clarify the practical steps that domestic workers can take to terminate their employment, and that the government needs to also outline steps to ensure the new contract's implementation. 

"As a first follow up step on the contract, there is a need to translate Article 13 on Termination to a practical mechanism, which explains what needs to be done in case the worker wants to resign, change employer, or return to the country of origin," Mezher says.

"The commitment of Lebanese General Security to complement the vision of ministry of labour on dismantling kafala is also extremely important."

"The ILO will support the ministry of labour in preparing official guidance to enable monitoring and compliance with the new agreement, as well as conducting public awareness campaigns and orientation programmes targeting employers, workers and recruitment agencies," Mezher says.

People have been accustomed to a certain dynamic in this sector and changing mentalities will accelerate respect of the contract's provisions
- Zeina Mezher, the International Labour Organization (ILO)

"People have been accustomed to a certain dynamic in this sector and changing mentalities will accelerate respect of the contract’s provisions," she says.

"Last but not least, there is a need to rethink the recruitment modality and regulations in a way that corresponds to the care needs in the country, to lower recruitment cost, and keep decent work at the heart of the recruitment process."

'Window dressing'

For online activist group This is Lebanon, who work closely with migrant domestic workers in Lebanon caught up in hellish conditions, the new worker contract is merely "window dressing".

The group believes that Lebanon's authorities lack the resources needed to ensure terms of the new contract are implemented.

"The ministry of labour has 15 labour inspectors for the whole country, so there is absolutely no way they can monitor and implement any of the changes they say they are making," volunteer Patricia, not her real name, tells The New Arab, questioning whether the government is serious about abolishing the kafala system.

The onset of Lebanon's economic crises, compounded with the catastrophes wreaked on the local economy both by Covid-19 and the Beirut port explosion, have hit migrant workers hard. Numerous reports from the capital tell of workers left at the doorsteps of their respective national embassies by their employers, who can no longer afford to pay their meagre salaries.

"If the Lebanese government is serious about following up abuses and making real changes, they should check on the domestic migrant workers who have been thrown out and prosecute their employers," Patricia says.

"All authorities need to do is prosecute one employer who has abused a worker to show genuine intention of change," Patricia adds.

"Until an abusive employer gets punishment and justice is given to an abused migrant worker, we cannot believe that the new worker contract is anything but window dressing."

Accountability and enforcement

Other activists believe more profound changes in society are needed to ensure migrant domestic workers in Lebanon get their basic rights.

Lebanese migrant rights group Anti-Racism Movement says that as long as abusive employers continue to get away without punishment, foreign workers will continue to suffer, even under the new contract.

"The majority of employers do not comply with the old contract and we can safely predict that even fewer employers will comply with the new one," Zeina Ammar, advocacy manager at Anti-Racism Movement tells The New Arab.

Until an abusive employer gets punishment and justice is given to an abused migrant worker, we cannot believe that the new worker contract is anything but window dressing

"The problem with the kafala system has never been the 'bad employers', but rather a system which allows any employer to get away with grave violations of human and labor rights with complete impunity."

While Lebanese politicians over the past years have paid lip-service to the protection of migrant workers, systems through which workers can report breaches and abuses remain limited.

Activists believe that the new agreement will amount to nothing without inspections and the establishment of robust systems that can bring employers to justice if violating the contract's terms.

"The contract does not put in place any inspection mechanism to monitor employers' practices," Ammar says.

"Accountability rests completely on the ability of domestic workers to access the existing inefficient reporting mechanisms through the General Security or the Ministry of Labour.

"Too many conditions need to converge to allow domestic workers to access to the information and resources required to file any kind of complaint against her sponsor: knowledge of the mechanisms, access to a phone, ability to leave the house, access to a lawyer or migrant rights organization," Ammar says. "And the verdict of such investigations is rarely just.

"The new contract does not do anything to change this system."

Sarah Khalil is a journalist with The New Arab.

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