Imprisoned, starved, abused: The plight of domestic workers in Lebanon

Imprisoned, starved, abused: The plight of domestic workers in Lebanon
'This is Lebanon' is a project founded by a former migrant worker, who seeks an end to labour exploitation of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon.
9 min read
24 December, 2019
Over 250,000 migrant domestic workers from African and Asian countries currently work in Lebanon [AFP]
When yet another coffin was delivered to the doors of the consulate, Dipendra did not even need to look to know what would be found inside the wooden box. The pattern by now had been long set. The corpse would almost always be that of a woman, one long beaten, abused and maybe even molested. 

The female body would bear the signs of hard labour, perhaps calloused knees, almost certainly hands roughened and raw. Her back and face could bear marks of lashings or beatings, her wrists could bear the sign of imprisonment.

Above all, Dipendra would have known that this woman's life had ended either because of suicide, or more likely, murder. A little while later, when that same corpse was driven out of the consulate to be sent back to its distant homeland, Dipendra knew that no one would be punished for whatever crimes that body had seen.

For fifteen years, Dipendra Uprety was a worker at the Nepalese consulate in Lebanon. In that time, he saw 42 bodies brought to the building in order to be sent home to Nepal. Almost all were bodies of Nepalese domestic workers. Almost all would have a similar tale.

A journey that started in poverty in the mountainous homeland in South Asia, one that brought them to Lebanon, on the shores of the Mediterranean, a journey that saw rampant abuse and an absence of any protection by law, which ended in death and a coffin left at the consulate. It was this procession of coffins that forced Dipendra to act. 

Modern day slavery

Over 250,000 migrant domestic workers from African and Asian countries currently work in Lebanon. The majority are women who work and serve in private households.

Originating from countries including Ethiopia, the Philippines, India and Nepal, most migrate 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.

Yet once inside Lebanon, migrant domestic workers are excluded from national labour laws. Instead they are governed instead 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 these migrant workers to their employers, who henceforth control not only the worker's salaries but also their legality to reside in the country and their ability to move and travel.

The sponsors themselves deal with migrant workers in an environment of impunity. Whatever little legal protection migrant workers – as human beings – have under Lebanon's current system remains theoretical.

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 abuse.

Human Rights Watch [HRW] found that Lebanon's judiciary fails to hold employers accountable for their treatment of migrant workers, and that security agencies often did not adequately investigate claims of violence or abuse. The chance of redress against a crime committed by an employer is almost nil.

Only once in Dipendra's fifteen years did a case ever come to court and then, the offending party was not a Lebanese national.

People smugglers and modern slavery networks have found Lebanon a ripe space for operation with the current system castigated by rights organisations for facilitating human trafficking and forced labour.

The systematic and harrowing abuse of migrant workers is now endemic with the reports harrowing. Many workers are forced to work extended hours in service of a family on only a few hours sleep.

Workers are regularly beaten and assaulted by their sponsors for minor errors, imprisoned in small rooms and banned from leaving the sponsors home. More extreme reports tell of sexual abuse and exploitation, culminating in torture and murder.

Authorities in Lebanon estimate at least two migrant domestic workers die every week from "unnatural causes". Faced with their hellish conditions – with no chance of appeal to any authority and no hope of escape – a number of these "unnatural causes" include suicides. Yet how many suicides are failed escape attempts or actual murders disguised as suicides will remain unknown with the country's authorities reluctant to pursue formal investigations.

In the absence of laws defending migrant workers' rights in Lebanon, This is Lebanon is an outlet for the abused, who come to us with horrifying ordeals and ask for our help
- This is Lebanon 

This is Lebanon 

Dipendra Uprety and his wife, Priya Subedi, were Nepalese nationals living in Lebanon when they saw first-hand the plight of migrant workers. Unable to remain passive, they opened a Facebook group named This is Lebanon in 2017.

The aim was to identify domestic workers caught up in hellish conditions and usher them to a place of safety. Thousands reached out to them. In the two years since, their actions have led to arrests and have forced a number of high-profile families in Lebanon to let their workers go. Dozens have been freed as a result.

"This is Lebanon began through a Facebook page with the goal of exposing the exploitation and gross abuse of domestic workers," volunteer Patricia, not her real name, tells The New Arab.

"In the absence of laws defending migrant workers' rights in Lebanon, This is Lebanon is an outlet for the abused, who come to us with horrifying ordeals and ask for our help."

Beginning as an informal outreach group, the organisation soon started to document the complaints it received.

"We began documenting cases in June 2018, and since then I can confirm that we have been contacted by 2,754 people," Patricia tells us at the time of the interview.

The organisation now works with a network of anonymous activists, based in Lebanon and abroad, to rescue migrant domestic workers trapped in a sponsor’s home. In the absence of any tangible legal avenue, their main weapon is to "name and shame".

"It was thought that if the abusers were named and shamed, it would act as a deterrent to others," Patricia says.

The organisation's first success story was testimony to the impunity under which migrant workers lived. A man, long complaint against, had remained free until the group decided to act.

"Our first post was the story of Joe Semaan, a Lebanese man who impersonated a policeman to sexually harass and rob domestic workers."

"There were multiple complaints against him but no legal action had been taken against him. That first post received 20,000 views and led to Joe being apprehended by the police."

Ten years a slave

Many of the cases dealt with by the group involved worker's subject to extreme abuse. For volunteer Patricia however, one case in particular stood out.

"I never forget any of the cases that come to us," she says. "But one that was the most significant for me was the one that really kicked us off, the case of Halima."

Halima Ubpah was 28 years old when she came to Lebanon in 2007, from a remote village close to Cotobato in the southern Philippines. She left behind her husband and three daughters, aged seven, five and two. With a promised monthly salary of $100, Halima left home to grind out what would be a lifeline for her and her family. None could have expected the nightmare that awaited.

Once inside Lebanon, Halima gained employment as domestic worker for Ali al-Khatib and Ibtissam al-Saadi. An advocate for Lebanese women's rights, Saadi had since 2004 taken a number of runs to stand as an MP in Lebanon’s parliament. It was in her household that Halima’s alleged decade long ordeal began. 

"Halima was locked up for 10 years inside Khatib's house and she only received one phone call from her family a month after she arrived, and that was it. For 10 years, she had no contact with her family," Patricia tells The New Arab

"Every time her husband went to a call centre to call her, Ibtissam would either say she's out of town or keep him holding on the line until his card ran out."

In a video testimony later filmed by This Is Lebanon after her freedom, Halima alleged a torrent of physical and psychological abuse she came to face.

"My madam," Halima says, tears following down her face, "for the smallest, tiniest mistake would slap me."

Abuse was followed by labour and followed by imprisonment in an unceasing cycle. Amid the physical beatings, Halima claims each of her days was spent working and cleaning up after the Khatib family. She accuses her employers of locking her up in a room to sleep every night before the start of the next day.

Salvation for Halima only came after her family – having not heard from her for over a decade – contacted This is Lebanon.

The organisation was able to secure Halima's release, and are now acting as her advocates in Lebanon's court. At this juncture, with redress for the actual abuse seemingly a long distant dream, the group is merely trying to recoup Halima's salary which they estimate to be $40,000 in unpaid wages and expenses. 

"The first hearing in the case was earlier this year. But who knows if she’ll ever get justice," Patricia tells The New Arab. "While we believe that her employers should be locked up, but we know that if Halima is lucky, she'll just get paid."

The bleakness of the economic situation means that the changes called for by rights activists to the kafala system may not be realised any time soon

US dollar shortage and Lebanon's economic crisis

Accounts of the abuse domestic workers published by This is Lebanon have garnered attention both nationally and internationally, with human rights organisation urging authorities to take action. Yet the recent change in Lebanon’s economic and political climate has brought forth both risks to migrant workers as well as glimmers of hope for change

Beginning on October 17, Lebanon's recent wave of protests against the governing system raised the potential for a reform and even abolition of the kafala model.

"The people's revolt is centred on a number of demands, most of which have to do with social justice and human rights," Dima Dabbou, MENA regional director at Equality Now tells The New Arab

"Some rights groups, already committed to an inclusive approach to human rights, are naturally calling for an end to discrimination against migrant domestic workers," Dabbou says. "But such calls are extremely limited to these few rights groups."

The same economic crisis that brought protestors to the street has however worsened the conditions of migrant works. A national shortage of the US dollar - the currency used to pay migrant domestic workers - means that many workers may not receive their salaries.

Those receiving it in Lebanon's own currency find the value they send to their families at home has significantly decreased. 

"Employers are starting to pay them with Lebanese Pounds, which are daily losing their value to the US dollar," Dabbou says. "The US dollar also stopped being available in banks and can only be bought in the black market.

"Moreover, the economic crisis is such that many employers are not able to employ domestic workers." 

The bleakness of the economic situation means that the changes called for by rights activists to the kafala system may not be realised any time soon.

"There are major problems in the country, on all levels - corrupt politics and bad governance, collapsing economy, severe unemployment, and so on," says Dabbou. "I do not see how the kafala system can become a priority anytime soon."

While the future of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon looks bleak, Patricia asserts that her group's work comes from their love for the country.

"We love Lebanon, between us we have spent over 90 years in Lebanon," she says. "All we want some legal protection for these women who are being enslaved."

Sarah Khalil is a journalist with The New Arab.

Follow her on Twitter: @skhalil1984