Suing Kafala: Lebanon's modern-slavery system goes on trial for the first time in Ethiopian worker abuse case
After being locked in a room and forced to work against her will in Lebanon for over eight years, an Ethiopian domestic worker is finally getting her chance to achieve justice against her former employer and alleged slaver.
On Thursday, “MH,” a pseudonym given to the 40-year old Ethiopian domestic worker, brought criminal charges of slavery, slave trading and forced labour against both her former employer and recruitment agency.
"The landmark case is the first time in Lebanese history that a foreign domestic worker charges an employer with slavery"
One defendant, Dr May Saadeh, a Lebanese orthodontist, appeared in court but asked for an extension to select a lawyer, which the judge granted. The other defendant, Matta recruitment agency, failed to appear. The next hearing is scheduled for 31 March 2022.
|Dr May Saade exits the Baabda Court 10 February 2022 [Matt Kynaston]|
The landmark case is the first time in Lebanese history that a foreign domestic worker charges an employer with slavery.
MH’s legal team argued that the conditions she was kept in and the fact that she was treated as a piece of property by her employer constitutes “the intent to reduce MH into a situation of slavery”.
In addition, they argued that both the employer and the recruitment agency that brought MH to Lebanon engaged in slave trading, in part due to the fact that the agency lied about what the true conditions of her employment would be.
The legal team is seeking monetary compensation for MH and 15 years in prison for both defendants.
For MH, the case is a chance for her to achieve a glimmer of salvation for the “nightmare” that she endured in Lebanon.
“I thought about jumping from the balcony window, but it was so difficult. If I jumped, I was scared I would kill myself. I had the plan, but I didn’t have a way to get out,” MH said.
MH was not only forced to work, against her will and without payment for seven of the eight years she was in Lebanon, but also endured “verbal and physical abuse” at the hands of her employer.
"Both the employer and the recruitment agency that brought MH to Lebanon engaged in slave trading, in part due to the fact that the agency lied about what the true conditions of her employment would be"
The alleged abuses committed against MH by her employer include confinement, lack of mobility, violence and threats of violence, and not being able to eat without the consent and presence of her employer, Fatima Shehadeh, the Lebanon program manager at Legal Action Worldwide (LAW) which is representing MH, told The New Arab.
MH’s case also has potentially huge implications for the roughly quarter of a million migrant domestic workers in Lebanon and the legal framework which underpins their stay in the country.
|Kenyan women, employed in Lebanon as domestic workers, gather next to the Kenyan consulate in the capital Beirut on August 20, 2020, as they demand to be repatriated back to their country [Getty]|
Lebanon uses the Kafala system to regulate migrant workers in the country, which requires them to have a sponsor and ties their residency status to their employer. The system allows employers to have almost complete control over foreign domestic workers.
Should MH’s case succeed, Shehadeh says it could “open the door” for other migrant workers in Lebanon to start asking for their rights. Further, the case will “highlight the widespread and egregious crimes committed under the banner of the Kafala system.”
The “ultimate goal of the case is to abolish the Kafala system,” Shehadeh said, adding that she hopes it will raise awareness in Lebanese society about the suffering and abuse migrant workers are exposed to.
Justice as a restorative process
For years, MH’s family had no idea about her whereabouts. One day, she stopped communicating with them – and they feared the worst.
Years later, they managed to reach out to other Ethiopian domestic workers in Lebanon, inquiring about MH’s whereabouts. Through the efforts of a network of Ethiopians, she was located and it was confirmed to her family that she is still alive.
"The reason we don’t see a sufficient number of legal cases is that they’re not empowered to speak”
Finally, in the fall of 2019, MH was repatriated to Ethiopia and allowed to return to her family. Still, despite being freed from her hellish confinement, her journey to achieve justice is not over.
“I am hoping to get my rights – it’s very important to me to get justice,” MH said.
The process of reaching justice for survivors of abuse can often be an “empowering” one, Antonia Mulvey, the founder and executive director of LAW, told The New Arab.
“Justice is a long journey, and many of these victims and survivors have been so brutally affected that you need to… empower them to be able to speak up,” Mulvey said. “The reason we don’t see a sufficient number of legal cases is that they’re not empowered to speak.”
Mulvey, who has worked as a sexual-gender based violence investigator for the UN fact-finding mission in Myanmar in the past, described how she often saw a transformation in her clients. First, the clients are victims, then they are survivors, then finally, they become advocates, Mulvey explained.
Elements of MH’s story are unfortunately common in Lebanon. Migrant domestic workers, the vast majority of them female, are often subject to abuse, including sexual and physical violence, abusive working conditions and unpaid wages.
Impunity is generally the modus operandi for employers who abuse their domestic workers.
Last month, while covering the Kenyan migrant workers protesting outside their consulate in Beirut for their right to be repatriated, The New Arab witnessed a car-ramming attempt, leaving a few of the workers lightly injured. The Kenyan women claimed that the car was driven by an employer looking for a migrant worker who had apparently escaped and was hiding in the consulate. Police witnessed the event, but the alleged employer was not caught nor punished for the assault.
Despite the frequency and severity of abuse of migrant domestic workers, they rarely get the chance to receive compensation or justice for abuses endured while in Lebanon. In large part, this is due to how heavily the legal system is skewed to employers and the lack of resources available to domestic workers.
|Gambian migrant workers protest in front of the consulate of Gambia in Beirut on August 20, 2020, asking to be evacuated from Lebanon and be repatriated to their country [Getty]|
LAW also argued that MH’s treatment was also an instance of gender-based and race-based discrimination – male migrant workers have separate visa categories and are not required to live with employers, women (including MH) are uniquely exposed to abuse.
Further, the group argued that salaries and discrepancies in expected and real wages are often based on race in Lebanon, meaning MH would not have had the same treatment as Lebanese or other races.
Kafala in Lebanon, getting worse, not better
Rights advocates celebrated in September 2020, after the former Lebanese Minister of Labour agreed to pass a unified labour contract for migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. The proposed contract would have allowed workers to terminate the contract rather than waiting for employers to do so, and given workers enhanced access to justice.
However, the unified labour contract was never implemented, as the State Shura Council blocked its adoption of the contract after the Syndicate of Recruiting Offices sought an injunction.
Since then, the issue of working conditions for migrant domestic workers mostly dropped off the policy agenda in the face of Lebanon’s economic and political collapse.
"The new labour contract audaciously violates basic human rights in favour of the vested interests of a handful of 'traders' embodied by the recruitment agencies in Lebanon"
Just two weeks before MH’s trial, however, it was revealed that a new version of the labour contract was being worked on behind closed doors.
The new labour contract “audaciously violates basic human rights in favour of the vested interests of a handful of 'traders' embodied by the recruitment agencies in Lebanon,” said Kafa, a Lebanese NGO working to end discrimination against women.
The new proposed contract, among other things, removes the ability of the domestic worker to terminate the contract, does not allow the worker to leave the house without their employer during their first three months of their stay in Lebanon, reduces the amount of medical care they are entitled to, reduces break times they are entitled to, and allows the employer to keep the workers’ passport.
Advocates described this contract as a large step backwards with regards to migrant workers’ rights in Lebanon.
William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean. William is also a researcher with the Orient Policy Center. Previously, he worked as a journalist with Syria Direct in Amman, Jordan.
Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou