The Plight of the Trafficked Domestic Worker in Lebanon

Domestic workers, the majority of whom are women, make up nearly 19 percent of Lebanon's population. These workers send remittances home and contribute significantly to the national incomes of many labor-exporting countries in Africa and South and Southeast Asia. Female migrants like Abbey, profiled here, are vulnerable because of their gender and migration status. Free Speech Radio News' Simba Russeau looks at the plight of trafficked domestic workers in Lebanon, and the legal regulations that affect their situation.

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©Simba Russeau
Filipino women make up a large portion of the estimated 200,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon View Larger >

How it Begins: A Bait and Switch With Dire ConsequencesAbbey was a nurse at a French hospital in Madagascar when a recruitment agency proposed that she travel to Lebanon, to work and learn Arabic. The agency suggested to her boss that if she went to Lebanon for three years, she could better care for the Arab sailors whose ships docked in Madagascar's ports.

Abbey, who chose not to use her real name, was presented with a three-year contract that included transport to the Lebanese hospital and a salary of one thousand U.S. dollars per month. Upon arrival there, however, she was put in a house with another Madagascan domestic worker where she was forced to cook, clean, and care for three children and a newborn.

"We didn't sleep day or night; we had to be up whenever the baby cried. We didn't even have time to shower or eat during the day because we were always rocking him so he didn't cry. It was like that for two and a half years," Abbey said. From her salary of just 150 dollars a month, Abbey said she had to give her Lebanese employer money for her food. "So basically, we were working for free."

Cases like Abbey's are not uncommon in Lebanon, which is a destination of domestic laborers trafficked from Africa, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. In June, Lebanon was added to the U.S. State Department's human trafficking tier two watch list for failure to protect victims of trafficking or prosecute those responsible. Neighboring Syria is on tier three of the same list - the worst category. Lebanon's inclusion on the list for a second year could mean that Lebanon will face U.S. sanctions on non-humanitarian and trade-related aid, as well as U.S. opposition to loans and credits from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

First Deception, Then Exploitation: Changes in Legal Recognition

Since Abbey was deceived about the job she was brought to Lebanon to perform, her case falls under the established UN definition of trafficking. The UN describes trafficking as "recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force." However, this definition often proves too narrow to encompass all cases of human trafficking. The U.S. State Department's 2009 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report is more inclusive. It includes the conditions a worker is kept in, including forced labor and debt bondage. That means the situation of many of Lebanon's estimated 200,000 migrant domestic workers can also be considered trafficking.

"Women from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Ethiopia, who travel to Lebanon legally to work as household servants, often find themselves in conditions of forced labor through withholding of passports, non-payment of wages, restrictions on movement, threats, and physical or sexual assault," the TIP report states. In addition, the report said that exploitation includes the specific crimes of "involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery."

Local rights activists praised the recognition of exploitative labor conditions as trafficking. "Working on trafficking is very difficult because of the definition set by the UN, but if you simplify it you see that there are three main components: the recruitment; deception or coercion; and then that the purpose of recruitment is exploitative. This is considered trafficking," said Ghada Jabbour, gender and trafficking specialist at Lebanese NGO KAFA.

Meagre Domestic Protection

Not only do domestic workers suffer the consequences of deception and exploitation, but they remain outside the protection of Lebanon's Labor Law.

Last year, according to the 2009 TIP report, the Lebanese government reported no criminal prosecutions, convictions, or punishments for trafficking offences, a significant decrease from the 17 prosecutions reported in 2007. In fact, the Lebanese Penal Code does not specifically prohibit forced labor or trafficking. The only possibility for holding traffickers responsible for their crimes is Article 569's prohibition against the deprivation of an individual's liberty to perform a task. Commercial sexual exploitation, deprivation of freedom, and use of false documents are also criminalized in Lebanese law.

The TIP report urges authorities to investigate and prosecute claims by domestic workers who have escaped abusive employers. It also recommends that Lebanon implement the new unified contract for domestic workers created in March this year, but which rights groups say remains largely ineffectual.

Activists believe the value of the trade in domestic workers is a barrier to the enforcement of international regulations against it. The amount of money that can be made keeps political will to comply low.

"The money that is collected through domestic workers coming to Lebanon is millions of dollars per year. You have the residency fees, the visa and recruitment fees on both sides for the worker and the employer," said Jabbour. "The government takes a lot of money in the process by regulating domestic workers, and there are a lot of stakeholders. Politicians are also involved in this issue and it goes underground, which is why it's difficult to get laws to protect these women."

Living in the AftermathAbbey eventually escaped from the home she was forced to work in, and has spent the past 10 years working as a freelance domestic worker. She faces jail if she is caught by police without the identification papers she was never issued, and owes 5,000 dollars in fines to the General Security Directorate for overstaying her visa. Due to the lack of regulation on trafficked domestic workers, Abbey and many like her continue to suffer the harsh consequences of someone else's crime.


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