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The New Arab

Foreign domestic workers in Lebanon protest abuses

Lebanon hosts more than 250,000 registered domestic workers [Getty]

Date of publication: 5 May, 2019

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Foreign domestic workers protested against Lebanon's sponsorship system on Sunday, complaining it leaves them open to abuse from employers.
Hundreds of foreign domestic workers demonstrated in the Lebanese capital on Sunday to demand the scrapping of a sponsorship system that they complain leaves them open to abuse from employers.

Lebanon hosts more than 250,000 registered domestic workers, the vast majority of them women, from countries including Ethiopia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

They are excluded from the labour law, and instead obtain legal residency though their employers' sponsorship under the so-called "kafala" system.

The protesters marching in Beirut held up placards reading "No to slavery and yes to justice" and "Stop kafala".

"We want the cancellation of this system. There are employees imprisoned in houses and they need to have days off," Dozossissane, a 29-year-old Ethiopian, told AFP.

Lebanon's labour ministry introduced a standard contract for domestic workers in 2009, but the forms are often written in Arabic, a language many cannot read.

The government in late 2018 said it had translated the contracts into several other languages.

Activists regularly accuse the authorities of failing to take claims of abuse seriously, with maids, nannies and carers left at the mercy of employers. 

'Inherently abusive'

Last month, Amnesty International urged Lebanon to end what it called the "inherently abusive" migration sponsorship system and change the labour law to offer domestic workers more protection.

A report from the rights group that surveyed 32 domestic workers revealed "alarming patterns of abuse", including physical punishments, humiliating treatment and food deprivation. 

Among them, 10 women said they were not allowed to leave their employer's house, with some saying they were locked in.

Twenty-seven said their employers had confiscated their passports.

Many worked overtime, 14 were not allowed a single day off each week, and several had their monthly salaries revoked or decreased, despite it being a breach of their contracts.

Amnesty registered eight cases of forced labour and four of human trafficking, the report said.

Six reported severe physical abuse, while almost all had been subjected to humiliating treatment and several were deprived of food.

"Sometimes I would get so hungry... I used to mix water with sugar when I was hungry and drink it," one worker said.

With the abuse taking a toll on their mental health, six said they had contemplated or attempted suicide.

Only four of those interviewed had private rooms, while the rest were relegated to living rooms, storage rooms, kitchens or balconies.

"There is a man in the house who can enter the living room any time he wants," said one worker who was forced to sleep in the living room.

Activists accuse the Lebanese authorities of being lax in bringing abusive employers to account.

Ethiopia and the Philippines have banned their citizens from domestic work in Lebanon, but still their citizens find ways to come.

In 2008, Human Rights Watch found that migrant domestic workers in Lebanon were dying at a rate of more than one per week from suicide or in failed escapes.

Many other countries in the Arab world also follow the "kafala" system for household workers.

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