Labour migration

Edging closer to justice: The journey of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon

One migrant domestic worker in Lebanon decided to fight the “kafala” system and escape her employers. She took her case to a Lebanese court, and, seven years on, has been rewarded by achieving a measure of justice, a feat that would have seemed impossible to achieve a mere decade ago.

Article | 15 August 2014
An unidentified house maid from Sri Lanka woking in Lebanon
© Anwar Amro / AFP
BEIRUT (ILO News) – After witnessing war first-hand during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in July 2006, Jennifer, who wishes to withhold her family name to protect her identity, did not want to renew her contract to work in Lebanon as a migrant domestic worker.

She said she no longer felt safe in Lebanon. And instead of the US$ 200 a month promised her by a Philippine recruitment agency, the family which employed her only payed her US$ 150. In addition, her employers kept a large part, on the understanding she would receive the full amount at the end of her two-year contract.

For many of the migrant domestic workers living and working in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region, employment, working and living conditions promised them in their home countries rarely match reality in the host country. The ILO estimates that there are 600,000 forced labour victims in the Middle East.

“I just wanted to go home,” Jennifer said. She decided that as soon as her contract finished early the following year, she would return home to the Philippines. When she told her employers she did not want to renew her contract, however, they insisted she had to remain.

The majority of migrant domestic workers in the Middle East are bound by the “kafala” system, which ties workers to their employers, restricting the workers’ ability to move freely, terminate their employment contracts or change employers.

“I told them I would to go to the Philippine embassy,” said Jennifer. Even then, they held on to her passport, a common practice in the Middle East, where the “kafeel,” or sponsor, takes all the migrant domestic worker’s identity documents.

“I went anyway. I went out and asked another domestic worker where I could find the embassy. She gave me directions, and I just walked and walked,” said Jennifer, speaking to the ILO by telephone from her hometown of Vintar in the north-western Philippines, where she now works as a teacher.

The Philippine embassy took Jennifer in for two weeks, and arranged for her flight back home. But after many months of arduous work in Lebanon, she was forced to leave without her unpaid wages.

Although this was the end of Jennifer’s ordeal as a migrant domestic worker in Lebanon, it was the start of her long journey to achieving justice through the Lebanese judicial system.

New report

A new report published in June by the ILO and Caritas, the largest service provider for migrant workers in Lebanon, analyzed the main obstacles migrants face on their journey to justice. Entitled ‘Access to Justice of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon,’ the report found that for the estimated 200,000 migrant domestic workers in the country, achieving justice is far from being a reality.

“Under the Lebanese law, a migrant domestic worker has the right to file a complaint in front of the judge or the police, and the right to a fair trial, like any other Lebanese citizen. But in practice, very few cases are ever resolved through the judicial system and this report tried to find out why,” said Alix Nasri, ILO researcher and co-author of the report.

The report explains that, for migrants workers like Jennifer, the road to justice is a long and complex one fraught with many barriers. These range from their exclusion from protection under Lebanon’s Labour Code, to the difficulty of establishing proof of maltreatment, the marginalization of migrant domestic workers exerted by various stakeholders including the judiciary, and a lack of awareness among migrant workers of legal procedures.

Nonetheless, Caritas says significant progress has been made in the past decade.

Lebanon is on the right track to making access to justice a reality for migrant domestic workers."
Before she left Lebanon, Jennifer sought help from Caritas volunteer lawyer Antoun Hachem. She hoped he could help her recover her outstanding wages.

The first time a Lebanese court ruled in favour of a migrant domestic worker was in 2005. Then, a judge ruled for the payment of 500,000 Lebanese liras – around US$ 330 – to a migrant domestic worker, represented by Caritas, who was found to have been abused and exploited by an employer in the Bekaa Valley in south-eastern Lebanon.

Since then, many domestic workers in Lebanon have taken their cases to court. While it is a slow and challenging process, their quest for justice has been delivering results, and the consequences of these landmark rulings are trickling down through society, slowly changing how many Lebanese perceive migrant domestic workers and their rights. Today, compensation for abuse and forced labour can reach up to US$ 20,000.

This month, seven years after speaking to Jennifer at the Philippine Embassy in Beirut, Hachem finally had some good news. Caritas had managed to get a ruling in her favour, and the wages her former employers owe her have now been transferred to her.

The ILO believes these landmark rulings show that Lebanon is on the right track to making access to justice a reality for migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. The journey can be further strengthened, the ILO maintains, if Lebanon recognizes these migrants as workers under the labour law, and takes urgent action to improve the legal and institutional mechanisms for accessing justice.