The plight of migrant maids working under the "Kafala" system in Lebanon has been made more stark by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Some foreign governments are promising to repatriate some women, as soon as flights restart.
"I wanted to make a living for my children," says Halima simply in a video, when asked why she decided to travel to Lebanon to work as a maid. That wish was denied her according to the campaign organization "This is Lebanon" which publicizes some of the alleged abuses which happen under the so-called Kafala (or ownership) system of domestic service in Lebanon and across the Gulf states.
This is Lebanon interviewed Halima in 2017 and say that although she worked for ten years for one family, she was only able to wire money home once at the beginning and once at the end. So essentially, they say, she worked as a slave. It is a charge the family deny. Luckily for Halima, she survived to tell the tale. Campaign organizations say that some are not so lucky. They estimate between one and two migrant women a week die in Lebanon, many through suicide.Abuses under the Kafala system
Halima's story highlights one aspect of the abuses that the Kafala -- or ownership -- system has been inflicting on migrant domestic workers for years. Halima alleges she was frequently beaten by members of the family she worked for, locked in her room and made to clean without gloves until her fingernails turned black. Now with the Lebanese economy in free fall and the currency devaluing, the risk is that many more might find themselves in a similar position to Halima. Their salaries reduced or withheld and with no passport (which is usually held by the employer or agency), unable to return home.
InfoMigrants Arabic recently interviewed migrant domestic workers in the Lebanese capital Beirut. Many complained that their employers had begun to pay them in Lebanese Pounds which meant they were unable to send the usual amounts of currency home. Others testified to the fact that because the Lebanese Pound had devalued so much against the dollar, their salaries had dropped in real terms from around €267 to €44 a month overnight.
'Trapped in a giant Lebanese prison'
One woman from Ghana told the InfoMigrants Arabic reporter she felt like she was in "a giant Lebanese prison." Stuck working for signifianctly less money but unable to leave and go home. Two other women from Ethiopia said for the last two months they had been unable to send anything home and had had to leave their employers to find work in a company.There are an estimated 250,000 migrant women in Lebanon working as maids under the Kafala system. Until 2017, Halima was one of them. Like many who arrive, Halima is illiterate, says This is Lebanon. Halima is from the southern Philippines and a “conservative Muslim.” They learn just enough Arabic to follow commands in the house but are often unaware of their rights.
Halima says that when she was interviewed by Philippine embassy staff or asked about her treatment by the family for which she worked, she said what she had been "told to say." She continues in a video, her eyes downcast: "I did whatever she [her employer] told me because if I didn’t," she said, "she would kill me."
Halima says she was locked in her room every night, unable to go to the toilet and was forced to "relieve herself in her room." She was also, the organization alleges, prevented from contacting her family for ten years. When she left the Philippines in 2007 her daughters were two, five and seven years old. Her husband managed by taking "any legal job I could get," to provide for the children whilst she was away but the sadness and worry etched on the faces of all of the family show it was a struggle."For the smallest tiniest mistake she would slap me," says Halima about her employer, before showing scars on her body which she says were inflicted by other family members.
Towards the end of May, another Filipino maid Jenalyn Banares committed suicide at a shelter run by the Philippine embassy in Beirut. She was waiting to be repatriated to her country after she lost her job during the restrictions placed in the country by the novel coronavirus lockdown.
According to the Thomson Reuters foundation, "foreign governments are [now] scrambling to organize repatriation flights for thousands of migrant domestic workers stranded in Lebanon." This is Lebanon reported other girls sending messages to them saying they couldn't hold out much longer because they were "locked in with their abusers – some of them being sexually assaulted."
"All we can say to them," one worker at This is Lebanon told Thomson Reuters, is "wait wait, the airports will be open soon." International human rights group, Amnesty International has published several studies and articles about the Kafala system. In March, they released a statement calling on the Lebanese government to "ensure migrant workers rights are protected," during a review of the Kafala system.
Kafala systemThe system, says Amnesty, "ties the legal residency of the worker to their contract with their employer." What happens in practice is that when a worker arrives in the country, on flights paid for by their prospective employer, they enter a form of bonded labor. Often their passport is taken away from them and their salary, working hours and working conditions are determined by that employer.
In April, Al Jazeera published an article and a video from Temitope, a Nigerian woman, who said she was beaten by her employer after they discovered she was calling her family back home. According to the Al Jazeera report, the mistreatment started after she refused the sexual advances of her employer's husband. They took her phone away and things started to turn nasty.
According to Al Jazeera, after being hit in the mouth, Temitope scaled the wall from the family's apartment and ran to a Nigerian activist in Beirut who provided a safe house for her. Despite her treatment, she says she has to stay in Lebanon as she needs to work.
On call 'seven days a week, 24 hours a day'
Many migrant domestic workers in Lebanon originally come from Ethiopia. An organization working in Beirut and campaigning for their rights is Egna Legna. According to their website they are "non-religious, non-political, community-based, feminist activists, working on migrant domestic workers' issues and general women's issues in Lebanon and Ethiopia."
Between 2017 and 2019 the organization says it has provided help to 25 women who were running from abusive employers and were rendered homeless. In total they say they have helped over 5,000 women by providing legal advice, shelter, clothes, food, money and information. Some of the women they have helped have been able to return to Ethiopia, others have stayed and continued work in Lebanon, but with more information to demand their rights are respected. Many domestic workers say they are on call "seven days a week, 24 hours a day," and that racism and racist attitudes towards them is a daily occurrence. Filipinos tend to be paid slightly more per month than sub-Saharan Africans, but that is if they receive their wages at all. A migrant community center set up to help some women who have managed to flee their employers said that part of the problem is that what happens in people's houses in Lebanon is considered a "private matter." Many employers say to the maids that they are "part of the family," making it difficult to seek recourse to justice.
According to This is Lebanon, the Lebanese government has been turning a blind eye to the system for years. Legislation to enforce higher wages, rest days and more rights would put the employment of such women beyond the means of Lebanese families, and so the situation is allowed to continue.
Conditions worsened by coronavirus
Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted in March 2020 that with the COVID-19 pandemic, things got even worse for many migrant workers. "Many employees reported that their employers slashed their salaries," as the Lebanese Pound depreciated. "That's if they paid them at all," comments HRW.
Even before the pandemic, the Lebanese economy was shrinking. HRW reports that the Philippine embassy in Beirut already had 1,000 women register for its free repatriation program in December because they had lost their jobs.
In another HRW article published in April, the overwork expected of many of the domestic workers has driven these migrant women to "exhaustion, illness, depression and some to suicide."As Lebanese people too lose their jobs, HRW fear that some families will make these workers "work harder," and "delay or withhold their wages. Some may reduce workers' food while prioritizing their family members."
InfoMigrants Arabic also interviewed employers and agents. Although they didn’t admit to any abuse, they said they had been forced to reduce their employee's salary and confirmed that with the lockdown they needed these women to work but that they could no longer really afford them. Under the system, employers are also responsible for paying for the employee to return home.
With frayed tensions due to enforced enclosure, job insecurity and children no longer in school, the risk of violence to these women increases, writes HRW.
'I prefer it when they don't have children'
"I prefer it when they don't have children," says one Lebanese employer Aghsan in a radio report to the German national braodcaster Deutschlandfunk Kultur. "Those who have children often start crying after a while, they want to visit them. They think they can come here for a bit of time and then just go, but it doesn't work like that here," she says.
Ethiopians earn about $200 a month( €178), recounts the Deutschlandfunk Kultur report. Indonesians and Filipinos about $300 (€267) but all earn less than the Lebanese minimum wage set at $450 (€401) per month.
The agent who supplied Aghsan with her Ethiopian domestic worker Zola tells the radio reporter "the most important thing is to hide their passport and work permit. You have to make sure they can't leave the house while the contract is still running. The first six months you just shouldn’t leave them alone in the house. You need to make sure they don't speak to anyone else, especially not other domestic workers. Then they might want to leave, or they might ask for a free day or want to telephone someone."
'Lying dead on the floor'
Back in the Philippines, Halima, with tears in her eyes, looks pained. She did have a small amount of contact with another domestic worker, she says, an Ethiopian who was working for the son of her employer. She told me she was "suffering a lot," says Halima. The next time she saw the Ethiopian girl was when she was lying dead on the floor, "her head fractured her legs lacerated."
According to Halima's testimony, she was brought to the house to act as a witness, in case the police questioned the son about how the maid died and asked if she was murdered. The son, said Halima, told her on the way to his house that the maid died jumping from the second floor of their apartment.
In the video, Halima's children are also crying. Along with their father they made an appeal to get their mother home. One of her younger children has to pull her head scarf repeatedly over her eyes to wipe the tears before saying that she hopes her mother's former employer goes to prison for what she did. Sobs judder through her body as she recalls how she was forced to grow up with no contact to her mother.
Repatriation This is Lebanon estimate that her employers owe Halima over $44,000 (€39,000) for her years of service. The family she worked for deny any mistreatment. The mother is an aspiring politician and a women's rights activists, they have provided video and photographic evidence of taking Halima out with them to family birthdays and singing for Halima on her birthday. "All lies," says Halima quietly. They only did that when they knew I was already going home.
According to Thomson Reuters Foundation, an Ethiopia-bound flight left Beirut on Thursday, May 28, carrying 340 Ethiopian nationals. The cost for this flight, posted on the Ethiopian embassy Facebook page, were set at about $680 per person plus the cost of a 14-day quarantine on arrival in Addis Ababa. Far greater than the money earned per month by most of these women. The Nigerian embassy in Lebanon told Thomson Reuters that 69 Nigerian women, 50 trafficked girls and 19 stranded women already flew home on Sunday, May 24. The Filipino embassy said that all "165 nationals staying at its facilities" would eventually be repatriated too.