Lebanon: Abandoned migrant domestic workers must be protected

The Lebanese authorities must protect migrant domestic workers trapped in the country after being sacked due to the intensifying economic crisis, Amnesty International said today.

In recent weeks, dozens of Ethiopian women have gathered outside the Ethiopian Consulate in Beirut. Some have been abandoned by their employers, without pay, their belongings, or passports. The Ministry of Labour is responsible for enforcing the unified standard contract, which guarantees migrant workers the right to their wages and accommodation. 

These women are among the most marginalised people in society
Heba Morayef

“These women are among the most marginalised people in society, and are bearing the brunt of the economic crisis which was exacerbated by COVID-19,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s MENA Regional Director.

“The Lebanese government cannot ignore their plight. Under the kafala system, not only are their rights restricted but their lives are endangered as well, particularly as reports of abuse in the home have increased during confinement.

“The Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Interior must work together to promptly investigate, and to avoid this unfolding crisis developing further.

“They must immediately provide accommodation, food, healthcare and other support to the migrant domestic workers who have lost their jobs.” 

Amnesty International is calling on the Ministry of Labour to create a labour inspection unit specifically designed to monitor the working conditions of migrant domestic workers so that they can act promptly in the event of breach of contract by employers. The Ministry of Labour should also create a rapid-response labour dispute mechanism, to ensure workers receive their unpaid salaries and that employers pay for their ticket should the worker wish to return to their home country, as per the contractual arrangement.

Ethiopian domestic workers make up the majority of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. According to Lebanon’s Ministry of Labour, a total of 144,986 Ethiopian domestic workers held new or renewed work permits issued to them as of November 2018. However, this figure does not account for the thousands of undocumented Ethiopian domestic workers in the country who lack work permits.

Abandoned by employers

Amnesty International interviewed 10 Ethiopian domestic workers on 28 May. Some reported that their employers had stopped paying them and refused to provide them with tickets to return home, as stipulated in the unified standard contract which is designed to protect domestic workers’ labour rights.

Makda*, 21, has been sleeping on the pavement outside the Ethiopian Consulate after her employer left her there with her luggage, against her will.

She said: “She [employer] didn’t pay me my last salary. She also said she cannot pay for my return ticket. She dropped me off here yesterday. The police officer saw me crying. He asked me for madam’s number. He called her asking her to come back and take me. She came back only to give me my passport and identity documents and she left again. I don’t know what to do. I want to go back home.”

Martha*, 21, has been sleeping on the pavement for six nights.

She said: “My madam said she doesn’t have money and cannot pay my salary. I told her I don’t want my salary, but buy me my return ticket – she said she cannot. I want to go back to Ethiopia. I decided to leave the house and come here to the consulate, but my passport is with her. The consulate is not helping me.”

On June 1, a Ministry of Labour official told Amnesty International they were unaware of cases of workers being abandoned by their employers and made homeless. They promised to immediately investigate the matter.

Stranded undocumented workers

Amnesty International also interviewed five undocumented workers who were waiting to register at the consulate for repatriation and are unable to pay for a flight back to Ethiopia. One said: “I have no money and no work. How can I pay the US$680 for the return ticket?”

Despite repeated requests, the Ethiopian Consulate refused to comment on whether they are providing cash assistance or accommodation and other support for the undocumented workers.

On 15 May, the General Directorate of General Security, which falls under the Ministry of Interior, announced that the “voluntary repatriation” process of Ethiopian and Egyptian migrant workers would start on 20 May. Amnesty International wrote to the head of General Security - who is legally mandated to monitor the entry, residence and exit of all foreigners in Lebanon - on 18 May, enquiring about the timeline for this process, whether it covers both documented and undocumented migrant workers, as well as migrant domestic workers in detention, and what mechanism existed to ensure that these workers receive their unpaid salaries before they leave. The organization is yet to receive a reply.

Amnesty International is calling on the Ministry of Interior to publicly announce the details of the repatriation process, and work with the relevant consulates and embassies to assist those documented and undocumented migrant workers who wish to return to their countries to do so.

Background

Lebanon is home to more than 250,000 migrant domestic workers, mostly women, who come from African and Asian countries and work in private households. Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are trapped by the kafala system, an inherently abusive migration sponsorship system, which increases their risk of suffering labour exploitation, forced labour and trafficking and leaves them with little prospect of obtaining redress.

In a report published in April 2019, ‘Their House is my Prison’: Exploitation of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon, Amnesty International found consistent patterns of abuse including employers forcing domestic workers to work excessively long hours, denying them rest days, withholding their pay or applying deductions to it, confiscating their passports, severely restricting their freedom of movement and communication, depriving them of food and proper accommodation, subjecting them to verbal and physical abuse, and denying them health care. Amnesty International also documented some extreme cases of forced labour and human trafficking.

In March 2020, Amnesty International contributed to the consultation to revise Lebanon’s Standard Unified Contract for the Employment of (Migrant) Domestic Workers. Amnesty International is calling on the Minister of Labour to ensure that the revised draft includes provisions that address the current inequalities and power imbalance between the employer and the worker, and other restrictive aspects of the kafala system.