There is a new form of modern slavery, and in the Middle East it is legalized. It’s called kafala. A form of abuse against women workers, especially domestic workers, in which the state is complicit.
In Lebanon this issue concerns 250 thousand women. 65% of the country’s female workforce have experienced conditions of forced labor and slavery. They are often raped, impregnated, abused, beaten up, separated from their children, exploited, isolated, underpaid, and when they are not useful anymore, they are sent back to their country of origin by their employers. Between January 2016 and April 2017, 138 migrant workers have been repatriated after their death.
In addition to Lebanon, in Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE the Kafala is a common practice. Lebanon is the destination of many women workers, coming especially from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and the Philippines. The system requires that these workers have a “national” sponsor. Usually the “sponsor” is their employer who is also responsible for their visa and their legal status. This gives their employer great power over them.
The practice has been criticized by numerous human rights organizations. The salaries of these workers are very low, in some cases less than 200 dollars per month. One Lebanese employer out of five bans the worker from leaving the home. The motivation for this is to safeguard their investment: hiring a worker costs between 2 to 3 thousand dollars, which would be wasted if the worker tries to escape. The reasoning behind this is that a domestic worker should not have relationships out of their employer’s home, since they could be a distraction or would “corrupt” the family.
The functioning of this system is straightforward: women workers willing to migrate for work contact agents located in their country. These agents have relationships with agencies located in the countries the women would be travelling to, which can organise to sponsor workers in exchange for money. A lot of money. The women often run up debt, in the hope of attaining a new life. That is how they end up as slaves.
Aisha, 20 years old, is originally from Ethiopia, arriving from Addis Abeba. She was able to save herself because she seeked help from the NGO “Immigration Community Center”. We meet her at the office on Mar Mitr street, in the center of Beirut. She was wearing a short black skirt and a t-shirt with the writing “I love Paris”. She has already experienced harm at the hands of men. Aisha worked for a family in Beirut, and had come to Lebanon with high hopes.
“I dreamed about a normal life. Instead, I was cheated – she says looking down. They treated me worse than an animal. I used to work from 14 up to 16 hours a day. They didn’t feed me. They beat me up, they humiliated me. They didn’t pay me. They forced me, and on the rare occasion when I was allowed to rest, I slept on the balcony. It was a nightmare.
Lynn is 40 years old and comes from Philippines. She has bleached hair and colored nails, a bit like Lebanese women. she came from Manila. She has been in Beirut for 20 years. She was a girl when she arrived. Joking, she says that during these years she “learned Arabic, as the “madame” of the house wanted to speak only Arabic”. «Before I came to Lebanon I lived for a few months in Saudi Arabia – she says – There I used to work in a hospital, then they moved me to Beirut, they told me I would stay here for just 6 months. I have been here for 20 years».
She says that in the house of the family she is still working for “everything is controlled through cameras and recorders. At home I do all the work, I take care of all the family members. During the weekends we move to the mountains. There I grow marijuana to be trafficked. But I cannot mention it. I”m forced to stay quiet and accept everything. Working for those people is worse than working for the Mafia.”
The situation is the same for hundreds of women workers, so institutions and NGOs are getting busier trying to stop exploitation and violence. At the front is the European Union, Caritas Lebanon, ILO (International Labour Organisation, the NGO Kafa (Enough) and the Migrant Community Center. Ghada Jabbour, the director of Kafa, explained that these women workers are often “trapped”, they undergo “physical and sexual violence, they are isolated, they don’t eat, they work in the houses of every member of the family and are not paid for their work.”
According to Zeina Mezher, national project coordinator of ILO, this is simply forced labour. “They are forced to work for a predetermined person, they are confined to the house, they don’t have a social life and cannot find another job. ILO is working so that the Lebanese government can sign a protocol condemning the forced labor in our country.”
But there is no time to waste, as related cases of suicide are becoming more and more frequent. This is confirmed by Farah Salka, director of the Migrant Community Center: “Many try to escape and die jumping into the void. One month ago an Ethiopian women worker jumped off the balcony of her employment agency and died.” At the beginning of June another Ethiopian women was found dead in the city of Belida, in the South of Lebanon, hanging from the branch of a tree near her employers house with a small chair next to her. For those who do manage to escape, most of the time they are arrested. There have been 337 arrests in April alone.