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The law of fortune

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On modern slavery, denied rights and the fate of thousands of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon: an inside story

The first precaution she asked of me was to change her name to Sarah: despite my commitment, and my assurance that the recording of the interview will only serve to quote her words – to protect her, avoiding misunderstanding the meaning of her story – she, however, doesn’t seem to trust me. And every time when talking about herself she escapes the promise of anonymity, breaks her vow, she hastens to correct herself, “Sarah, not me,” and I assure her, once again: don’t worry, your identity is safe. The title of this story, given this one detail, could be: Layers of fear of a migrant domestic worker in Lebanon.

She doesn’t even want to reveal the name of the village in Madagascar from which she comes, and which she left, without sadness, fifteen years ago now. According to her, of the approximately twenty thousand women hired in Lebanon as domestic workers and coming from the East African island, she, frightened Sarah, nameless Sarah, is the only one to come from that specific village. I immediately ask her if men have also emigrated from the homeland for which she doesn’t seem to feel nostalgic. “Only three, that I know of,” she replies.

The same number of men she left behind: a husband and two children. No mention of father and brothers: family, in Madagascar, is a relative concept. After marriage you forget the one you came from and are completely absorbed in the one you acquired. Par alliance, as they say in French: a betrayed alliance, ça va sans dire. After Sarah left for Beirut on April 20, 2009, her husband left the two children with their grandmother – the older one born in 2004 and the younger one in 2005. It is still unknown what happened to him. “He didn’t even get in touch about the divorce,” she admits, and without bitterness. “So, to this day, we are simply separated.”

Of the men in her previous life, Sarah only has one left – the little Carol – after the eldest, Mickael, just nineteen, was killed last November. Stabbed in a fight. He had insisted on moving to the city, no father to stop him, despite being told, several times, that it was dangerous. Having ended up in criminal circles, a gang of thirteen-year-olds beat him until he fainted, a knife in the naïve fury of one of them proclaimed his death. Sarah shows me the photo of the corpse, without crying, but clearly full of anger: she was unable to return home to the village for the funeral. The title of this story, as the details accumulate, could also be: Unjust law forbids mother from burying her son.

I interview Sarah in the space of the house where I have been renting a room for a few months, I am awkward in my gestures, I offer her a date, a cup of coffee, but she only accepts a glass of water: she helps herself, and when she has quenched her thirst, she seems about to wash it, by inertia. Despite being my mother’s age, 49 in a few months, she persists in calling me madame, and then corrects herself: miss. “Valeria,” I insist. An Italian name, a distant country; we break the ice with translation exercises: but her desire to learn is soon replaced by a submissive attitude – and the first word she asks me to translate is “apologies.” Possible title for this story: Sarah apologizes for doing nothing.


Chronicles of a slavery

If all goes well, Sarah will be able to leave for Madagascar in a few months. She wants to be close to Carol, the youngest son, who is left alone: ​​there is no way to take him with her to Lebanon without a guarantor. Before leaving, she made the owners – whose empty and illuminated apartments she weekly cleans – promise her to be replaced only temporarily, until she returns, before next autumn begins, when the families will come back from the summer holidays: someone, it seems, still travels for leisure, even in Lebanon. In the worst-case scenario, her documents will not be compliant, and she will be forced to wait up to fifteen years before she can leave her home country and travel again to Beirut. Accepting to work as a slave to guarantee a future for her remaining son, to pay for his studies. In both cases, she tells me, it is the law of fortune that governs: there is not much that can be done to convey it, except praying.

Unpredictably, the law of fortune insured Sarah in the last tumultuous fifteen years of her Lebanese life, sometimes rescuing her from risky situations, sometimes seriously endangering her safety. Her first job’s attempt, in the spring of 2009, lasted two weeks. The sponsor, as they call the protector, the patron, the owner, controlling master, has never paid her. She lived with him, Lebanese, and with his Syrian wife, in one of those immense apartments in buildings too high for the smell of the street to reach – where she couldn’t go out except to quickly attend to some business, buy the missing soaps in the house, or accompany the madame to do the shopping. They gave her a piece of bread to eat which she held with her right hand, while she didn’t stop polishing the stove with her left: if she stopped, she says, they would threaten to fire her. And so, a bite of the sandwich, a swipe of degreaser, she heard herself called, Sarah, there’s coffee in the fireplace, clean it up immediately. And she, determined but always polite, always with her head down, “one moment, I’ll finish here and get there.” The time she received a slap, right in the face, she decided to quit and return to the office to be placed with a new family. “I’m not a child and I wasn’t one then,” she repeats confidently, her head proudly raised, at last.

The second job was even worse. The attempt lasted three days, naturally unpaid. The master, the monsieur, a dentist: Sarah had an abscess and he offered to visit her, free of charge. And with her immobilized by the mouth opener and the cold dental forceps, paralyzed by his gloved hands, she reluctantly, without consent, and with violence, received a strong kiss on the mouth. The madame who was watching them from the cameras confronted Sarah and forced her to leave. Title: It’s always the victim’s fault.

The third attempt lasted four years and ended with Sarah in the hospital. She barely ate while she spent her days cleaning – one at a time – the three apartments of yet another exploiter, monsieur the lawyer. An egg in the morning, leftovers from his meals at five in the afternoon. If she asked for rice – which her body is used to – he would leave her two spoonful, telling her to make do. The first year he paid her 170 dollars a month; the second 200 – and from then on, until the end of a contract that she signed without understanding, because it was written in Arabic and back then not yet translated, 250 dollars. It was then, not even forty years old, that Sarah realized she had reached exhaustion. Her documents were in order, her visa was valid, the possibility of finding a new job in Lebanon was high – it was the end of 2013, the crisis was far away, the city full of rich people’s houses to be swept, washed and polished: so she decided to take a break, go back to Madagascar for a while, despite being broke, and without a husband, with two children and a mother-in-law to look after. After a year in that place that she didn’t recognize as home, Sarah returned to Beirut, promising herself that she wouldn’t let it get her down. The ability to adapt, she tells me, ten years after that last return to slavery from which she has not yet freed herself – but whose rules of the game she is beginning to understand – is the greatest gift that God has given her.


The kafala system

If only she had understood the contract she had to sign, in the recruitment office, before embarking on each of these experiences, perhaps she would not have waited so long. The contract is the only legal document that a migrant domestic worker has in Lebanon: the fact that at the moment of Sarah’s arrival to the country it was only issued in Arabic, without being translated to English or French, is an indicative aspect of the serious risk to these people’s protection from abuses. 

The country has had a standard unified contract for migrant domestic workers since 2009, yet lacking vital safeguards against forced labor, not meeting international human rights and labor standards, and being adopted before the 2011 International Labor Organization (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention. Moreover, in October 2020, Lebanon’s State Shura Council, the country’s top administrative court, delivered a sharp blow to migrant domestic worker rights by suspending the implementation of a new standard unified contract:  adopted by  the Labor Ministry on September 2020, the proposed version included new protections for migrant domestic workers – such as a 48-hour work week, a weekly rest day, overtime pay, sick pay, annual leave, and the national minimum wage, with some permissible deductions for housing and food; it would have allowed workers to terminate their contract without the consent of their employer, dismantling a key aspect of the abusive system of modern slavery that dozens of thousands of people are forced to submit to.

However, the attempt was soon aborted. “To make it clear, it didn’t go anywhere because the recruitment agencies are so powerful that they could block the process,” Banchi Yimer, a former domestic worker who lived in Lebanon for nearly a decade, told me in a voice note on WhatsApp, in the shifted time zone of Montreal, Canada, where she now lives. Alongside fellow Ethiopian migrant workers, she founded Egna Legna (in Amharic ‘Us for Ourselves’), a community-based organization working on migrant domestic workers and women’s issues in Lebanon and Ethiopia.

Egna Legna was invited, alongside other rights’ organizations, to get into the discussion to present a draft law for a new contract to the Lebanese Parliament: “it was not perfect,” Yimer admits, yet it represented a first step to alleviate the burden forced on thousands of women’s shoulders. “Unsurprisingly, the recruitment agencies organized and made sure the law did not pass.” 

Excluded from the Labor Law, migrant domestic workers’ relationship with their employer is only governed by the Code of Obligations and Contracts – as long as it does not conflict with “public order, public morality, and the general provisions,” as it reads. Back in 2020, recruitment agencies further claimed that the proposed standard unified contract violated the principle of freedom to contract, as both parties should have the ability to decide on the terms of the contract, including whether they should be bound by the minimum wage. The Shura Council ruling, thus, failed to take into account both the rights of workers and the power imbalance between the parties.

However, more than three years from that step – and almost thirteen since she first moved to Lebanon – Yimer acknowledges that it would not have changed much, as the main problem is deeper, laying in Lebanon’s current state of law, ruled by nothing but corruption and judicial paralysis. “Even having a fairer contract doesn’t count if there is no accountability for recruitment agencies and sponsors, without anyone there to enforce it.” Despite being obliged under international human rights law to ensure that migrant domestic workers have protections equal to those for other workers under the law, in fact, Lebanon does not have any law governing their relationship with their employer and granting them sufficient protections and rights. “Many of us never got the chance to discuss the contract in our own language. It’s all in Arabic. When we do research and ask several women if they have ever read their contract, or if it was translated for them in their language, the answer is always the same: never. How can they benefit from something they can’t understand, nor are they allowed to have a voice on,” she denounces.

Moreover, given the widespread lack of accountability in the country, crimes committed against migrant workers in Lebanon are never persecuted. When a sponsor doesn’t pay after ten, fifteen years of domestic work; when the worker is physically or sexually abused, forced to work in multiple houses, subjected to slavery, denied food, days-off, and all of this is proven, still, nothing happens. “We will never have justice in this country” seems to be the recurrent theme of our interview. “And if there is no accountability – how can we trust the contract we signed. If no one respects the law, how could a contract make any difference.”


Your home our prison

An estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers currently reside in Lebanon: the majority are women from African and south and south-east Asian countries, including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Ghana, Indonesia, Philippines, Madagascar, and Nigeria. They are excluded from Lebanon’s labour law protections, and their status in the country is regulated by the kafala system – a restrictive immigration regime of laws, regulations, and customary practices that ties migrant workers’ legal residency to their employer. Workers cannot leave or change employers without their employers’ consent, placing them at risk of exploitation and abuse, and those who leave their employers without permission risk losing their legal residency in the country and face detention and deportation.

Giving employers this level of control over workers’ lives has led to an array of abuses that Human Rights Watch and many other organizations have documented for years, including non-payment of wages, forced confinement, excessive working hours with no rest days or breaks, and verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. The economic crisis, compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, has made life for migrant domestic workers even worse. Many have reported that incidents of abuse increased during the lockdown while others have said that their employers slashed their salaries – if they paid them at all, failing the contract’s obligations. Moreover, since May 2020, employers have reportedly abandoned hundreds of workers outside their consulates or embassies, often without money, passports, or their belongings, and without return tickets for workers who are unable to afford expensive repatriation flights to their home countries.

According to the ILO, almost 90 percent of the migrant domestic workers employed in Lebanon are recruited through an agency which brings workers into the country through partner agencies, either in the country of origin or through their own representatives abroad. Their business model depends on charging employers high recruitment fees that range between 1,000 and 3,000 dollars. The ILO found that not only employers are often not certain what the fee is covered, but also that there is a large disparity in recruitment fees depending on the income of the employer and the nationality of the worker. “Ethiopian workers, for example, used to come illegally in the past decades, as due to war and reported abuse, the Ethiopian government banned its citizens from entering Lebanon,” Yimer explains, clearly drawing the chain of abuse and trafficking throughout neighboring countries as Sudan, Yemen, and Kenya. “As a start, the recruitment agencies in Lebanon hired some Ethiopian women who could make it into the country. Then their families, husbands, or anyone else they knew in Ethiopia, illegally went from village to village to recruit other vulnerable women, often underaged, manipulate them, promising so many things – rights to a day off, phone access and good salary – to convince them to emigrate: while they did not have any clue of what was going on in Lebanon.” Many of them were very young, even thirteen years old, and did not speak English, French nor Arabic. “They were asked to collect up to 5,000 to 40,000 Ethiopian birr (around 200 to 800 dollars), and sell their land to pay the recruitment agency. More money was asked when crossing Sudan, where they would pay hotels to stay or additional fees to smugglers. And even at the moment of their arrival to Lebanon, the sponsor would take the first three months of salary from them, even if that is against the law.”

Through Egna Legna’s work, Yimer and her colleagues found out that several women smuggled through Sudan or Yemen have been raped, forcibly imprisoned, and starved. Surviving this nightmare only to realize that once in Lebanon, expecting to be safe, everything that was promised them ended up being a lie. “This happened to me as well,” she admits, “reality didn’t match up at all the expectations I had.” 

And if you change your mind and think you can go back, you’ll soon realize you’re wrong. Even the right to leave is taken away from you. As soon as a migrant worker arrives in Lebanon, sponsors take their passports away – sometimes not giving it back either if they want to leave the country for good. “Some of us left Lebanon without passports, travelling with nothing but a laissez-passer, running away in secret from the sponsor house. We would be refused to get our document back, you know, even if that belongs to us,” Yimer explains. “I myself am a good example of this, as I worked in Lebanon for seven years and the last time I saw my passport was thirteen and a half years ago, the day I arrived, with my baggage of expectations.” In those seven years of domestic work, her sponsor took her document and refused to return it even when she moved to Canada. “I left Lebanon by laissez-passer, and without other legal documents it took thirteen years to first visit my mother. Many of us share a similar story, if not even worse.”

According to the kafala system, workers are not allowed to leave their sponsors’ house, change their job, or leave the country without the employer’s permission. That is part of the contract – unless they are unpaid for four months in a row or face sexual and physical abuse: even those options, though, are often denied. “And if they try to leave the house, what the sponsor does is to immediately call the General Security and file a complaint based on false accusations, such as running away, theft, assault, or even attempted murder. So that many women have been put in prison for years without justice for crimes they did not commit, without evidence or witness.” 

In 2021, Lebanon’s General Security announced that migrant domestic workers will no longer be arrested for false accusations, as through the work of human rights’ organizations they discovered it was most of the time unproven and defamatory. Yet, predictably, the decision was not enforced: and if it is the worker herself who goes to the police station to ask for protection, after facing any abuse, if she finds a complaint on her – the authorities are allowed to send her back to the sponsor, risking detention for lack of legal papers.

“Many women we spoke to were not allowed to travel back home because they had to face courts, pay unaffordable fees or go to prison, even if they had not been paid for years. So they stayed in the sponsor’s houses,” it is the reality that Yimer shares with bitterness. “Indeed, this is modern days’ slavery. It’s so shameful to discuss this in 2024, really.”


For a day off

Since she came back to Beirut, changing three more families, three more masters, three more mesdames and messieurs, Sarah has been fighting for her right to Sunday. The day of rest for kafala workers is not guaranteed, diluted between the clauses of deliberately incomprehensible contracts: for her, it is equivalent to six hours, from 10am to 4pm, and not even every week. A guarantor once told her that he could give her, at most, one day during the week: certainly not Sunday, with guests at lunch and the whole house to tidy up. But she doesn’t know what to do with Tuesdays or Wednesdays or Thursdays. On Sundays, she needs her day off to go to mass: with no one else to meet, nothing else to do in her free time, but pray.

Starting from this controversy, which soon escalated, the madame filed a complaint. She told Sarah: when you die, then you will take as many days of rest as you want. A conflict arose which led her to be insulted and beaten by the guarantor’s elderly mother – and finally to ask to leave. There is no way, however, in the kafala system, to change sponsor without the permission of the previous one: even more so with a complaint of escape to the police, with whose stain the residence permit cannot be renewed – and whose removal, which can be requested exclusively by the guarantor, costs 300 dollars.

Caged like this, through a friend on a WhatsApp group Sarah found another accommodation, yet another huge apartment with two girls to hire, to enslave, but to give at least one day to go to the mass. Of the two Filipinas hired, one had decided to leave Lebanon permanently, and so the guarantor, whom Sarah does not call by name, but simply nouvelle madame, looked for a replacement: temporary, of course, until she found another from the same country. There is internal racism even relating to the nationality of the workers: Asians cost more than Africans, Indonesians and Sri Lankans more than Nigerians and Ghanaians.

The elderly mother, maman, the same one who had insulted and beaten her for the slightest thing – the basic request of resting on Sunday – agreed to recommend her to the new mistress. But without telling the old madame, and on condition that Sarah found a replacement. The day after the agreement, it was a Monday in the midst of December, Sarah was supposed to start work at eight in the morning, for a couple of hours, until ten. Two men who she later recognized as related to the previous guarantor, the driver and an assistant of her husband, promising to take her to her new job, the dream job, to her Sunday off to pray, changed course, starting to drive south Beirut: direction Tariq al-Matar. It was enough to show her the airport, and threaten her to leave, to anywhere, to put her in a state of panic. She had nothing, just a small bag; no documents, no plane ticket. The two men had told her that they would allow her to work with the new grantor for one or two months, until the end of the contract: then they would take her back. Now, without letting Sarah understand why, they were threatening to deport her.

Seeing her so devastated, alone, with her day bag half empty, without even a change of clothes to sleep in, only the uniform to clean, her face streaked with tears, her breathing labored, sobbing, the police officer refused to deport her. He didn’t speak to her, but to the two men: they kept her documents, along with the right to make her work, eat, leave, and as they pleased. Sarah called the new guarantor begging her to take her back. She told her that due to a newly arisen problem – coming from the old madame – she couldn’t hire her: but she promised to help find someone else, making her swear that she would refuse to work for anyone who denied her the right to rule her own life.

Sarah’s latest sponsor is a Lebanese woman. She doesn’t want her at home, so she is now living with an Ethiopian girl in a two-room apartment in neighborhood of Furn el-Chebbak, east Beirut; paying a disproportionate amount of rent, travelling by public transport, cooking for herself, and working wherever she can, often replacing colleagues who are injured or fired or incarcerated. When her documents will be finally in order, she promises, and she will be finally able to free herself from the constraints of sponsors and grantors; when she will be given the right to work on her own, go home on her own, visit her son Mickael’s grave – on her own; when she will be free and no longer a slave, she tells me, she will take care of those left behind, she will bring them food from the window of a cell; will ensure that the aggressor pays the price for sexual abuse, that Sunday is a day of rest and celebration for everyone; that this absurd slave system be abolished, et nous serons toutes libres et non plus esclaves.

The road, however, is still long. Before Sarah can renew her documents, and regularize her residency in Lebanon, the escape complaint to the police must be removed. If the guarantors make any mistake, she tells me, “now, I’m the only one paying.” So, let’s hope that they don’t err, for a while longer, and that the law of fortune continues to protect her.