A migrant domestic worker holds a placard during a march demanding basic labor rights as Lebanese workers in Beirut, May 3, 2015. More than 200,000 workers mostly women from Asia and Africa work as maids in a country of 4 million people, many also come fr

Could a court case in Lebanon shift attitudes toward migrant domestic workers?

In a rare case, an Ethiopian domestic worker in Lebanon is taking her former employer and the agency that hired her to court over accusations of slavery and slave trading. The woman, identified as M.H., alleges that she was underpaid, locked up and assaulted over several years. Activists are hoping it will help change the worker sponsorship program in Lebanon.

The World

A migrant domestic worker holds a placard during a march demanding basic labor rights as Lebanese workers in Beirut, May 3, 2015. More than 200,000 workers mostly women from Asia and Africa work as maids in a country of 4 million people, many also come from places as far as Madagascar and Nepal, but the majority are from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Bilal Hussein/AP/File photo

In a landmark criminal case in Lebanon, a migrant domestic worker from Ethiopia is accusing her former employer and the agency that hired her of slavery, slave trading and racial and gender discrimination.

The 40-year-old plaintiff, a woman identified in court documents as M.H., alleges that she was underpaid, locked up and assaulted over several years while employed as a domestic worker at a private home in Beirut.

Although civil lawsuits with similar allegations have been filed before, activists and lawyers say that this is the first time that a criminal case alleging slavery has been brought forward by a migrant domestic worker in Lebanon.

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Advocates hope that the case will help change the worker sponsorship program known as the kafala system in Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries, wherein many other migrant domestic workers are held under the same conditions and which some equate with modern slavery.

“This [case] sets an important precedent in the recent history of Lebanon. Not just because it’s the first time that this has happened, but also because it means that we can start using the legal channels that are becoming more and more accessible to migrant domestic workers.”

Farah Baba, Anti-Racism Movement, spokeswoman

“This [case] sets an important precedent in the recent history of Lebanon,” said Farah Baba, spokeswoman for the Anti-Racism Movement, which advocates for migrant workers’ rights in Lebanon. “Not just because it’s the first time that this has happened, but also because it means that we can start using the legal channels that are becoming more and more accessible to migrant domestic workers.”

A second hearing was held in the case in Justice Palais, Baabda, Mount Lebanon, earlier this month. One of the defendants, M.H.’s employer May Saade, appeared in court without legal representation while a second defendant, Matta Agency, was absent, according to Legal Action Worldwide (LAW), the London-based agency representing M.H.

Another hearing was set for March 31.

Antonia Mulvey, LAW’s founder and executive director said that it took a lot of courage for M.H. to bring forward the case.

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Mulvey said that M.H. alleges that her former employer didn’t pay her for more than seven years. She was forced to work seven days a week with no time off, while her day shifts were often around 15 hours a day.

M.H. said that she could not leave the employer’s apartment; her passport was confiscated; and she was verbally and physically abused.

After public pressure on the defendant, according to LAW, M.H. was released in 2019 and returned to Ethiopia, where she still lives.

“We have these [ideas] in our mind of slavery, of people being chained and moved from the ships as we remember from Africa to United States, but actually, under international law, there isn’t any such thing as ‘modern slavery.’ You either are enslaved or you are not,” Mulvey said.

A system that fails migrant workers

In 2008, Ethiopia banned its citizens from traveling to Lebanon for work. But the ban went unenforced and scores of women continued to migrate to Lebanon for work in subsequent years, according to Al Jazeera.

Baba of the Anti-Racism Movement, said that she believes that frequent and grave abuse of people like M.H. is possible because of Lebanon’s kafala system.

“It guarantees absolute authority and power to the employer who is this legal sponsor of the migrant domestic worker,” Baba said.

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Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have criticized Lebanese authorities for not amending or ending the kafala system.

In 2020, Human Rights Watch said that Lebanon’s judiciary was failing to protect domestic workers and to hold employers accountable when they violate the workers’ basic rights.

Baba said that she considers the recruitment agencies a major part of the problem. She said that in some cases, jobseekers are duped into believing that they will have a much better life and income.

“They are told that they were going to Dubai or that they were going to the US or that they would be coming to Lebanon to be French teachers,” she said. “They are not always told that they would be working as domestic workers.”

Often, workers are too afraid to come forward, she added, and in the cases where they do, they are not supported under Lebanese law.

“I came to Lebanon to make my life better than it was,” a Kenyan woman who identified herself as Catherine only, for security reasons, told The World in August 2020. “[I worked for] one year [and] three months. No going out, no off days, nothing.”

“The shameful pattern of abuses against migrant domestic workers under the kafala system has to end. Lebanese authorities, including the judiciary, have a duty to protect the rights of these workers instead of protecting a system that facilitates exploitation, forced labor and human trafficking.”

Diala Haidar, Amnesty International, Lebanon campaigner

“The shameful pattern of abuses against migrant domestic workers under the kafala system has to end,” said Diala Haidar, Lebanon campaigner at Amnesty International. “Lebanese authorities, including the judiciary, have a duty to protect the rights of these workers instead of protecting a system that facilitates exploitation, forced labor and human trafficking.”

‘There is no one to help us’

Lebanon is home to an estimated 250,000 domestic workers. The coronavirus pandemic and Lebanon’s dire economic woes have made conditions for the migrant workers even worse, activists say.

Amid lockdowns at the start of the pandemic, some employers dropped off their employees — in some cases without pay — on the streets or in front of  their home country’s consulates in Beirut.

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Photojournalist Aline Deschamps said that she has heard many of these stories as part of her work to document the lives of foreign domestic workers in Lebanon.

Two years ago, she met a group of women from Sierra Leone who had fled their abusive employers and were staying together in a house. One of the women told Deschamps about a song she had written.

“They will beat us, they will kill us, there is no one to help us,” part of the song reads. “We are working without payment, there is no one to help us.”

“This song was basically a love letter to her children that she thought she’ll never be able to meet again,” Deschamps said.

“And once she sang the song, everyone in the room cried because it is a story that was, you know, the story of every woman in the room.”

Deschamps decided to make a music video with the women, who called themselves Thewanthdean, which means “United Sisters” in Sierra Leone.

The video got a lot of attention and raised funds to help the women get back to Sierra Leone.

Today, the lead singer has set up her own nongovernmental organization which helps women domestic workers in her country. She also raises awareness about the kafala system, Deschamps said.

“She goes to the market with a megaphone to talk about the kafala system, and this is absolutely amazing because there is so much strength, there is so much courage and there is so much beauty in the work that they are doing,” she said.

Mulvey and other lawyers and activists hope that M.H.’s case will be a step toward improving the lives of migrant workers in Lebanon.

“We hope that this case will be a catalyst for institutions within Lebanon to take action and to say, ‘Enough is enough. If you lock somebody up, if you don’t pay them, you can have a criminal case brought against you,’” she said.

She also hopes it will encourage other workers to come forward and that more lawyers will take up their cases.