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Youth blog: Challenging discriminatory laws for migrant domestic workers amidst COVID-19 in Lebanon

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By Mona Ayoub

The COVID-19 pandemic and its associated lockdown measures have contributed to increased cases of domestic violence and femicides worldwide. Only in Lebanon, the number of domestic violence calls and cyber violence has doubled during COVID-19. The Lebanese Security Forces reported an increase by 110% of hotline calls in March 2020 compared to 97 complaints in March 2019[1]. For a long time, home has not been a safe place for many women.

Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon and other countries in the Arab States region already face hardship due to the longstanding kafala system, a sponsorship system that regulates the relationship between sponsoring employers, or kafeel, and migrant workers and binds the worker to the contractual relationship with the employer. Under this system, workers cannot enter the country, work, travel, resign, change jobs or return home without the permission of the kafeel. They are also not allowed to leave their employers, without a waiver by that employer, even in severe cases of abuse and suffer repercussions of losing their legal status, being deported, or being arrested if they do so. This is because their travel and identity documents are with the employer and employers are legally bound to report the ‘absconding worker’ to the authorities.[2]

Lebanon has over 250,000 migrant domestic workers who are excluded from the Lebanese Labour Law[3] and are governed instead by the kafala system. As the Lebanese government exercises stricter movement restrictions and quarantine, the weight burdens on the shoulders of domestic workers. Even before the pandemic, some migrant domestic workers in Lebanon reported suffering from: sexual abuse and rape, verbal and physical violence, passport confiscation, deductions from salary, restrictions on movement, food deprivation, inadequate accommodation, lack of privacy, and restrictions on access to healthcare.[4]

With COVID-19, domestic migrant workers’ already exploitative situation has grown in severity. They are required to cater to a full household, care for the children and work late hours until all family members are asleep. Domestic workers rarely have a room of their own to retreat into, making them sleep deprived and forcing them to sleep on the couch or balconies, which has posed great danger to their physical and mental health. In these times of pandemic, they are the ones to run errands outside the home. As the economic situation in Lebanon continues to worsen since last year and throughout the protests, the Lebanese Lira has plummeted, leaving many without jobs and unpaid, especially migrant workers and those with an irregular migratory status.

Amid the country’s quarantine, the most recent incident was the death of Faustina Tay, a 23 year old Ghanaian woman, doing domestic work in Beirut’s southern suburbs. Her body was found in the garage of the employer's home. She had sent several pleas for help and accounts of her being beaten to both her brother and organizations working on the issue of human trafficking in Lebanon. Although the incident was reported as a suicide, investigations continue to determine whether the evidence suggests murder.

With many domestic workers facing violence, discrimination and abuse, in several cases suicide has become the only option to escape these living conditions. Although Tunisia, for example, has abolished this system, some countries in the Arab States region continue to abide by it.

As the Lebanese government responds to the pandemic, migrant domestic workers’ needs are not fully addressed. With the country’s economic crisis, modifying the kafala system and granting migrant workers their labour rights remains at the rear. Having signed the UN convention against human trafficking, serious measures to end this practice should be taken in Lebanon, where many women, including refugees and migrants are most at risk of forced labor, abuse and sexual exploitation.

Mona Ayoub is a human rights advocate and visual artist. Passionate about ending gender-based violence and human trafficking, she advocates for refugees, migrants, and survivors of domestic violence through writing, education, permaculture, language, and art. She’s currently supporting the online campaign No More Kafala on change.org.

[1] Hamdan, Hanan. “Domestic Violence in Lebanon Spikes under Lockdown.” AL-MONITOR, April 23, 2020. https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/04/lebanon-domestic-violence-abuse-lockdown-coronavirus.html#ixzz6NFg3lr69.

[2] “Policy Brief No. 2: Reform of The Kafala (Sponsorship) System.” International Labour Organization, July 3, 2011. https://www.ilo.org/dyn/migpractice/docs/132/PB2.pdf.

[3] The Associated Press. “Lebanon's Migrant Workers' Plight Worsens as Crises Multiply.” The New York Times. The New York Times, May 26, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2020/05/26/world/middleeast/ap-ml-virus-outbreak-lebanon-migrant-workers.html.

[4] “With Few Legal Protections, Migrant Workers in Lebanon Exploited, Abused.” Fanack.com, October 24, 2017. https://fanack.com/migrant-labour/migrant-workers-in-lebanon/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIz4\_A\_KPZ6AIVluR3Ch2QNw8bEAAYASAAEgJgKfD\_BwE.