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Indifference, Lengthy Procedures, and Restrictive Sponsorship System Defeat Justice
September 16, 2010
By turning a blind eye to violations affecting domestic workers, Lebanon's police and judiciary are complicit in the ongoing violations by employers against this vulnerable group. Locking someone up or slapping them is a crime regardless of the identity of the victim.
Nadim Houry, Beirut director at Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) - Lebanon's judiciary is generally failing to hold employers accountable when they violate the basic rights of migrant domestic workers, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The government should adopt a plan to ensure that these workers can rely on Lebanese courts to protect their rights, Human Rights Watch said.

The 54-page report, "Without Protection: How the Lebanese Justice System Fails Migrant Domestic Workers," reviews 114 Lebanese judicial decisions affecting migrant domestic workers. It finds that lack of accessible complaint mechanisms, lengthy judicial procedures, and restrictive visa policies dissuade many workers from filing or pursuing complaints against their employers. Even when workers file complaints, the police and judicial authorities regularly fail to treat certain abuses against domestic workers as crimes.

"By turning a blind eye to violations affecting domestic workers, Lebanon's police and judiciary are complicit in the ongoing violations by employers against this vulnerable group," said Nadim Houry, Beirut director at Human Rights Watch. "Locking someone up or slapping them is a crime regardless of the identity of the victim."

Human Rights Watch did not find a single example among the 114 cases it reviewed in which an employer faced charges for locking workers inside homes, confiscating their passports, or denying them food, even though these violations of the law are commonplace. Lebanese families employ an estimated 200,000 migrant domestic workers, primarily from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Philippines, and Nepal.

Complaints filed by these workers against employers often languish in court for months, and sometimes years. This poses an added burden on the workers, because Lebanon's restrictive visa policies make it hard for them to remain in the country to pursue the case. Human Rights Watch reviewed 13 criminal cases by these workers against employers and found they took an average of 24 months to be resolved. Complaints for unpaid wages took between 21 and 54 months. Even simplified complaints brought before labor courts took 32 months on average. Under the kafeel (sponsorship) system, a worker who leaves an employer - even to file a complaint - loses the right to live in Lebanon and faces potential detention and deportation.

Cases of physical violence against migrant domestic workers often fail to garner sufficient attention from police and prosecutors. In a case dating from 2005, the police waited 21 days to begin investigating after receiving a complaint that an employer was beating a domestic worker. A review of police reports in numerous cases of violence against these workers shows that in investigating these cases, the police regularly ask employers only general questions and accept their statements as truthful without cross-checking their statements with other potential witnesses.

While the authorities have prosecuted certain cases of severe beatings against migrant domestic workers, these cases remain rare and have led only to light sentences. In a widely hailed case, a Lebanese criminal court sentenced an employer to prison on December 9, 2009, for repeatedly beating a Filipina domestic worker. However, the sentence was only 15 days. The most severe sentence for beating a domestic worker of which Human Rights Watch is aware was one month in prison. It was imposed by a criminal court on June 26, 2010, against an employer who repeatedly beat a Sri Lankan domestic worker while forcibly confining her to the house.

Even employers who kill their workers often get away with lean sentences. In a 1999 case, a criminal court sentenced an employer who beat a Sri Lankan worker to death to only one-and-a-half years in jail.

"These verdicts are a small step in the right direction, but remain a mere slap on the wrist," Houry said. "The authorities need to ensure that employers who abuse domestic workers receive penalties that are appropriate to the offense and serve as deterrents for others."

Human Rights Watch documented a number of violations of due process and the right to a fair trial in cases in which migrant domestic workers were accused of a crime, usually theft. Of the 84 criminal cases against domestic workers reviewed by Human Rights Watch, 37 of the workers - 44 percent - did not have a defense lawyer. Most - at least 57 of 84 cases reviewed - also faced police and court proceedings without the help of certified translators, despite the fact that many do not speak fluent Arabic. Interpreters were rare even in cases in which the worker was accused of a serious crime.

The report also found widespread pretrial detention of migrant domestic workers accused of crimes. At least 76 percent of the workers in the cases reviewed - 64 out of the 84 - were detained before trial. Most who were eventually found not guilty had been detained during trial for an average of three months before being released, although at least four had spent more than eight months in jail before a court found them not guilty.

"Domestic workers too often end up in jail on the basis of accusations by their employers, without benefiting from the assistance of a lawyer or translator," Houry said. "They deserve the same presumption of innocence and due-process guarantees as everyone else."

Despite recent pronouncements by Lebanese officials, including the Ministers of Interior and Labor, that they want to improve the treatment of migrant domestic workers, government action has been limited to narrow reform initiatives, such as a compulsory standard employment contract for these workers introduced in January 2009. The government also has failed to create effective mechanisms for inspecting the workplaces of migrant domestic workers.

Human Rights Watch called on the Lebanese authorities to:

  • Develop a national plan to increase the likelihood that complaints against employers for crimes committed against migrant domestic workers lead to a prosecution;
  • Enact legislation to create a simplified dispute resolution mechanism to settle salary disputes between employers and migrant workers in a timely manner;
  • Provide access to legal aid and certified interpreters for migrant domestic workers who are victims of abuse or are accused of a crime;
  • Implement training programs for police officers, immigration officials, and judges to identify and respond to migrant domestic workers' abuse complaints; and
  • Reform the visa sponsorship system so that workers' visas are no longer tied to individual sponsors and so that the workers can file complaints without fear of detention and deportation.