September 16, 2010

Executive Summary

They used to treat me like I was enslaved.
—Deposition of Kenyan domestic worker to Lebanese police, March 7, 2000.
I thought that the police are like Madagascar. When you have a problem you go there. But here, they are part of the problem.
–Malagasy worker, February 9, 2010.

On December 9, 2009, a Lebanese criminal court sentenced a Lebanese woman to 15 days in jail for repeatedly beating Jonalin Malibago, her Filipina maid, three years earlier. Lebanese newspapers hailed the case a landmark victory for the country’s estimated 200,000 migrant domestic workers (MDWs), many of whom report abuse at the hands of their employers. The case illustrated the positive role that the judiciary can play in protecting MDWs, even though the sentence was lenient given the violation. But it also raised at least one significant question: was the Malibago verdicta rare instance of an employer being held to account for abuses against MDWsor was it part of a broader pattern of successful prosecutions?

This report seeks to answer that question. To do so, Human Rights Watch reviewed 114 Lebanese judicial decisions in which MDWs were either plaintiffs or defendants, and interviewed MDWs who reported abuse as well as lawyers who regularly take up their cases. It finds that the Lebanese judicial system is failing to protect the rights of MDWs, and that while Malibago’s case is by no means unique in holding an employer accountable for mistreatment, too many other workers do not receive justice.

Lebanese families employ an estimated 200,000 migrant domestic workers, primarily from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Philippines, and Nepal. These women typically migrate on short-term contracts and are obliged to live in the home of their employer as a condition of their work visa, sending much of what they earn to family or loved ones back home: for example, MDWs in Lebanon sent more than $90 million overseas in the first half of 2009. The domestic worker sector is rife with complaints of nonpayment of wages, excessive working hours, forced confinement, and even physical and sexual abuse—fueled by Lebanese labor law that excludes MDWs from standard labor protections afforded to almost all other categories of workers, such as the right to a weekly day of rest, paid leave, benefits, and worker compensation. Desperate, some try to run away, often with serious consequences: Human Rights Watch documented an alarming number of deaths of domestic workers, primarily from suicide or from risky escape attempts from high stories of residential buildings.

Lebanon’s judiciary has both the potential and obligation to play an important role in protecting the basic rights of MDWs. However, this potential has so far remained unfulfilled, and the judicial system remains, albeit with exceptions, largely inaccessible and unresponsive. Such problems are not limited to MDWs: many Lebanese also suffer from lengthy pre-trial detentions, extended trials, and overloaded courts. However, MDWs face particular obstacles in accessing the justice system. 

A number of factors mean that MDWs often do not file or pursue complaints against their employers, or else settle on unfavorable terms. These include lack of judicial support, fear of counter charges and being held in detention, and restrictive visa policies that make it hard for MDWs to see through cases that can take months –and often years– to wind through the protracted judicial process.  For many, the need to earn money to support their families, and the impulse of abused workers to return home quickly, may also prompt them to withdraw their complaints rather than seek redress. A Human Rights Watch review of 13 criminal cases that MDWs brought against employers found they took an average of 24 months to be resolved, while MDW complaints for unpaid wages filed in civil courts lasted between 21 and 54 months. Complaints brought before labor courts, which are supposedly faster than regular civil courts because their procedures are simpler, lasted 32 months on average.

At the center of the judicial failure to protect MDWs is the country’s kafeel, or sponsorship system that ties a migrant worker to his or her specific employer. MDWs lose their legal status if their sponsor terminates their contract, or if they decide to leave their employers (even if they have legitimate reasons to quit, such as non-payment of wages or abuse). Accordingly, a MDW who leaves an employer and files a complaint against him or her loses the right to work and faces potential detention and deportation. Some MDWs can seek refuge in shelters run by NGOs or embassies while their case is pending but places in shelters are limited and immigration laws restrict their freedom of movement. Lebanese courts have on occasion allowed MDWs to return home while their lawyers follow-up on the criminal case against abusive employers. However, such cases remain limited, especially since many MDWs do not have a lawyer. 

Another obstacle for MDWs seeking redress is a lack of accessible mechanisms, such as telephone hotlines where MDWs could report abuse, and units within the Ministry of Labor or security forces that specialize in such cases. In a welcome move, the Minister of Labor on June 1, 2010, announced a new hotline at the ministry to receive complaints from MDWs and other workers. However, as of July 7, 2010, it had yet to receive a single call from a domestic worker, possibly because the Ministry has not disseminated information about the hotline within communities of MDWs.

Even if they do complain, MDWs often face official inaction on the part of police and judicial authorities, which have failed to treat certain allegations as potential crimes, dealt with some complaints meekly, or else ignored them entirely. Human Rights Watch did not find any example amongst the 114 cases it reviewed of authorities prosecuting employers accused of overworking workers, locking them inside homes, confiscating passports, or denying food. In one example, a Kenyan domestic worker told the police that her employer locked her in the house when she would leave—which the employer admitted doing in her police deposition. However, rather than filing charges for the offense of “deprivation of liberty” (Art. 569 of Penal Code), the prosecutor simply told the police to “obtain an undertaking from the employer to prepare all the paperwork of the maid and to pay her salary, and not exact revenge against the worker.”[1]

In cases where MDWs complained about employers failing to hand over passports or other identity papers, the courts dismissed the complaint, or simply asked the employer to return the document. Even then, there was little follow-up to ensure compliance, and no employer was prosecuted for his or her behavior in any case that Human Rights Watch reviewed. Accepting the argument of employers that it is legitimate to hold an employee’s passport to prevent her from running away, judges have rejected attempts by activists and lawyers to challenge passport withholding on the grounds that it amounts to “deprivation of liberty” (Hajez Huriyat). In 2001, an investigative judge in Beirut dismissed a complaint brought by two women from Madagascar against their recruitment agency for “confiscation of passport,” reasoning that “it is natural for the employer to confiscate the maid’s passport and keep it with him, in case she tries to escape from his house to work in another without compensating him.”[2]

Even violence against MDWs—including beating, slapping and punching—often fails to garner the attention of police and prosecutors, who only prosecute extreme physical violence when it is backed up by extensive medical reports. In December 2005, for example, the Pastoral Committee for Afro Asian Migrants (PCAAM), a domestic worker rights group, received information that a Sri Lankan domestic worker was being beaten, denied wages, and locked in the house by her employer. PCAAM informed the prosecutor’s office, which referred the complaint to police, who took 21 days to begin an investigation. In her deposition, the Sri Lankan worker said her employer owed her seven months-worth of wages ($670), and beat her regularly. Confronted by police, the employer agreed to pay outstanding wages, but faced no charges for the beatings.

Also deterring MDWs from filing complaints against employers for ill-treatment is the fact that they may end up facing countercharges of theft, months in pre-trial detention, and trials in which international standards of due process and fairness are not always respected. Human Rights Watch reviewed 84 cases where MDWs were accused of a crime: in most (61 out of 84), the employer accused the MDW of theft. Other accusations included prostitution, violence against the employer or third parties, or carrying false identification papers. At least 76 percent of the accused MDWs (64 out of the 84 cases) were detained before trial, even when accused of stealing small amounts, often less than $1,500. Most MDWs 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.[3]

For the most part, a MDW must face the legal system without either adequate legal representation or translation. Of the 84 criminal cases against MDWs reviewed, 37 (44 percent) did not have a defense lawyer. That number rises to 50 percent if one excludes felony cases (jinayat) in the Criminal Court, where a defense lawyer is usually mandatory and court-appointed. 

Most MDWs (at least 57 of 84 cases) also face police and court proceedings without the help of certified translators—despite the fact that many do not speak fluent Arabic and are unlikely to understand the vocabulary used in a police interrogation or trial.[4] Human Rights Watch reviewed a number of police reports where the MDW indicated that she only speaks “a little Arabic,” yet police proceeded with the interrogation anyway without an interpreter. Even when translation is available, it is often ad hoc in nature: of 11 cases where court documents and police reports clearly indicate an interpreter was present, three were official sworn translators, one was a passerby, one was another migrant, three were provided by the MDW’s embassy, two by the employer, and one by Caritas Migrant, a nongovernmental organization (NGO). Interpreters were rare even in cases where the MDW was accused of a serious crime: only seven out of 13 cases where the worker was accused of a felony had an interpreter.

Human Rights Watch interviewed many MDWs, as well as embassy officials, who complained that courts often favor the employer and convict workers purely based on the employer’s testimony. Human Rights Watch research indicates that Lebanese courts have a mixed record in this area. Out of the 61 cases reviewed where the employer accused a MDW of theft, the court found the MDW innocent in 18 of the cases for lack of evidence. In a positive development in 2002, the Court of Appeal in the Metn district found Jenet Teklo, an Ethiopian domestic worker whose employer had accused her of theft, not guilty because the accusation “has to be supported with external evidence like fingerprints, witnesses, or finding the stolen goods, which are not present in this case.”[5]

However, the standard set in the Teklo case has not been followed consistently. In a number of reviewed cases, the courts convicted the worker solely based on the employer’s accusation, even if it was weak or vague. For example, on December 29, 2006, a Beirut judge sentenced a Sri Lankan worker to six months in jail for stealing $5,000 worth of money and jewelry from the employer—a charge the worker denied. The employer did not give details about the stolen items in his initial complaint, did not bother to attend any of the trial sessions, and did not request civil compensation. None of the allegedly stolen goods were recovered.[6] In many cases, the court often took the fact that a worker “ran away” from the employer to be circumstantial evidence in furtherance of the accusation of theft, even when other legitimate reasons for leaving, such as unpaid wages or ill-treatment, were given.

It is possible to provide domestic workers with accessible legal remedies, as Singapore, Hong Kong, and other places that host large numbers of MDWs have shown. For example, Singapore has taken vigorous action to monitor MDW abuse, prosecute cases, and publicize their outcomes as a deterrent. In the Middle East, Jordan has amended its labor law to include domestic workers, guaranteeing protections such as monthly payment of wages into a bank account, a weekly rest day, paid annual sick leave, and a ten-hour workday. Bahrain mandates no more than two weeks between hearings, so that most cases are resolved in about three months, if there are no appeals.

Despite recent pronouncements by Lebanese officials, including the Ministers of Interior and Labor, that they want to improve the treatment of MDWs, the government has so far limited itself to only narrow reform initiatives, such as a compulsory standard employment contract for MDWs introduced in January 2009, and has failed to follow through by setting up effective mechanisms for inspection. Lebanese authorities should undertake a number of specific reforms to ensure the rights of MDWs, such as setting up monitoring mechanisms to detect cases of MDWs abuse; making Lebanese laws more responsive to the vulnerable situation of MDWs; reforming an inherently abusive sponsorship system; and setting up quick and simplified dispute resolution mechanisms to settle salary disputes between employers and migrant workers.

[1] Beirut Police Report, No. 302/198 (Damascus Road Branch), March 7, 2000 (on file with Human Rights Watch).

[2] Decision of the Investigative Judge in Beirut, No. 11/1167, September 2, 2001 (on file with Human Rights Watch).

[3] In our sample, 18 out of the 61 MDWs accused of theft were found not guilty by the court. Of those 18, 15 of them were held in pretrial detention for an average of three months before being released.

[4] Only in 11 cases did the court documents and police reports clearly indicate the presence of an interpreter. In the other 16 cases, it was unclear from the court documents if there was an interpreter.

[5] Decision of the Appeals Court of Misdemeanors (Jdeideh district), Case No. 857/2002, June 12, 2002 (on file with Human Rights Watch).

[6] Decision of Penal Court of First Instance (Baabda district), Case No. 2831/2006, December 29, 2006. Deposition of employer at General Security, No. 1749, June 10, 2006 (on file with Human Rights Watch). The MDW did not have a lawyer.