(Beirut) – Lebanon’s Labor Ministry should urgently adopt a new standard unified contract that respects and protects the rights of migrant domestic workers as a first step toward abolishing the abusive kafala (sponsorship) system, Human Rights Watch said today. The new model contract should be subject to an oversight mechanism to ensure that it is enforced and that employers who violate its provisions are held accountable.
Human Rights Watch is a member of a working group headed by the International Labour Organization (ILO), established in April 2019 by then-Labor Minister Camille Abousleiman, to dismantle Lebanon’s kafala system. In June 2019, the working group submitted to the Labor Ministry an action plan with steps that Lebanon needs to take to abolish kafala and introduce protections for migrant domestic workers. As a first step, the group also submitted a proposed standard unified contract for migrant domestic workers that embodies international human rights and labor standards. During a meeting with the working group on June 19, 2020, the current Labor Minister, Lamia Yammine, committed to adopting its own version of a new contract in the coming weeks based on the working group’s submission.
“Lebanon’s restrictive and exploitative kafala system traps tens of thousands of migrant domestic workers in potentially harmful situations by tying their legal status to their employer, enabling highly abusive conditions amounting at worst to modern-day slavery,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “A revised contract that recognizes and protects workers’ internationally guaranteed rights would be a positive first step to ending the kafala system and protecting migrant domestic workers.”
An estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers, the majority of them women from African and South East Asian countries, work in Lebanon. They are excluded from Lebanon’s Labor Law protections, including requirements for a minimum wage, limits on working hours, a weekly rest day, overtime pay, and freedom of association.
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. 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. Since May, employers have 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.
Local media reports indicate that since March, at least seven migrant domestic workers have taken their own lives. Human Rights Watch documented in 2008 that migrant domestic workers were dying at a rate of more than one per week, with suicide and attempted escapes being the leading causes of death. A subsequent Human Rights Watch investigation found that Lebanon’s judiciary failed to protect these workers and hold employers accountable for abuses. A 2019 Amnesty International report found that abuses against migrant domestic workers in Lebanon remained rife.
The current standard unified contract for migrant domestic workers lacks vital safeguards against forced labor and does not meet international human rights and labor standards. Of most concern is that the existing contract does not allow migrant domestic workers to leave the employer’s home without permission or to terminate their contract without the consent of their employer except in extreme cases of abuse, with the burden of proof falling on the worker.
The working group’s proposed standard unified contract addresses these shortcomings and the power imbalance between the employer and the worker. It provides domestic workers with all the protections afforded to other workers under Lebanon’s labor law and establishes additional safeguards, taking into account the violations that rights groups have documented over the years. The ILO conducted two focus groups with migrant domestic workers about the contract, and incorporated their concerns into the working group’s version. The contract was also put up for a national consultation that included representation from migrant domestic worker groups.
The Labor Ministry has said it is drafting its own contract, based on the working group’s version. Any contract that the Labor Ministry adopts should guarantee:
- Labor protections for domestic workers equal to those for other workers under the labor law;
- The right to terminate their employment contract and/or change employers without the consent of their employer and without losing legal residency;
- The right to freedom of association and collective bargaining through joining and forming labor unions;
- The right to the national minimal wage;
- The right to retain their passports and other identity documents;
- The right to move and communicate freely, including the right to own a phone and to leave the house during their rest periods;
- Access to an effective and impartial complaints system with a mandate to investigate violations and refer criminal matters to the Internal Security Forces and the Public Prosecutor’s Office.
However, implementing a rights-respecting contract is only the first step toward abolishing the kafala system. In the action plan submitted to the Labor Ministry, the working group underscored that the ministry also needs to amend the labor law to include migrant domestic workers, strengthen the Labor Ministry’s complaints and enforcement mechanism, outlaw the detention of migrant domestic workers for lack of legal residency, regularize the status of undocumented migrant workers, and train security forces and the judiciary to respond to and investigate abuses against migrant domestic workers. Lebanon is obligated under international human rights law to ensure that domestic workers and migrant workers enjoy equal protections with other workers under the law.
“Employers should no longer be able to avoid the consequences of abuses against migrant domestic workers,” Majzoub said. “Lebanon needs to promptly amend the labor law to include domestic workers, ensure that the new contract includes all important protections as well as a stringent enforcement mechanism, and abolish kafala once and for all.”
Lebanon’s International Obligations
International human rights law protects a spectrum of workers' rights, notably rights related to just and favorable conditions of work. In particular, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which forms part of the international bill of rights and to which Lebanon has been a party to since 1972, recognizes everyone’s right to just and favorable working conditions.
Lebanon has also ratified two ILO conventions that are relevant to protecting migrant domestic workers: Convention No. 105 on the Abolition of Forced Labor (ratified by Lebanon in 1977) and Convention No. 111 concerning Discrimination in Respect to Employment and Occupation, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex with respect to access to employment and conditions of employment (ratified by Lebanon in 1977).
Lebanon’s exclusion of domestic workers from many legal protections extended to other categories of workers violates the principle of non-discrimination enshrined in international law. International human rights law prohibits discrimination on the basis of such distinctions as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status. Laws, regulations, policies, and practices that are superficially neutral can be deemed discriminatory if their impact is such.
Excluding an entire category of workers, the majority of them women and foreign nationals, from equal labor law protections constitutes discrimination on the basis of sex as well as national origin – 97 percent of domestic workers are female according to 2009 Lebanese Ministry of Labor statistics. This violates Lebanon’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which Lebanon has been a party to since 1997, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which Lebanon became a party to in 1971. CEDAW and CERD require the elimination of their respective forms of discrimination – gender and racial, including on the basis of national origin – in all areas, including employment.
The CEDAW Committee, tasked with monitoring state parties’ compliance with its obligations under the convention, expressed “concern at the abuse and exploitation of women employed as domestic workers in Lebanon” and recommended that Lebanon “establish procedures to monitor and safeguard the rights of women domestic workers and adequately prosecute and punish abusive employers.” It also called upon Lebanon to “provide domestic workers with viable avenues of redress against abuse by employers,” and “ensure that domestic workers are aware of their rights and legal protections and have access to legal aid.”