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“I was kept as a slave for seven years in Beirut”

LAW files case on behalf of migrant domestic worker in Lebanon

On 8 October 2020, LAW filed a ground-breaking case on behalf of our client, Meseret Hailu, arguing that the conditions and treatment she was subjected to while a migrant domestic worker in Lebanon constituted crimes of slavery, slave trading, trafficking in persons, forced labour, deprivation of liberty and withholding personal documents, racial discrimination, gender discrimination and torture.

Meseret is a 38 year old female, born in Ethiopia, where she currently resides with her mother, brothers and sister. Meseret lived in Lebanon between March 2011 and September 2019, when she worked for the Defendant. Meseret’s contract, and her arrival in Lebanon, were facilitated by two brokers, one in Lebanon and one in Ethiopia. She was told that she would undertake domestic work, including housework and childcare, for a Lebanese family, and that she would be remunerated at a rate of three hundred dollars per month.

Meseret was only paid for 13 months of the 8.5 years that she worked. She worked from 6.30am – 10pm every day, and did not have a day off for the entirety of her time there. Meseret’s kafeel locked the door whenever she left the apartment and the only time Meseret left the building was when her kafeel took Meseret to clean the clinic where the kafeel worked. Here, again, Meseret was locked in. Other than to clean the clinic, Meseret only left her employers apartment three times in 8.5 years.

Meseret was subjected to physical and verbal abuse, denied food and medical attention, was prevented from speaking to her family and from returning to Ethiopia. She was finally released when a photo of Meseret was circulated in Beirut and a journalist contacted her kafeel asking about Meseret.

Find out more with LAW’s Frequently Asked Questions

Background on Kafala system

Approximately 250,000 –300,000 migrant workers primarily from Ethiopia, the Philippines, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are deprived of any legal rights or protection in Lebanon due to the ‘Kafala System.’ This renders migrant residency status’ contingent on their employment relationship. If the worker wishes to leave their employment, they need the consent of their employer or they lose their residency status and risk detention and deportation. This leads to a dangerous inequality of power; compiled with racial and gender discrimination which has led to a commonality of reports of sexual violence, including rape; physical and psychological abuse, deprivation of liberty, restricted access to passports and refusals to pay salaries. It is particularly stark for domestic migrant workers; the vast majority of which are women. The Kafala System contravenes Lebanon’s international human rights obligations, may engage international criminal law and inherently denies migrant workers access to justice.

A migrant worker’s entry, residence and work in Lebanon are governed by the entry visa and work permit. Beyond issuing a visa at a controlled point of entry and renewing permits on an annual basis, the government has few means to monitor conditions of residence and work. This renders the employment contract the main source of legal obligations to which the worker is subject.

Read LAW’s Policy Brief on Migrant Domestic Workers here