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Lebanon: A Step Forward Against Kafala, But Far From it’s Abolishment

Ghalia Al Alwani- Syrian Journalist
September 9, 2020
The clauses stipulated in the contract sound promising, although they do not tackle enough factors regarding the murderous discrimination of the migrant domestic workers in Lebanon to get to a stage where the Kafala system can be said to be abolished.

The current Minister of Labor Lamia Yammine has announced that a new unified contract for migrant domestic workers has been completed, and will soon be announced and implemented. The unified contract is said to have 15 clauses, all of which supposedly amend the flaws in the older version in favor of the migrant domestic workers. This includes the implementation of a standard national wage, and the right for the worker to change her employer at will. Many have hailed this a giant step forward, with some going as far as calling it the abolishment of the Kafala system; but the catch, like most loopholes within Lebanon’s legal infrastructure, is between the lines.

In an interview with Daraj discussing this new contract, Yammine excitedly brushes over the buzzwords that are likely to paint this contract an achievement.

“We made a unified contract, this was what we were waiting for. There was a roadmap we worked on, with the ILO and IOM and others, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch,” Minister Yammine tells Daraj. “We had a committee and we made a roadmap towards abolishing Kafala, and the many steps we should take towards this. One of the steps, is the unified contract that gives them their human rights.”

It’s tough to not welcome this news with hospitable arms. After a year of devastating events unfolding onto the country, peaking with the Beirut Port explosion on August fourth, the Lebanese are tired of painful developments. Scenes of migrant domestic workers, sleeping on the streets, abandoned by their owners without their passports or wages, became overwhelmingly regular, before and after the blast that rendered thousands of families homeless.

“Of course not, they have absolutely no right to throw her on the street that way, and we’ve said so!” Minister Yammine retorts, responding to a question about whether these employers would ever be held accountable. “Let me tell you something, the ministry of labor all in all has only 15 inspectors, which means there is no way we can inspect every single case in Lebanon, between the migrant domestic workers and the Lebanese workers too… So, we are dependent on organizations and embassies.”

I couldn’t help but think, that it should’ve been a lot more shameful for her to admit this to me, as she casually justified the Ministry’s incompetence with a quantity logistic. Of course, there is no way that 15 inspectors can look into every case of abuse regarding a migrant domestic worker, let alone look into any illegal cases regarding Lebanese employees alone, but that, is precisely the flagrant problem.

“When the government allows for more than 250,000 migrant domestic workers to come into the country and work under the abusive Kafala system, they have to be prepared with an inspection mechanism and prepared to protect the rights of these workers,” Diala Haidar, a campaigner who’s worked on the abolishment of Kafala at Amnesty International tells Daraj. “No one else will do it. They are the ones to be held accountable for violating the rights of these workers.”

Still, the clauses stipulated in the contract sound promising, although they do not tackle enough factors regarding the murderous discrimination of the migrant domestic workers in Lebanon to get to a stage where the Kafala system can be said to be abolished. Minister Yammine mentioned a standard national wage, the right to change the employer, the right to terminate the employment contract (with conditions), freedom of movement, the right to days off and more. She also mentioned that they are indeed working towards amending article seven of the Labor law, the one that excludes domestic work from the protection of the law (which would eventually have to be voted for as a draft law in Parliament). The issue seems to be in the implementation of these actions, and the enforcement mechanism that will be put in place.

“We provided the minister with an action plan that provides a number of measures to dismantle the Kafala system, one of which was adopting a unified contract that can address the current inequalities between the employer and the worker,” Haidar continues. “But then she provided her own version of the contract and made amendments to what we had submitted, and that’s why we have no clue what her version includes or doesn’t.”

“If it includes the provisions that we put forward, then this is a positive step forward,” she adds. “However, this contract must be accompanied by a complaint mechanism and a proper enforcement mechanism. I mean right now we have a unified contract that was adopted by the ministry in 2009, and yet you see how the workers are being abandoned in the streets without their wages, luggage or passports, and no employers are being held accountable, even though this is a breach of the current contract. In the absence of any enforcement and inspection mechanisms, any contracts are only ink on paper, no matter what provisions they include.”

It is unclear for now how the implementation of this contract is going to evolve, although Minister Yammine is making large promises; an action plan that involves a collaboration with the general security and concerned embassies in these matters, to ensure the enforcement of this contract (given that the Ministry of Labor, according to Yammine, is incapable of doing it on their own).

It’s also too quick to judge how the exaggerated story of kafala abolishment is going to unfold, although it should be noted that these promises are coming from the same Minister who insists that they have seen every complaint made to them through, and blacklisted every employer they’ve received objections about, while the list of suicides, abuses, and runaways pile up in the background. This is also coming from the same Minister that insists that the Lebanese are being too demonized…

“In the absence of any enforcement and inspection mechanisms, any contracts are only ink on paper, no matter what provisions they include.”

“I have to tell you something, a lot of times there is injustice to the Lebanese people,” Yammine tells Daraj. “It’s not always that they [the migrant workers] are victimized and thrown onto the street. So many migrant domestic workers are illegal because they ran away. In Lebanon, we have 158,000 domestic workers registered at the ministry of labor, but we have a huge number, over 100,000, according to the embassies, who are here illegally, and this causes problems.”

The question is, Minister Yammine, why they would voluntarily choose to become illegal. You make it seem ludicrous, that they would run away, from a prison, in which their identity is stolen, and their abuse is standard, customary and legal. Why, when they couldn’t change their employer without losing their residency status, when they were getting paid pennies, without an hour off from their work? I suppose 100,000 modern-day slaves escaping to freedom, is a humanitarian issue to some, but a bug in the windshield for others.

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