Amid the chaos of Lebanon’s economic collapse, political elections and a large exodus of its most talented and educated, an integral part of its population and workforce has once again been forgotten. A vast amount of the domestic workers who clean the houses of the masses, nurse Lebanese babies and raise Lebanese children, who clean the dishes in the restaurants and fill cars with gas, are either being left unpaid for years of hard work or abandoned to find a way home under Lebanon’s infamous Kafala System.
The Kafala System is a migrant worker sponsorship system that enables indentured working and slavery. It originated in the Gulf Region and is practiced throughout the Middle East. Under the system, a national citizen can act as a sponsor, or kafeel, to a migrant worker, tying the worker’s legal right to live and work in the country to their employer. As such, if an employer decides to fire the worker, they can be detained and deported if their recruitment agency does not connect them to another sponsor. If the worker wishes to quit, they do not have the freedom to do so without the explicit approval of their employer. Employers have the right to confiscate and retain their worker’s passports, so if a worker is desperate to quit or leave the country, they are trapped if the employer will not return their documentation. Domestic workers are guaranteed no basic labor rights under the Kafala system — no guaranteed day off, no set working hours, no freedom to terminate a contract, no social security, no compensation for unfair termination, no parental leave and not even a minimum wage.
Recruitment agencies in Lebanon prey upon the most vulnerable In the world, advertising to the impoverished in countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and the Philippines. They make grandiose promises of a dreamland where workers will be paid in US dollars for easy work; often, contracts are written in Arabic, and the recruited workers who typically do not know the language must sign them before entering the country. Once they arrive in Beirut, the reality of the system they have tied themselves to becomes evident when they are not allowed to even leave the airport without their employer picking them up.
The system is resultingly rife with exploitation, abuse, and in the worst cases, modern-day slavery. Many civil cases have been brought against employers by migrant workers who never received full or any payment for their work. Many more have come forward exposing experiences of being psychologically, verbally, physically, and sexually abused. Some were fully enslaved or trafficked. On average, two domestic workers die per week in Lebanon, often trying to escape or by suicide, although their deaths are rarely properly investigated. Now, with the snowball of crises suffocating Lebanon, domestic workers are more neglected than ever. Thousands have been abandoned at the doors of their respective country’s embassies as their employers can no longer afford to pay them. Many of these essential workers constantly exposed to COVID-19 were left behind in Lebanon’s stunted rollout of vaccinations during the pandemic. According to Freedom United, 400,000 migrant workers in Lebanon are currently at significant risk for exploitation.
Yet, a groundbreaking case brought to Lebanon’s criminal court can potentially change the culture and even legality of the inherently abusive system. Meseret Hailu Deneke arrived in Lebanon from Ethiopia in 2012, looking to support her struggling family. What followed, she claims, was eight years of abuse, torture, and enslavement by her employer May Saadeh. Meseret, who previously went by the moniker MH in court documents, was permanently locked into her employer’s residence. She was forced to work around 15 hours a day, seven days a week, without days off or holidays. She was prohibited from contacting anyone in the outside world. When she would ask to talk to her family, Saadeh reporteadly told her, “Wait for them to remember they have a daughter to check on.” Saadeh also allegedly failed to pay Meseret the majority of her guaranteed earnings, and when Meseret would ask for her fair compensation, Saadeh would verbally or physically abuse her.
After years of no contact, Mesret’s worried family in Ethiopia was finally able to contact the volunteer organization, This is Lebanon, run by activists and former migrant workers, which then referred Meseret’s family to Legal Action Worldwide (LAW). LAW contacted Saadeh, demanding she release Meseret, and two weeks later, Meseret was finally allowed to return home, but with no money.
According to domestic and international law, LAW is now arguing a groundbreaking case against Saadeh on behalf of Meseret, accusing her former employer of slavery, human trafficking, and racial and gender discrimination. While migrant workers have brought up civil cases related to unpaid compensation in Lebanon before, as mentioned previously, this is the first case brought to criminal court following decades of this unjust system being practiced.
If Meseret proves successful, this case has significant legal implications for the Kafala system in Lebanon and the Middle East and Gulf regions. A win for the plaintiff would mean that thousands of other domestic workers subjected to similar abuses under the system would be more empowered and validated in speaking out. It would cast a new cultural light upon the system and force countries to reconsider their labor laws about domestic workers. Meseret’s lawsuit has the potential to facially challenge the Kafala System as a whole on top of granting herself justice.
However, nothing is certain in a country where migrant workers’ rights have historically been neglected and in which corruption runs rampant. In 2020, for example, Lebanon’s Labor Ministry made efforts to guarantee some basic labor rights to domestic workers. This effort made it to the highest administrative court until the government ultimately ruled in favor of the Syndicate of the Owners of Recruitment Agencies in Lebanon, which had challenged the proposed policy. After all, the Kafala System helps ensure a vital source of income in an important industry. Lebanese recruitment agencies netted $57.5 million in 2019 alone from recruitment fees. The government took multimillion-dollar cuts for administrative fees, which is no small number for the third-highest indebted country in the world. Furthermore, the Kafala System benefits the Lebanese government, which “provides” severely deficient social services. Through Kafala, the government can cheaply and easily transfer its responsibilities to migrant workers, who largely clean its streets and care for its elderly.
Yet, Meheret’s bravery and determination in carrying the case forward — even as Saadeh refused to show up to the first preliminary hearing — demands hope and optimism for the future. Meheret’s lawyer believes justice will be served and that the case will “open the door” for the inhumane and unjust Kafala System to be “abolished.” As Meheret said, she wants to ensure her “nightmare” experience is no longer possible or normalized. More than compensation, Meheret is seeking justice so that her case “could serve as a warning to all abusers that their crimes will catch up to them one day.”