Attention Lebanese Prosecutor: Yes, We Traffick Humans

2016-10-17    |   

Attention Lebanese Prosecutor: Yes, We Traffick Humans

On September 19, 2016, American University of Beirut professor Sawsan Abdulrahim presented a study that she prepared[1] in collaboration with the International Labour Organization on employers’ relationship with domestic workers. The study is based on a representative sample of 1,200 employers (mostly women from several areas) and in-depth interviews with 29 of them. Most of the study’s findings are related to the working conditions of domestic workers. The study is not merely a statistical and quantitative endeavour, but is also based on the statements of employers, which can be described as confessions, in many cases. The scientific basis guaranteed that the outcome reflects how these employers actually saw themselves, or the image they wish to portray. But it is likely that the corresponding real image is worse. The employers are likely to beautify their image, whether consciously or subconsciously, not the other way around; this enhances the probative power of the results.

The most worrisome results include the following.

– Nearly 38% of the employers surveyed stated that the wage [of domestic workers] is less than US$200 (in 2% of the cases, the salary does not exceed US$150); and, nearly 80% stated that it is less than US$300. Employers provide shelter and food, however, 31% of respondents said workers do not have their own private space and sleep in common areas like the kitchen or the children’s room;

– Nearly 40% stated that they do not pay the wages at the end of every month, noting that 1% of them stated that they pay at the end of the contract;

– More than 73% stated that workers do not receive a copy of the contract signed at the notary. The study did not mention any data related to the extent to which the wage stipulated in the contract matches the wage agreed upon. This is what happens in many cases when the notary advises the employer to reduce the wage mentioned in the contract in order to save fees; thus, stripping the contract of any protective benefit;

– Nearly 94% said that they seize their domestic worker’s passport. More than 51% of them said they believed that the contract expressly allows them to do so, which is not true;

– More than 57% stated that the maids work seven days a week, without any weekend time off. Very few workers who get to have a break are able to spend it as they please outside the workplace. The study did not include any answers related to official or paid annual holidays, which reflects a certain normalization with the absence of these holidays;

– More than 11% of employers stated that maids work over 10 hours a day (3% of them work more than 12 hours), while 53% stated that they, i.e., maids, work more than 8 hours a day. The real situation here is likely much worse, especially since the study showed that 14% of employers answered that they did not know the number of hours their maids work. The high percentage of these employers proves the absence of the concept of fixed working hours in domestic work. It also requires that we read these figures in light of the high ratio of workers who work seven days a week, according to what we have referred to above;

– The percentage of employers who stated that they allow their workers to go out by themselves on their weekly day off does not exceed 25%. The published study did not include any answers on the possibility of going out during working days, after work. These two pieces of data reflect a certain normalization of the phenomenon of forcing domestic workers to stay in the workplace without cause. They are also an additional indicator of the absence of the concept of fixed working hours in this type of contracting;

– Nearly 23.6% stated that they lock their maids in the house, noting that 13.9% of them admitted that they always do this, while the rest admitted that they do it from time to time;

– The study confirms that there is almost a consensus among employers to deny the maid her right to enjoy a private life, on the grounds that these workers came to Lebanon to serve them and that any room for private life will affect their work; and,

– The study proves that setting the wages of workers is linked to their nationality first and foremost, while the seniority criterion remains of a lesser impact. The majority of Bangladeshi and Indonesian workers earn less than US$200 (72% of Bangladeshi and 64.3% of Indonesian women workers), while the majority of Filipino maids earn more than US$300 (65.4%). This reveals racial discrimination in wage settings.

These are some of the most prominent study outputs which give us an idea of ​​the extent of abuse of various degrees that is practiced against domestic workers. In sum, a large number of domestic workers receive low wages, without fixed working hours and without benefiting from a weekly rest or a paid leave. Moreover, they do not get paid on time and they are prohibited from going out of the workplace wherein they can be locked. In general, they are denied any right to privacy, not to mention that their passports are seized by their employers. The study does not provide statistics regarding the issue of granting workers time off on annual or religious holidays, or allowing them to go out on weekdays after work; this is also an indication of the degree of normalization and abuse practiced in this respect. Such arbitrariness certainly would not have taken place if it weren’t for the fragile status of domestic workers under the applicable sponsorship system. In this sense, this study, with the evidence it presents, is tantamount to minutes of indictment proving forced labor (which is a form of human trafficking), in many cases.

In light of such findings, the first recommendation would be to request the public prosecution to initiate investigation into forced labor practices in domestic work in Lebanon. It is not convincing that a research team can verify this enormous number of violations while the public prosecution, with its broad powers of investigation and deterrence, is unable to do so. Up until now, there isn’t any case of human trafficking filed against an employer in any criminal court, although a law in this regard was issued over five years ago. However, the study’s recommendations are disappointing. They are a further indication of the degree of normalizing the status quo. These recommendations are void of any practical measures to ensure that domestic workers enjoy their rights, or to deter abusiveness against them.

The only reference related to pressuring employers to commit to their obligations is in a paragraph about granting workers financial and social incentives. The paragraph is broad and is difficult to translate into clear procedures. Instead of emphasizing the necessity of educating workers and empowering them to claim their rights and resort to justice, the recommendations underlined the need for employers to know their rights and obligations. Although the study proved that 40% of these employers have violated their most obvious obligation which is paying the worker monthly, it recommends the establishment of public institutions in charge of familiarizing these workers with their rights, and most dangerously, with the sponsorship system; reflecting an intention to normalize such system. In the language of international organizations, such recommendations mean redirecting resources: instead of using these resources in the efforts to amend the legislation and regulations, especially in the direction of abolishing the sponsorship system, legal aid, strategic litigation, advocacy, support, and raising the awareness of the categories of people (victims) whose rights are being violated, they are being used to educate the violating parties, in the hope that they would be persuaded to be less worse or more respectful of the rights of these workers. In this sense, a right becomes a mere wish and the legal advocacy becomes mere sympathy.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] The study was prepared with the participation of assistant researcher Zainab Shirri.

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