Editor's note: Towards the end of Lebanon’s civil war in the early 90s, recruiting foreign workers for domestic service gradually turned into a phenomenon. The “sponsorship system” emerged, which opened the door for all sorts of human rights violations that continue today.This painful reality and The Legal Agenda's commitment to studying the relationship between marginalized groups and the judiciary has prompted cooperation between The Legal Agenda and the International Labor Organization in 2013 to regularly and systematically follow up on the cases of foreign domestic workers submitted before the judiciary. The judiciary is the body authorized to deliberate on the conflicts that arise between people in their daily lives. Additionally, the judiciary can act, through publishing its activities, as an arena for ongoing self-reflection by society on previously held preconceptions and opinions. It can also serve as an arena to reflect on injustice, authoritarianism, and violations of the basic rights of vulnerable groups.Today, we are pleased to re-launch this cooperation under that same spirit.
The subject of this article is a court case dating back to 2012, when a Lebanese woman filed a complaint against her Bengali worker, claiming that the latter had “fled” over nine months ago. The plaintiff claimed that she was late in reporting the “escape” to public authorities because she had surgery. Contrary to conventional procedures, the “sponsor” was summoned to give her testimony. The investigation revealed that she had entered into a contract of employment with the foreign worker after the latter’s first sponsor relinquished her sponsorship. When the residency [permit] of the worker expired in Lebanon, the “sponsor” did not renew it. The sponsor claimed it was impossible to renew the permit because of her small house which is just a janitor's room on the ground floor of a building.
The public security's investigation of the plaintiff revealed that the allegation was false. During the period in question, the maid was working for others with the knowledge of the plaintiff (and perhaps to her benefit). This contradicted the claim that the worker escaped and that the plaintiff had not taken any action to renew the residency or to inform the public security due to the small size of her house. When asked if the worker had given her any sum of money, the sponsor stated that the maid had given her US$600 to buy a travel ticket, only to change the story and claim that the amount had been paid to settle her situation. She also responded with a yes when asked if she still had the worker’s passport.
In a remarkable move, the Public Prosecution sued the plaintiff for fabricating an offense and making a false allegation, and held her responsible for not renewing the residency of her worker. The Public Prosecution also sued the worker for violation of the law for foreigners in Lebanon (her charges being: changing the type of work without informing the Ministry of Labor, changing her residence, and not renewing her residency). The proceedings took place in the absence of the worker, whose testimony was never taken. It is not known whether she is still in Lebanon or if she has left. On May 29, 2017, the single criminal judge in Beirut sentenced both defendants for the above-mentioned crimes. It is worth noting that the sponsor was sentenced to pay a fine of LL100,000 [US$66], while the worker's financial penalty amounted to LL300,000 [US$198].
This case sheds light on five practices that would significantly jeopardize domestic workers' rights:
1. A Rise in the Phenomenon of False Sponsorship
A number of people deliberately register workers under their names only to have them work for other people. This may be done out of leniency with the worker, but at other times it is done purely for exploitation. In this case, the false sponsorship association becomes one for exploitation in which forced labor – a form of human trafficking – takes place. While the sponsor did state that she received money from her worker, we see no attempt made in this case to explore the truth of this matter, despite the many contradictions in the sponsor's testimony regarding the purpose of the amount she was paid.
2. Failure to Renew the Residency of Domestic Workers Despite Their Stay in Lebanon
The second practice this case highlights is the ease with which a number of employers decide not renew the residency of their workers despite their stay in Lebanon in order to avoid the costs involved in the process. This is more likely to happen in the case of false sponsorship when the “sponsor” no longer has an interest or finds that the cost of residency renewal is far more than the benefits resulting from it. This often happens without informing the worker whose stay in Lebanon becomes illegal. Moreover, the worker is not able to regularize her situation for several reasons, including the fact that she does not have her passport. Consequently, women workers are subject to confinement, punishment, and deportation for reasons beyond their control.
These reasons are in many cases close to force majeure. While the plaintiff sought to evade criminal liability resulting from the non-renewal of the worker’s papers by claiming the worker had fled, the investigation’s refusal to acknowledge this allegation was a positive step. The investigation also proved that the plaintiff fully approved of the extra work for others and that she was in contact with her worker, making the plaintiff an accessory to the offense of not renewing the residency. It is likely that the veracity of the alleged events were carefully scrutinized due to the fact that the plaintiff was late in filing the escape complaint. This would not have happened under different circumstances. Moreover, the worker's absence from the proceedings denied her and the court the possibility of discussing the extent of her responsibility in this regard against the backdrop of the force majeure conditions.
3. Fabricating Crimes and Slandering Domestic Workers
The third issue this case highlights is the chronic and widespread practice among employers of fabricating offenses and making false allegations against domestic workers in order to meet their own interests. They may do so to evade their obligations towards them or towards public authorities, as described above, or to recover the bond they deposited at the Banque de L’Habitat. The most common fabricated offence is claiming that the worker fled or committed theft. The plaintiff in this particular case only filed a complaint of escape. The Public Prosecution and the court both ruled that the sponsor made up the allegation of escape, based on Article 402 of the Penal Code. This ruling is an important precedent to deter employers who file false complaints against their workers without having the slightest evidence. This would put an end to the phenomenon of false accusations. To this day, despite the large number of rulings related to the dismissal of theft claims and the acquittal of workers, we do not find any defamation lawsuits on this basis.
4. The Penalty is Disproportionate to the Seriousness of the Offense
The penalty that the sponsor received for all the above-mentioned offenses committed was LL100,000. Considering these offenses, one cannot help but wonder whether this punishment is proportionate to the seriousness of the practices committed. These types of practices would impede the work of public authorities and hinder the follow-up on the status of foreigners in Lebanon. They would also place foreign workers in vulnerable situations that would facilitate human trafficking. To appreciate what is at stake, it is important to note that the punishment set for the violation of residency conditions is up to three years imprisonment, whereas punishment for the offence of slander is six months. Besides, other crimes might have been committed albeit undocumented due to the lack of investigation and the absence of the worker. The financial penalty of LL300,000 imposed on the worker makes this issue even more subject to criticism.
5. Continuous Usage of Such Terms as “Escape” and “Fleeing”
The term “flee” was used more than once in the investigations and the ruling. It was mentioned nine times in the preliminary investigations and once in the ruling. It is difficult to make sense of this word out of the context of slavery, where a worker leaving their workplace constitutes an escape. In office work, this act constitutes resignation or termination of the work contract by the worker voluntarily. Therefore, continuing to use this description reflects a social perception that domestic labor relations are akin to slavery. To have ordinary people express this perception is disturbing, but to have it expressed this way by public authorities or judges contradicts the preamble of the Constitution and the Universal Declaration mentioned therein that stipulates people are equal and free.