Lebanese Domestic Workers: Deportation Without Compensation.

2018-03-01    |   

Lebanese Domestic Workers: Deportation Without Compensation.

On October 28, 2015, the Labor Arbitration Council in Beirut issued a decision compelling an employer to pay her Ethiopian former employee wages owed in the amount of USD$4500. The ruling was made on the grounds that the employer was unable to prove that she had paid these wages. At the same time, however, the ruling dismissed other claims regarding compensation for termination without notice and for arbitrary dismissal. The council denied these “because it was not the employer who had voided the work contract but rather the worker who had left her job.”

Naturally, the ruling’s acknowledgement of the unpaid wages is a positive development. But at the same time, the decision has been criticized for denying the employee’s demand for additional compensation, which it did under the pretext that she had quit her job––but without considering the circumstances of her departure in any way. Who is responsible for the dissolution of the contract: the employer, who unabashedly withheld wages from her employee for years, or the worker, who quit because she could no longer tolerate the hardship of hard work without pay? This article attempts to shed light on this question by revisiting the conditions of the worker’s departure, as well as the judicial proceeding.

The Circumstances Behind the Worker Leaving her Job and her Deportation Following General Security Investigations

On January 30, 2013, the plaintiff, whose nationality is Ethiopian, left the home where she had been employed. She sought assistance from [the non-governmental organization] Caritas, which immediately notified Lebanese General Security. On February 2, 2013, General Security initiated an investigation into the matter (that is, into the worker’s request for assistance) after summoning both the worker, who appeared with a lawyer provided by Caritas, and her former employer. During the proceedings, the worker stated that she had worked for her former employer for four years, that the sum total of earnings received during this period amounted to USD$1500, paid in two installments, and that she was still owed USD$4500. The worker explained that the employer had always claimed she was in a poor financial state or that she needed surgery. The worker also stated that she had left the house not only for lack of payment, but because she had been beaten and her residency permit had not been renewed. The worker demanded that the employer pay her the wages she was due, and declared her desire to return to her own country.

As for the employer, she stated that the worker’s residency fee had been paid at the time of the investigation, although the passport and documentation of residency were missing. On the matter of wages, she denied that the worker had any claim against her, yet she was unable to provide any evidence that she had paid her. During the proceedings the employer retracted her own allegation against the worker (this would likely have been a claim that the worker had absconded). She stated that she had no objection to deporting the worker back to her country, and offered to provide her ticket upon request. Subsequently, contact was made with the Public Prosecution, who indicated that the worker should be entrusted to Caritas and left the decision concerning her residency up to the general director of General Security.

It is likely that the worker was deported shortly after the investigation, although the file from the labor suit has no details on this point. It is also likely that the worker was brought before criminal authorities for violating the terms of her residency, although the file is silent on this matter as well. It is also worth pointing out that the General Security report makes no mention of any questions asked of the employer regarding her physical abuse of her employee. Nor does it contain any indication that the Public Prosecution alerted General Security of the need to further investigate this abuse.

Legal Proceedings and Ruling

On November 6, 2013, the Ethiopian worker, acting through her representative, a lawyer appointed by Caritas, filed a lawsuit with the Labor Arbitration Council in Beirut ( the court that oversees labor-related cases). The worker asserted that it was her employer’s responsibility to pay her wages, and that she had left her job because she had not received those wages. Therefore, she argued, the employer should be held liable for voiding the work contract. Consequently, the worker demanded that the employer be compelled to pay what was due to her: namely, reimbursement of unpaid wages for four years of work, in addition to compensation resulting from termination.

In response, the employer called for the claim of compensation to be dismissed on the basis of statutes of Lebanese labor law pertaining to notice [of termination] and arbitrary dismissal. She argued that it was the worker who had left the house and quit her job, and that she had not dismissed the worker from employment. She also claimed that the worker’s wages had been paid in full, particularly since the worker had left Lebanon to return to her country shortly after leaving her position working in her home.

The council convened a total of seven sessions to hear the case, five of which had to be postponed because neither the employer nor her representative were present. The proceedings included a statement given by the government commissioner, an official who presents an opinion in all labor cases and represents the position of the state, in particular the Ministry of Labor. The council’s subsequent ruling diverged, in part, from the commissioner’s statement: it supported the commissioner’s position in obligating the defendant to pay the worker’s wages, because she had not provided any proof that this had happened. But it differed from the commissioner’s position in denying the worker’s demand for additional compensation, citing the fact that the worker had left her job. It is noteworthy that the government commissioner supported the worker’s claim that she be compensated for the nullification of the contract so long as the employer was behind on paying wages.

A Ruling that Broadens the Privileges of the Sponsorship System––and Wastes an Opportunity to Limit Them

A close examination of the ruling reveals another facet of the unjust system regulating domestic workers in Lebanon. First of all, the judicial proceedings took place in the absence of the plaintiff, who was unable to relate her hardships to the council. The council’s legal reasoning took a technical approach, applying legal statutes related to labor, obligations, and contracts to the case as it was presented––and disregarding the case’s human dimensions. In this sense, this case adopted the same approach taken in criminal cases, in which rulings are typically issued in the absence of the workers themselves, after they have been deported, without permitting them to stand before a judge and justify themselves.[1]

Because this did not happen in court, it might be useful to speculate about the narrative this worker might have presented to the council. She may have spoken about how she felt, having left her family, and perhaps her children, to earn a wage; how she found herself confined to a house, performing hard work for long hours in exchange for nothing but promises that her wages, accumulating year after year, would be paid someday. What depths of despair must she have felt when she decided to leave the house and return to her country, risking the possibility of ever collecting the wages she had suffered so much for three years to earn?

Of course, however far the imagination of a researcher or lawyer or judge might stretch, it is difficult for anyone to relate such hardships other than the person who lived it. And while it is impossible to know whether such a narrative might have reversed the court’s decision, the ruling highlights the ugliness of the existing system, and the immense imbalance it produces in the relationship between foreign worker and employer. It is no exaggeration to say that the system’s capacity to persist would weaken if workers were empowered to relate their hardships to the courts. It should be pointed out that the council arrived at its ruling without making any effort to hear from the worker by way of modern methods of communication, as another court recently did in a commercial case.[2] They did not even inquire as to what had become of the worker, having tacitly determined that her leaving her job was enough cause to reject her demand for compensation––regardless of the reasons behind it (which will be discussed below).

Secondly, the council’s ruling rested upon a material fact (the employee leaving her job) in order to conclude that the worker was responsible for voiding the contract. It did not investigate the actual reasons behind that material fact. In taking this approach to labor cases, it is as if the council is resorting to the approach adopted by all the courts who oversee criminal offenses arising from a worker leaving the home of their employer (i.e. violations of the statutes of the law on foreigners). Accordingly, as the worker faced a criminal penalty in this case––no matter the reason, even if she had been subject to the severest violations––the council found her responsible for voiding the contract. It paid no attention to the gross violations perpetrated by the employer over the course of three years. In both criminal and labor-related proceedings, workers are increasingly marginalized, while employers’ immunity from both criminal accountability and civil accountability (labor suits) increases. The severity of their offenses is immaterial.

It appears that rather than take advantage of this opportunity to restore some semblance of balance to the employment relationship, the council has done the opposite. It has strengthened the sponsorship system and the privileges that the system grants to employers. The ruling can be further criticized on the basis that it completely ignored what the worker told General Security–– namely that she left not only because she had not been paid, but because she had been beaten.

Thirdly, despite the severity of the employer’s offenses, which could even amount to the crime of human trafficking, the council ruled on the case without referring the file to the public prosecutor. In this sense, the council has also ostensibly violated the obligation of public employees to inform the prosecution of anything they observe that could constitute a criminal act.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

[1] Sarah Wansa, “Domestic Workers, Public Prosecution, and General Security: Trials Conducted in Absentia,” The Legal Agenda 12, November 2013.

[2] Ali al-Musawi, “A First in the History of the Lebanese Judiciary: High Court Conducts Questioning via Skype,” on the website Mahkama, October 23, 2017.

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