Her name I won’t disclose. Let us just call her G. She told me her story because I asked her, it’s as simple as that. I told her she seemed down, she who is naturally so upbeat, and she launched into it, as if on cue, waiting to tell someone. So I gave her this space, and thought that her story deserved to be shared, if only to put a human face on all the statistics regarding migrant workers and the way they’re treated in Lebanon, if only to reveal the inhumanity with which so many people living in Lebanon are treated. Just to give you a bit of context, G. works in a beauty salon. So G., you’re on.
‘ I am so unhappy in my current job. I came to Lebanon under a woman’s sponsorship (Kefala), and when she stopped working they transferred me to my current employer. Last week end, my friend called me to invite me to a birthday party. I was pleased and wanted to look nice. Now, my previous employer worked in the same industry I’m in now, and used to let me borrow nail polish whenever I wanted for my personal use, especially if I had an occasion, provided I gave them back, which I always did. I just assumed my current boss would grant me the same permission, especially as it was the first time I did it while working for him, and was going to put the two nail polishes back first thing on Monday. I just wanted to to my own nails for once, so I packed the two little bottles in my bag. As I was exiting the salon, my boss started yelling at me, asking me to take everything out from my purse. It turned out the other girl working with me had gone and told our boss that I took two nail varnishes in my bag. My boss went ballistic, calling me names (thief, charmouta) and told me I had no right to take some products out. I told him my previous boss, whom he knows and has worked with, used to let me do it, and that I merely borrowed them in good faith. I started crying, but he took away my phone and was very angry with me. I was extremely sad as my cell phone was the easiest way for me to contact my daughter back home. I went to the phone center and called my daughter to tell her I wouldn’t be able to call her as much now that I didn’t have my phone anymore. I thought the whole thing was behind me when several days later my employer took me to the Maktab, the office that deals with migrant workers papers and affairs. There, the person in charge started yelling at me, telling me I was no good and had to obey my employer and ended his whole screaming match by slapping me twice. My boss was calmer with me afterwards, much nicer, he said soothingly the whole thing was over. It is not over for me.’
I asked her if she perhaps could work some place else. She answered she was looking into it but that it was so difficult in Lebanon because she was under the responsibility of her current employer, so that she was tied to him for papers.
Imagine yourself being unable to change your job if you wish to. Imagine being dependent on another person, being tied to this person to be able to continue working. Imagine being beaten up by people in power to force you into a certain behavior. Imagine having no freedom at all, doing all the thankless work while having to endure daily racism. It’s odd, isn’t it, that we would never dream in a million years to accept these conditions for ourselves, yet that we have no qualms about imposing them on other people. Aren’t these people equal human beings? Then why are they being treated so dramatically differently?
In her latest report to the 21st session of the Human Rights Council following her visit to Lebanon in October, the UN special rapporteur on modern forms of slavery stated what anyone who has lived in Lebanon has witnessed, that ‘many migrant domestic workers are not seen as equals to the Lebanese with the same rights, but as commodities, thereby further entrenching the idea that Lebanese employers own and have full control over their workers. Over the years, there have been reports of domestic servitude in Lebanon, whereby migrant domestic workers are economically, sexually and/or physically exploited, left totally dependent on others and unable to end the employer-employee relationship of their own volition. The victims continue to work under the threat of violence, or even experiencing violence, and may have restrictions placed on their freedom of movement and communication.’
The report also points out the dire injustice and oppression of the Sponsorship system: ‘under the Kafala system, a migrant domestic worker who leaves her employment without permission from both her employer and the Government, for whatever reason, is immediately classified as an irregular migrant and is subject to arrest, detention and deportation. The migrant domestic worker cannot end her contract and is legally tied to her employer.’
G.’s example is one among many others. We could all share many more stories we hear, like my neighbour in Lebanon who beats up the domestic worker working for him and locks her up down in the cellar, where the Syrian natour brings her food (otherwise she’d starve on top of being locked up). What is happening in Lebanon and in many other countries is modern day slavery, and the even more shocking thing is that it is happening with the blessing of the Lebanese government who still implements the Kefala system, refuses to see domestic workers who decide to leave their employer as victims but rather as criminals, takes virtually no steps to eradicate discrimination against migrant workers and allows its Labour Code to specifically exclude migrant workers from its provisions.
Join the anti-racism movement if you feel you can’t bear to live in a country where slavery is commonplace: http://www.antiracismmovement.com
The complete report of the UN special rapporteur on modern forms of slavery can be downloaded here http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G12/149/40/PDF/G1214940.pdf?OpenElement