Migrant domestic workers carry placards during a protest in the Lebanese capital Beirut on May 5, 2019, to call for the abolition of the sponsorship (kafala) system and for the inclusion of domestic workers in Lebanese labor laws. Photo: Anwar Amro / AFP

When Patricia came to Lebanon, she was excited to earn some pocket money for traveling and start the career she had been trained for — as a bank teller. The young Cameroonian, with short bleached-blond hair, stepped off the plane suspecting nothing when a woman met her at the airport to bring her to the city. When they entered the woman’s house, Patricia was brought to the kitchen, where she was gestured to an attic crawlspace.

“When will I go to my apartment?” she asked. The woman laughed, Patricia recalled. “Oh, you want to live like a princess?”

It rapidly dawned on Patricia, even as she tried to explain the mix-up, that there was no apartment and no bank teller job as she had been promised by a recruitment agency. The woman had been given her passport at the Beirut airport and appeared to have no qualms about the situation and deceit of the agency. The kafala (sponsorship) system tied Patricia to her, and she was in control.

Iman Bachir, 18, the daughter of migrant workers, models at a fashion show in the trendy Beirut neighborhood of Gemmayzeh in May 2016. The annual fashion show is organized by Lebanese human rights organization Insan to shed light on the plight of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. Photo: Patrick Baz / AFP

Patricia told Asia Times that she worked for months, trapped in the apartment, and doing menial tasks until she reached her wits’ end.

“I couldn’t get through to the woman, so I called her husband and told him that if he didn’t let me leave I would jump from the balcony.” 

Patricia is one of a quarter-million migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, whose native population numbers approximately four million. These women, typically from Ethiopia, the Philippines, and Bangladesh, are not protected under the national labor laws, and their hours, food, lodging, and wages are largely dependent on the whims of their employer.

A report by human rights watchdog Amnesty International found that upon entry to Lebanon, the majority of migrant domestic workers had their passports taken by General Security and handed directly to their new employers, setting the stage for a total loss of control and a regard for these women as property.

“When she [the domestic worker] arrived at the airport, General Security handed me her passport. I kept it with me. The recruitment agency told me not to give her the passport because she might run away and cause me trouble,” one employer told Amnesty. 

In turn, the testimonies of migrant domestic workers told a story of restricted freedom of movement, communications, and even access to food.

“I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone. If I opened the window and waved to other Filipinas, she [the employer] would pull my hair and beat me. For three years she locked me in the house. I never got out,” one domestic worker from the Philippines told the rights group.

The International Labor Organization found in a 2016 survey of more than 1,500 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon that only half had been given their own sleeping quarters. The rest were forced to sleep in the living room, kitchen, a glass-enclosed veranda, or with the children. “In other words, around half of the interviewed migrant domestic workers suffer from a complete lack of privacy at any time of the day,” the report said.

These women have minimal recourse when residency fees go unpaid and paperwork is left unrenewed by their employer; they are not under the umbrella of the national labor law. Some find themselves stuck in Lebanon for years after their passports expire or residency fees – meant to be paid by their employers – add up beyond what they have earned. A migrant domestic worker is legally tied to her employer and must gain that person’s consent if she wishes to leave.

One migrant domestic worker who spoke to Asia Times on condition of anonymity because of her precarious legal situation said her employer had not paid her residency fees for two decades, and that her embassy had informed her that if she wished to leave, she would have to come up with the money herself. During her stay in Lebanon, her mother passed away and she has gone grey.

Modern slavery

Lebanon’s own labor minister described the kafala system as “a form of modern slavery, in its extreme” in a recent interview with the British newspaper The Independent. 

But the minister Camille Abousleiman had a caveat, distinguishing the system from its real-life application by agencies and employers.

“Today, for instance, it is forbidden to withhold someone’s passport, but it’s being done. So it’s not the system, it’s more in the application of the system,” he told the paper. 

Amnesty International argues the contrary – that it is not the application, but the system itself that is inherently exploitative, and is lobbying the government for change.

At an April 24 event hosted by the rights watchdog to complement the rollout of its report, one domestic worker after another took to the mic to lambast kafala.

“We can’t rely on getting lucky with our employers,” insisted one woman. “The whole system needs to be abolished.”

Another woman at the event, Bizu Sisay of Ethiopia, stood up to give an impassioned speech on behalf of children born to domestic migrant workers in Lebanon who are denied access to public schooling. Oftentimes, she said, these children are the product of rapes, coming into the world with even less rights than their mothers. 

Following my dreams

Sisay came to Lebanon from her native Ethiopia about six years ago, after a series of frightening work experiences in Sudan and nearly getting sucked into a dangerous Mediterranean crossing through war-torn Libya amid the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi. She had never intended to settle in the Arab world.

Her winding journey is a window into the pitfalls and exploitation faced by nationals of the global south seeking to find work and a decent life beyond their borders. Sisay had viewed Sudan as a transit point to her real destination: Italy. But after a frightening stint in the home of a military officer in Khartoum – who wanted to take her as his second wife – and a dangerous trip to the border with Libya, where she was mistaken for a Sudanese and transported back to Khartoum, she decided to buy a plane ticket to Beirut, work for the duration of her three month visa, and then fly on to Rome. 

That never happened.

Instead, Sisay found herself trapped in the home of her initial employer, who confiscated her passport on the ride from the airport. Though Sisay had communicated to an employment agency that she was only available for three months of work, she found herself stripped of her rights from the moment she landed – herded along with a group of other women to a filthy waiting room and not even given cups to drink from a tank of water. 

The apartment where she was to work was on a high floor, the lobby watched over by a concierge. Sisay says her employer burned her belongings, including her only childhood pictures of her family, seeing them as dirty.

The lobby was guarded by a concierge, leaving no avenue for escape. 

Sisay was losing hope when – one day – she heard the sound of Ethiopian songs being sung at a wedding party next door. It was a woman from her country getting married to a fellow migrant worker in the building across the street. She was not allowed to attend, but she memorized the apartment.

The moment for escape came suddenly. Allowed on a shopping trip, the young woman asked permission to get a drink of water from the floor above the shop; she took the elevator up, raced down the stairwell out the building, and hailed a cab to the only place she knew where to go – the apartment of the wedding across from her employer.

It would be the beginning of a new veritable odyssey in Lebanon, jumping from one job to another, compelled to navigate complex relationships with fellow migrant workers and employers alike, and even starting a restaurant with the same Ethiopian woman across the street who took her in – and later (she believes) robbed her. 

Sisay has not only survived but embraced a new role: a community activist, advocating on behalf of her fellow migrant workers within a labyrinth of hostile institutions. 

Bizu Sisay at the Migrant Community Center in Beirut. Photo: Alison Tahmizian Meuse

On a sunny afternoon, Asia Times met Sisay at the Migrant Community Center in Beirut, a welcoming space for the workers that they run themselves. Its mission is to educate one another on their rights, gain new skills, and help one another in times of need.

The young woman was simultaneously exhausted, determined, and composed as she recounted all that she had seen – from rescuing an Ethiopian woman who nearly died because she could not to afford to give birth and was used as practice for inexperienced doctors at a hospital in a Palestinian camp, to serving as a translator for Lebanese General Security despite having no legal status in the country. 

It was only two years ago that Sisay’s activist journey began, when she took a leap of faith and attended a Labor Day march through the streets of Beirut.

“I remember the first time I marched. I thought we would all end up in jail,” she said, her eyes lighting up. 

She did not get arrested but continued on to become an advocate for herself and her fellow migrant workers.

“Most of us have no papers,” she stressed. Sisay does not see a future for herself in Lebanon, but before she leaves, her goal is to help establish a school for the children of migrant workers.

“There is no going back,” she said. “I am not done following my dreams.” 

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