From Sponsorship To Abuse: Being A Migrant Worker In Lebanon

“Domestic workers are dying in Lebanon at a rate of more than one per week,” – Nadim Houry, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, 2008

You have just arrived to Lebanon, excited to start making some money to send to your loved ones, and hoping to live a better life. Remember that $500/month deal you signed a contract for? Forget it. You might get 200$, or even less.

As you should know, a lot of Migrant Domestic Workers (MDWs) suffer from intolerable violence and oppression in this country. With the lack of proper legal procedures that would protect these workers, they become vulnerable to different types of discrimination and exploitation under the Lebanese “sponsorship system”.

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What is this famous “sponsorship system”? Is it a law?

Not really. The sponsorship system is a set of procedures that govern how migrant workers enter and leave the country. It is not listed in the Lebanese constitution, or in any law passed by our parliament. However, this procedural system is still being used by the authorities due to the lack of an organized legal alternative.

The sponsorship system entails the employee entering the country to be “sponsored” by an individual or entity. For example, any foreign professor teaching at your university most probably entered the country through this system, sponsored by the university that hired her/him.

Wait, what’s wrong with this system?  

Well, the sponsorship system excludes these migrant workers from the labor laws. Let’s say you’re a woman from Ethiopia. Right from the start, the sponsorship system does not fully guarantee you any minimum wages. You want a day off? Do you want to rest a bit or see some friends? Forget it. The sponsorship system does not require your employers to give you any specified time off. For all you know, you might end up locked in a house, without your papers, and asked to work from dusk until dawn. More than 52% of MDWs report experiencing different types of violence during their stay in Lebanon (Human Rights Watch, 2011), so there’s that too.

So, you’ve signed this annual contract with your employer. After experiencing the inhumane treatment, you decide to leave. Forget it. In addition to you probably finding yourself locked-in, you are not legally allowed to change employers, unless your current employer signs a paper permitting you to do so. Now, why would this employer let go of such semi-free labor she/he could easily exploit?

One day, after enduring your inhumane situation for so long, you decide to commit suicide. You think that your death would undoubtedly instigate action against your abusive employer, and ultimately contribute to improving the situation of other MDWs in Lebanon. Wrong again. Your suicide would most probably be attributed to “psychological problems”, and the investigations are likely to be skewed.

You get the idea. It’s not easy to be a migrant worker in Lebanon. Many people still believe that the issue of abuse is still debatable, ignoring the numerous studies pointing the other way, and leaving all the MDWs who enter our country vulnerable to all kinds of abuse and exploitation.

– Ramy Shukr

Published in Mish Jareedi February 2014 Printed Edition – click here to view original publication

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