‘End neo-slavery’: Lebanon maid abandonment sparks outrage

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Ethiopian domestic workers who were dismissed by their employers gather with their belongings outside their country’s embassy in Hazmiyeh, east of Beirut, on June 24, 2020. (AFP)
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Ethiopian domestic workers who were dismissed by their employers gather with their belongings outside their country’s embassy in Hazmiyeh, east of Beirut, on June 24, 2020. (AFP)
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Ethiopian domestic workers who were dismissed by their employers gather with their belongings outside their country’s embassy in Hazmiyeh, east of Beirut, on June 24, 2020. (AFP)
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Ethiopian domestic workers who were dismissed by their employers gather with their belongings outside their country’s embassy in Hazmiyeh, east of Beirut, on June 24, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 24 June 2020

‘End neo-slavery’: Lebanon maid abandonment sparks outrage

  • Around 250,000 migrants — usually women — work as housekeepers, nannies and carers in Lebanese homes
  • A large proportion of them are Ethiopian and some work for as little as $150 a month

BEIRUT: After preparing dozens of rice packages for out-of-work domestic staff, 30-year-old Tirsit breaks down in tears recounting life as a foreign housekeeper in crisis-hit Lebanon.
“The (recruitment) agencies sell us,” said the 30-year-old Ethiopian, a large sack heaped with bags of rice by her side.
“If I come to work for (a woman) and I don’t like it, or she hits me, or there is no food, if I want to change households or leave, I can’t,” she explained.
“She says: ‘I bought you. Pay me back $2,000 then go wherever you want.’“
Around 250,000 migrants — usually women — work as housekeepers, nannies and carers in Lebanese homes, a large proportion Ethiopian and some for as little as $150 a month.
None are protected by the labor law.
Instead, they work under a sponsorship system called kafala that has repeatedly been condemned by human rights groups as abusive and racist.
As the Black Lives Matter movement trends worldwide, activists in Lebanon are saying abolishing kafala is long overdue.
“Something really needs to change,” said Tirsit, after seeing persistent mistreatment of fellow workers during her 12 years in Lebanon.
Under kafala, an employer pays around $2,000 to $5,000 to a recruitment agency to find a helper, with prices varying according to nationality, then sponsors the worker to stay legally in the country.
The live-in employee cannot resign without their permission, or she becomes undocumented. Nothing prohibits an employer from confiscating the worker’s passport.
This leaves the worker entirely at the mercy of their employer.
Activists have long called for an end to kafala in the Gulf, but a raging economic crisis in Lebanon has given the issue new urgency.
With tight capital controls and the value of the Lebanese pound plummeting on the black market, employers are struggling to find dollars to pay their foreign staff, some no longer paying them at all.
In recent weeks, more than 100 Ethiopian women have arrived outside their consulate, activists say, most after employers kicked them out without pay in the middle of a pandemic that has closed the airport.
Ignored by consular staff, several have had to sleep rough on the pavement before they could find shelter.
Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres says six had to be hospitalized for severe psychiatric distress, some after trauma including physical or sexual violence.
“End kafala. Repatriate,” read a sign briefly hoisted outside the consulate earlier this month.
Online, a petition describing the sponsorship system as “neo-slavery” has gathered more than 30,000 signatures since June 1.
Human rights groups have documented a wide range of ill-treatment under kafala, including being confined to the home and refused any time off.
Many workers have also died. Human Rights Watch in 2008 found more than one domestic worker died each week in Lebanon, mostly in suicides or “falling from high buildings, often while trying to escape.”
On Thursday, an Ethiopian woman was found hanging in a home in east Lebanon, the state-owned National News Agency said.
Amnesty International researcher Diala Haidar said Lebanon must abolish kafala, bring domestic staff under the safeguards of its labor law and give them the right to unionize.
The labor ministry and the International Labour Organization have been working to improve the standard contract.
The latest draft would add an important provision recognizing “the right of workers... to terminate their employment at will, and the right to change employer without the consent of their current employer,” Haidar said.
But it has not yet been approved and, if it were, “it is not enough to adopt a new contract if there are no inspection and enforcement mechanisms,” she told AFP, as abandonments in recent weeks show.
Many of the women have been dumped without their passport, making it difficult to track down their employers and hold them accountable.
A security source said employers were also filing complaints alleging their employee had stolen from them, “to get out of having to pay the Ethiopian domestic worker her monthly wages and try to escape all other due payments.”
Ethiopian activist Tsigereda Brihanu, 25, said she dreamt of kafala ending one day, but until then urged employers to show some respect.
Even “if you don’t have money, don’t throw her outside in the street,” said the coordinator with the Egna Legna group now helping to bring food to out-of-work domestic workers.
“She is not garbage. She is a human being like you.”


US military accuses Iranian forces of boarding Liberian-flagged civilian ship

Updated 13 August 2020

US military accuses Iranian forces of boarding Liberian-flagged civilian ship

WASHINGTON: The United States military on Wednesday said that Iranian forces had boarded a civilian vessel in international waters in the Gulf.
The US military’s Central Command released a grainy black-and-white video on Twitter showing a helicopter near a large ship.
“Today in international waters, Iranian forces, including two ships and an Iranian ‘Sea King’ helicopter, overtook and boarded a ship called the ‘Wila,’” the US Central Command said in a tweet.
According to Refinitiv tracking data, Wila is a Liberian-flagged oil tanker and was currently anchored near the United Arab Emirates’ port of Khor Fakkan.
A US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the incident took place near the Strait of Hormuz and the ship was eventually released by Iranian forces. The official said the United States military was not involved in anything other than monitoring the situation.
Tensions between Iran and the United States increased last year following a series of incidents involving shipping in and near the Gulf.
In July 2019, Iran briefly seized a British-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf after Britain seized the Iranian tanker Grace 1, accused of violating sanctions on Syria.