Lebanon’s new domestic worker contract: end to ‘kafala slavery’?

Lebanon’s new foreign domestic workers contract gives the workers the right to resign and change employers, and says they can keep their passport. (AFP)
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Updated 13 September 2020

Lebanon’s new domestic worker contract: end to ‘kafala slavery’?

  • Economic crisis-hit Mediterranean country is home to around 250,000 migrants
  • Outgoing labor minister Lamia Yammine has said the new contract – to replace a 2009 version – ‘abolishes the kafala system’

BEIRUT: Lebanon has approved a new work contract allowing foreign domestic workers to resign and keep hold of their own passport, but activists say the exploitative “kafala” system remains in place.
The economic crisis-hit Mediterranean country is home to around 250,000 migrants, mostly women from Africa and Asia, who toil away in people’s homes as housekeepers, carers or nannies.
They are not protected by the country’s labor law, but instead work under a set of laws, policies and customs called kafala repeatedly slammed by rights groups as allowing a wide range of abuse.
Under kafala, meaning “sponsorship” in Arabic, the employer sponsors the worker’s legal immigration status in the country, and the latter cannot resign without their consent or they become undocumented. The law also does not ban withholding a worker’s passport.
All this leaves a worker at the employer’s mercy.
Lebanon’s economic and coronavirus crises have increased the urgency for reform over the past year, with many families now paying their workers in the devaluated local currency, and some not at all.
In recent months, dozens of foreign helpers have been thrown out into the streets without due pay or even their passport, many of them interviewed by AFP.
After the August 4 blast at Beirut port that devastated swathes of the capital and killed more than 190 people, foreign workers have staged rallies outside their consulates appealing to be sent home.
The labor ministry finally this month published a new and revised work contract for domestic workers, the main legal document governing their stay in Lebanon.
Outgoing labor minister Lamia Yammine has said the new contract — to replace a 2009 version — “abolishes the kafala system.”
Campaigners have welcomed the detailed five-page document outlining workers’ rights, but say it is only a beginning.
“It is no doubt a much better version than the older one,” said Amnesty International researcher Diala Haidar. But “a contract alone doesn’t end kafala.”
Most importantly, the new contract gives the workers the right to resign and change employers, and says they can keep their passport.
If their employer withholds their wages or passport, they can immediately quit without notice.
It finally gives the worker the right to the national minimum wage of 675,000 pounds ($450 before the crisis, less than $100 at the black market rate) — albeit allowing the subtraction of an undetermined amount to cover food, board and clothes.
The new contract states workers must be provided with a private, well-ventilated room with a key, an improvement after many women said they were forced to sleep in the living room or on a balcony.
It limits labor to eight hours a day in a six-day week, and details the right to daily rest, paid holidays and sick leave.
But activists warn that all these new provisions will amount to nothing without inspections and unless employers violating the agreement are held accountable.
“In the absence of an enforcement mechanism, this contract will remain ink on paper,” Haidar said.
The old contract, for example, states the worker must receive their wages at the end of the month, but this had not stopped some from kicking out workers without pay.
“We haven’t seen any employers held to account for this breach of the contract,” she said.
A Beirut housewife, who employs a Filipino domestic worker, insisted there are two sides to the story.
“The employer needs to keep at least one document as security... I know some employers are bad but also some employees are ungrateful,” the 59-year-old said, asking not to be named.
Rights groups have documented manifold abuses over the years, including no day off, locking workers inside the house, and physical or sexual assault.
Activists have reported up to two deaths a week.
They have repeatedly called for an end to kafala, which is common in the Middle East and often compared to modern-day slavery.
Zeina Mezher of the International Labour Organization called the new contract “one step in the right direction” toward dismantling kafala.
But it’s just “the first step on a road that is still complicated,” she said.
She said support was needed to ensure a worker could resign without losing their residency permit.
Activists have also called for parliament to amend the labor law to bring all domestic workers — Lebanese and foreign — under its protection, and give them the right to set up unions.

‘Worst debate ever’ — US expats lament lack of substance in Trump-Biden bust-up

Updated 30 min 52 sec ago

‘Worst debate ever’ — US expats lament lack of substance in Trump-Biden bust-up

  • Americans in the Gulf shocked by crosstalk, insults, mockery and lack of focus on policies during candidates’ first televised showdown
  • Any attempt at substantive exchanges on the main issues — the Supreme Court, COVID-19, race and violence, the economy, and the integrity of the election — were drowned out by acrimony

DUBAI: Americans living in the Gulf looked on, aghast, as personal insults flew back and forth between the two men who aspire to lead the US.

A chaotic 90 minutes of insults, temper tantrums, endless interruptions and attacks on an opponent’s family turned the first televised debate between Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden into the most acrimonious televised presidential head-to-head in US history.

Expatriates in the Middle East set their alarms for the early hours to watch what turned out to be a “dumpster fire” of a debate, as some commentators described it, unfold in Cleveland, Ohio.

“This debate completely lacked in substance, so how could an expat understand anything about Biden (or Trump’s) positions,” said Liberty Jones, who is from Washington D.C. and has lived in Dubai for eight years. “Aside from a quick discussion on how Trump is handling COVID, it was devoid of any depth on their approaches.”


This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

The debate was the first of three between the two candidates in the run up to election day on Nov. 3. Any attempt at substantive exchanges about the six main issues — the Supreme Court, COVID-19, race and violence in US cities, the economy, and the integrity of the election — were drowned out by acrimony.

“You’re the worst president that America ever had,” Biden told Trump. “In 47 months I’ve done more than you have done in 47 years,” Trump responded.

The moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, had to raise his voice on several occasions to demand that Trump respect the two-minute time allocated for uninterrupted answers to questions and let Biden speak. Biden also provided fuel for the fire with a series of personal attacks, calling Trump a liar and a racist.

Then there was Biden’s “inshallah” moment, which lit up Twitter across the Arab world. It came after Trump promised to release his still-hidden tax returns, some details of which were published by the New York Times last week. Biden sarcastically asked, “When?” followed by a word that many viewers thought sounded like “Inshallah,” meaning “God willing.”

Whether or not he actually uttered the familiar Arabic expression remains a mystery but it certainly caught the attention of American expats in the Gulf, some of whom feel distanced from the core issues of the election.

“As expats, we are naturally not as close to the candidates and their platforms,” said Jones, who is a public relations director for luxury retailer Tiffany & Co. “While we can consume news, we don’t have the benefit of our community and families sharing their perspectives on the candidates. This places greater weight on the debates to help expats understand the platforms and policies of the respective candidates.”

James Erazo Ruiz, a healthcare company director who lives in Abu Dhabi and describes himself as a Republican, said: “The American people are the losers of this debate.

“History tells us that presidential debates are not decision-making events. I hoped this one would be different but all we saw was name-calling and an insulting debacle that served no purpose.

“The debate was light on policy, issues and solutions. Quite frankly, it was the worse debate I have ever seen. It was a joke.”

Brian Raggott, who has worked in Dubai for nine years for an American IT company, said the debate reinforced the negative image of America outside of the US.

“America needs someone who can bring the country back together again and last night we didn’t see it,” he said. “As an American outside of the US, you want to bring American ideals wherever you go — and right now it’s a tough time.”

Ali Khalaf, who has lived in Dubai since 2007, sounded a slightly more optimistic note for the future of American politics. He said that he hopes the “disturbing” nature of the debate will shock more people into greater engagement with the political process.

“The hope that can be drawn from these debates is that we emerge from these elections with the desire to invest more in our nation’s choices,” he added.

The last topic of the debate, the integrity of the election, in particular struck a chord with Americans in the Gulf, many of whom said that despite submitting a request weeks ago they are still waiting to receive their absentee ballots.

Approximately 9 million Americans live overseas, according to 2016 figures from the US State Department. If they were considered to be a US state, it would rank as the 12th largest in population size, so they represent a powerful block of votes.

An anonymous US citizen living in Dubai, who declined to be named, said: “Americans abroad deserve to feel confident that our votes are accurately counted and protected from fraud. It’s strange to wait this long for a ballot — and then when it comes and we mail it in, can we trust that it will be counted appropriately?”

“Our votes absolutely count,” said Jean Candiotte, a creative director, writer and producer who has lived in Dubai for almost seven years. “This has the potential to be a close election, which means that every single vote is important.

“As Americans, we get to take our home country with us when we live overseas; we file and pay our home country’s taxes and we maintain the right to vote, and it’s important to exercise that right — it’s who we are as a nation.”