Migrant domestic workers from Sierra Leone in Lebanon.
Migrant domestic workers from Sierra Leone in Lebanon. Photo: Aline Deschamps.

How the Beirut Crisis Exposed Modern Day Slavery in Lebanon

As Lebanon battles corrupt leadership and economic chaos, the women employed as domestic workers pay the highest price.
October 1, 2020, 2:16pm

Lebanon has spiralled into a deep institutional and economic crisis. Over the past few months, protesters have taken to the streets demanding a revolution against the country’s corrupt leadership. In July, Lebanon hit hyperinflation – consumer goods prices skyrocketed and banks heavily restricted the amount of dollars in circulation.

And then, the blast. Over 200 people died in August when 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut, while thousands more lost their homes and jobs. Neighbours helped each other remove debris from the streets and assist the injured as the Lebanese authorities stood by. But according to Farah Baba, communication and advocacy officer at Anti-Racism Movement Lebanon (ARM), this solidarity has not been extended to all of Beirut’s residents.

“After the explosion, a lot of organisations and groups actively excluded non-Lebanese people,” she says. The country hosts more than a million Syrian refugees and about 400,000 migrant workers, but their names were initially not included in the official missing persons tally. The situation in Lebanon is now especially difficult for its migrant domestic workers.

Meriam Prado, 49, is a domestic worker from Iloilo City in the Philippines. She came to Lebanon 27 years ago through a recruitment agency to work as a maid with a local family. “I went six months without salary [stipulated at 150 USD per month] because I had to pay them back for my visa and airfare,” she says. She was forced to leave her first two employers because of physical abuse, but stayed in the country to support the education of her two children, who both went to university.

“I went through all of this, but now no one can touch me,” she says. “I know what my rights are so I can fight back."

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Meriam Prado (bottom right), a domestic worker who came to Lebanon from the Philippines 27 years ago. Photo courtesy of the interviewee.

Just like many other migrant domestic workers, Prado lost her job in the midst of Lebanon’s economic crisis and the pandemic. Her situation is slightly different however because she is a freelancer, meaning that she has her own apartment and only works on weekdays, from 8AM to 7PM. Most migrant domestic workers do not have the freedom to leave their employer’s home or even own a phone, cutting them off from society. Those who are still in work have become even more isolated in recent months, with many employers forbidding them from leaving their home for fear that they will contract COVID-19.

In Lebanon, migrant domestic workers’ rights are regulated by the Kafala or sponsorship system, which means that they are completely tied to their employers. A system used in many Gulf countries, Kafala does not fall under Lebanon’s labour laws, nor does it provide legal protection in case of breach of contract or abuse. If a migrant worker tries to press charges against their Lebanese sponsor, they will often be accused of stealing and reported to the General Security, the institution responsible for their residence permit.

“When a migrant domestic worker loses her job or is forced to flee, she becomes illegal in the country,” Baba says. "That's absurd. It's a system meant to perpetuate exploitation and abuse."

This is what happened to Lucy Turay, 28, from the Kholifa Mabang district in Sierra Leone, who had to escape her employer’s home in February. Turay was promised a job as a teacher in Lebanon and decided to move in August 2019. Given Sierra Leone’s high unemployment and poverty rate, many young people seek opportunities abroad to provide a better future for their family. Turay has two toddlers and other relatives who rely on her income. "I was so happy, you don't even know. That was one of my dreams," Turay says.

But everything changed when she arrived at the home of the Lebanese family who were to host her while she worked.

“The next day, I asked them to take me to the school, but they said I had to clean their house,” Turay says. “We started fighting, everyone was screaming. They said they wanted me to give them their money back, but I didn’t have it. So I had to work, I had no choice.”

Turay was promised a salary of $500 for the first six months of her employment, with an increase to $1,000 for the next six. She was paid just $200. “When I asked them for my money, they'd just scream at me,” she says. “They said I was lazy, I didn’t want to work.”

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Lucy Turay (centre) was forced to escape her employer's home. Photo: Aline Deschamps.

Turay thought about leaving Lebanon many times, but her family couldn’t afford the travel back to Sierra Leone – plus her employer had taken her passport. “They said, ‘Give us your passport, we paid money for you! You are a slave’,” Turay says. “Sometimes, when they wanted something, they’d call, 'Slave, come!' It really made me go mad.”

Baba says that neither of these practices are uncommon under Kafala. “We call Kafala modern slavery,” she says, “because sponsors often think of migrant domestic workers as property.”

According to interviews ARM conducted with migrant domestic workers, many are trafficked into Lebanon against their will, with a small number of agencies even involved in sex trafficking. When a household in Lebanon wants to hire a domestic worker, they go to an agency and select someone without asking questions about who they are hiring or how they got into the country. The household then pays the agency a fee for arranging the worker’s visa and travel. “You pay and you take a woman home,” Baba says.

Many agencies also advise employers to confiscate their worker’s passport, and not to let them “get loose,” as Baba says. “There’s a belief that migrant domestic workers, particularly Black women, come to Lebanon to take part in sex work,” she says. “There's also an idea that they are repressed back home, so they come here to go wild.”

The contract the women sign with their employer is almost never in a language they understand. Despite this, the agencies can count on a steady flow of workers, as many offer women a fee of up to $500 to recommend the job to someone they know.

Teresa Pontillas, 55, from Manila in the Philippines, came to Lebanon 29 years ago. She left a decent job behind because a friend told her she would have better opportunities in Lebanon. After a rocky start, she found a family and has now worked with them for over 20 years. In 2010, after she heard that two domestic workers were taking their own lives each week in Lebanon, she joined a protest. Together with a group of other women, she went on to found the Alliance of Migrant Domestic Workers in 2017.

Prior to this, Pontillas and other workers had tried to advocate for their rights by joining a Lebanese trade union, the Federation of Trade Unions of Workers and Employees. But the interests of Lebanese workers were too different to those employed under the Kafala system. “Our goals simply wouldn’t match, we couldn’t go forward together,” Pontillas says. “We didn’t see the transparency and trust we needed from the group, so we got out.”

Before the pandemic, the Alliance met every week at the Migrant Community Centre in Beirut, where it hosted workshops, English classes and talks about female empowerment. “It's mostly about creating a community and making people feel less alone,” Pontillas says.

Today, both ARM and the Alliance provide emergency relief to domestic workers who have lost their jobs. Pontillas estimates that over 100 are living on the streets, but most live in overcrowded apartments. Many struggle to pay rent and are at risk of eviction.

Despite its crucial work, Pontillas has difficulty raising funds for the Alliance. It receives money from private donors and activists, but not from large NGOs operating in Lebanon. “We are the ones who know what's going on,” Pontillas says. “The big NGOs have funds, but what about the smaller groups? We're invisible to them.”

According to Pontillas, the funding applications for NGOs are incompatible with the work that the Alliance does. They often ask for the names and addresses of beneficiaries, but many migrant domestic workers are not comfortable sharing these details. Pontillas also cannot afford to call people to verify information, since phone bills are very expensive. As a result, she ends up paying some of the Alliance’s costs herself. “This is an emergency, there are too many obstacles to get immediate help,” she says.

Turay currently lives in an apartment with 25 other women from Sierra Leone. Before leaving her employer, she tried going to the police to claim the money that she was owed by her sponsor, but the authorities did not help. When her employer found out, they threatened to kill her. “They said: ‘I'm gonna kill you and nobody will ask me about it, I will just cut your body into pieces and put it in a bag and throw you away’,” she says. This is when she ran away.

Since then, Turay and other women from Sierra Leone have collaborated with French journalist Aline Deschamps on a video about the struggle of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. Deschamps has also launched a fundraiser to help them pay for their repatriations and rent. They also negotiated with the Sierra Leone consulate to obtain laissez passer documents for the workers without passports. Despite all this, many of the women incurred huge debts to come to Lebanon, and are now too ashamed to go back to their families empty-handed.

“We're going home with nothing,” Turay says. “We've been traumatised enough. We need reintegration, we need someone to listen to us, we need to get our lives back. This is what I want people to talk about.”