Masked slavery lingers in Lebanon

Treating other humans with dignity and respect does not require the Lebanese to wait for new laws. It simply requires them to act with common decency.

The Lebanese have been through a great many terrible ordeals over the years that, either by design or external circumstances, have led them to civil strife, destroying their people and once vibrant economy.

Yet the terrible economic challenge they are facing now and the chaos that will likely emerge from it are beyond what even the Lebanese can imagine. Because of years of corruption and the political class’s failure to enact reforms, the country has dug itself deep in a hole from which it is impossible to escape.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s cabinet has desperately been scrambling to pass its annual budget and adopt austerity measures, sparking protests from various interest groups that refuse to give up any of their benefits or even entertain the idea of salary cuts.

While these demonstrations took place, a more important protest in Beirut was largely overlooked. It involved hundreds of foreign domestic workers and local Lebanese activists demanding abolishment of the kafala system, a mediaeval labour law that requires foreign workers to submit to an ironclad work contract with a Lebanese sponsor. This reduces the workers to bond slaves and deprives them of basic freedoms and rights.

Marching through Beirut, domestic workers from various nationalities, races and sexes held placards and issued one simple demand: Respect. “We are workers, not slaves,” they said. “Our lives matter, include us in the labour law.”

The kafala system does not adequately ensure the legal rights of foreign domestic workers, who often labour long hours for low pay and endure gross abuse, including starvation and sexual assault. Their plight leads many to try to escape, often unsuccessfully. It is not uncommon to read of a domestic worker who fell to her death as she tried to escape her employer’s residence.

One only needs to imagine the harsh conditions and repeated abuses the labourers endure that lead them to choose the near suicidal act of tying bed sheets together and dangling down the side of the building to escape.

Even if they are lucky enough to survive the dangerous drop, they usually must live in hiding and accept low-paying jobs until they are caught by authorities and deported.

Due to the colour of their skin or their nationality, these workers’ welfare is not protected by the Lebanese state. From the moment these domestic workers land in Lebanon, they are mistreated. They are often met by aggressive police officers who shout at them and enforce the country’s archaic laws, which do not allow domestic workers to break their contract or change employers.

If they try to escape, domestic workers are usually returned to the office that paid for their travel and hired them only to be sold to another household. Some brave Lebanese activists have established a kind of underground railroad to help get the workers to freedom and provide them with a safe haven.

Newly appointed Labour Minister Camille Abousleiman bravely pledged to abolish the kafala system and introduce progressive legislation to protect the lives and contractual obligations and duties of the more than 250,000 domestic workers in Lebanon.

Unfortunately, Abousleiman’s commitment may not be enough to go against a multimillion-dollar industry and a Lebanese society that is by and large unwilling to compromise its comfort for the sake of basic human rights.

While the Lebanese worry about their GDP, debt, inflation and other indicators that track their failing economy, a great irony has escaped them: They are demonstrating for their right to a better economic future while neglecting to address a kafala system that actively deprives others of their rights.

Treating other humans with dignity and respect does not require the Lebanese to wait for new laws. It simply requires them to act with common decency to avoid an even greater disaster — moral bankruptcy.

Makram Rabah is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History. He is the author of A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967-1975.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.