Women migrant workers in Lebanon have been hit hard by the ongoing economic crisis. Many have been left without work, money, or protection. Many have fallen prey to abusive employers, predatory recruitment agencies, and unjust laws. In this investigation, published in cooperation with Lebanon’s Anti-Racism Movement, we expose a shocking additional aspect: mistreatment of women migrant workers and corruption at some of their countries’ honorary consulates.
“We can’t even talk about it,” said an angry domestic worker from Sierra Lebanese in a video posted on Facebook by Akhbar al-Saha. She and several co-workers in early March survived a fire in a flat in Sid el-Bouchrieh, a suburb in east Beirut. Seven others lost their lives.
She furthermore complained about the negligence of the Lebanese authorities. The fire started at midnight, yet no one came to the rescue until the next morning.
Several weeks after the accident, the victims’ bodies remained in the morgue. The investigation has been slow. It is still unclear what caused the fire and who is responsible.
Lebanon’s Ministry of Labor and the Internal Security Forces refused to answer Daraj’ questions about the investigation. As for the Sierra Leone honorary consulate, it merely released a statement expressing regret for what happened.
“Our honorary consul Mr. Hashem Hashem refuses to make a statement until the results of the official investigation are known,” the consulate’s office director Sara Abu Yahya told Daraj.
Lucy Turay, an activist following the case from Sierra Leone, said that the victims’ families still have not received the bodies, despite their continuous efforts to communicate with the Lebanese government.
Turay, who used to live in Lebanon, was not happy with the investigation’s slow progress. Stalling is the norm, she said. And the victims’ families so far only received “empty promises.”
The tragedy of Sid el-Bouchrieh highlights the bitter reality of women migrant workers in Lebanon, who are subject to the Kafala (sponsorship) system, while the Lebanese government systematically ignores them and honorary consulates are a mere formality.
Women migrant workers are among Lebanon’s most marginalized groups, suffering greatly from the economic crisis that has crippled the country since October 2019. Many found themselves on the street, often in front of their embassies or consulates, after their employers kicked them out.
It is hard to estimate the exact number of female migrant workers in Lebanon. According to Human Rights Watch, there were some 250,000 living in the country in 2020, while according to an assessment report published by the International Organization for Migration in October 2022 there were only some 135,000.
Many female migrant women stem from countries without official diplomatic representation. Hence, honorary consulates are often the only link to their home nations.
Last year, Shadow Diplomats, an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in collaboration with Daraj and other media, highlighted the role of Lebanon’s honorary consuls.
They often play an active role in the Kafala system, working with both the recruitment agencies and the authorities to arrange the migrant workers’ travelling to and from Lebanon. Their involvement has in some cases raised suspicions of mistreatment and allegations of human trafficking.
Diplomatic missions are responsible for the communities they represent, particularly in times of crisis, which includes the COVID pandemic, the aftermath of the 2020 Beirut Port explosion and the recent economic collapse.
Yet, many women workers were unable to leave Lebanon for a variety of reasons. Many had seen their passports confiscated by their employers. Others were falsely accused of theft so their employers did not have to pay outstanding wages.
This resulted in a large number of foreign workers to seek refuge in front of their country’s honorary consulates, which are expected to defend their interests, facilitate their affairs, and protect their rights.
Yet, a joint investigation between Daraj and the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM) reveals that many consuls only contribute to the tragedy many female migrant workers face in Lebanon. A series of violations involve the former honorary consul of Ghana in Lebanon, Michel Haddad, and the honorary consul of Cameroon in Lebanon, Jean Abboud.
Women migrant workers are paid less than the minimum wage. According to employment contracts, their salaries range between $150 to $300 per month for a period of one or two years, whereas the official minimum wage for Lebanese workers is 675,000 Lebanese pounds, which prior to 2019 was equivalent to $450. Recruitment agencies use a minimum of $150 as a benchmark for domestic workers’ salaries.
The economic crisis has worsened the situation, as the number of employers unable to pay female foreign workers’ salaries sharply increased. Employers either refuse to pay or offer their workers payments in local currency, which has seen an enormous devaluation.
Yet, many local media accuse foreign workers of “smuggling dollars” out of Lebanon. It is important to note that Lebanon’s traditional media are often closely linked to powerful individuals or political parties. They tend to focus on the issue of women migrant workers as victims of abusive employer violence only, without mentioning that violence is systematic under the sponsorship system.
The sponsorship system deprives them of a status as “employees.” Instead their situation resembles something close to slavery. They are forced to work long hours, left at the mercy of an employer who confiscates their passport. In some cases, employers do not allow them a holiday. Some are even prevented from leaving the house, according to numerous human rights reports.
Ignoring Sexual Assault
Berlinda worked for a family in Lebanon in 2018 and 2019. She was forced to return to her employer, even though he was sexually harassing her. Ghana’s former honorary consul, Michel Haddad, refused to take her testimony. Berlinda had documented some of the harassment with her phone.
Berlinda refused to mention the name of the family she worked for. The family started exploiting her by depriving her of food for extended periods of time and forcing her to work late into the night.
With time, her employer started to harass her. She tried to rebuff him, but he persisted, and at one point raped her. After being assaulted, Berlinda sought help from Ghana’s honorary consulate in Lebanon. She presented Haddad with the evidence she had.
“Take me to the hospital to prove I was raped!” she pleaded
Instead, the honorary consul forced her to delete all evidence from her phone and, in agreement with the agency owner, refused to have her examined by a doctor, Berlinda told Daraj.
Worse, she was forced to return to her employer’s house.
Berlinda told Daraj that her employer continued harassing and assaulting her. She did not tell his wife out of fear for her reaction, especially as she had previously been subjected to violence by the couple. Neither did she tell anyone at the recruitment agency where she had previously met with abuse as well.
When the situation became unbearable, she contacted This Is Lebanon (TIL), a nongovernmental organization that exposes abuse of migrant workers. TIL assisted Berlinda in completing the necessary procedures to return to her home country.
According to the Atlantic Federation of African Press Agencies (FAAPA), there were some 11,645 Ghanaian women migrant workers in Lebanon in 2019. In 2020, more than 2,200 of them were able to return home with the assistance of the Ghanaian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which stepped in when the relevant Lebanese authorities failed to respond.
According to Charles Oredo, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration in Guinea, the cost of return at the time exceeded US$ 1 million, of which the Ghanaian government paid more than half. The consulate in Lebanon did not consider the issue a priority.
Until 2021 Lebanese businessman Michel Haddad held the position. He withdrew from the diplomatic scene after leaks revealed that he exploited his position for financial gain. He had developed a complex network of relations with foreign domestic worker recruitment agencies.
According to TIL, one of these was the QuickStep Services agency, which is run by Hussein Mroue. We asked Ghana’s honorary consulate in Lebanon to comment but did not receive a response. Ali Samih Jaafar is currently Ghana’s honorary consul in Lebanon.
During her third year in Lebanon, Victoria supported her coworkers as they demonstrated in front of the Cameroonian consulate in July 2020, shortly before the Beirut Port explosion.
Victoria was working as a freelancer before she left Lebanon. According to her, it was the first time circumstances had worsened to such an extent that the Cameroonian women in Lebanon had decided to go on strike and organise a sit-in.
Yet, Jean Abboud, president of the Union of Travel and Tourism Agencies in Lebanon, as well as Cameroon’s honorary consul in Lebanon for over 20 years, ignored the women in front of his office.
“When you arrive at the consulate, you are alone despite all the promises of assistance and care,” Victoria told Daraj.
The refusal of the Lebanese authorities to respond to the grievances of the protesting women workers has become increasingly apparent, particularly in relation to the “laissez-passer,” a document that allows for a one-time border crossing in special circumstances when a passport is not available.
Unfortunately, domestic workers all too often have to rely on this, as their passports are often confiscated by the recruitment agencies. This practice, which has no legal backing, is used to control the lives of women workers.
The Camoorinian women found themselves having to deal with the honorary consul’s secretary, as Abboud was always absent, and never responded to their complaints or commented on their suffering.