“I apologize, mother, because I could not bring you a gift.” Thus 28-year-old Sajita Lama embraced her mother at the airport of the Nepalese capital last August, following a campaign for her release by This Is Lebanon, an nongovernmental organization fighting for the rights of domestic workers.
Sajita had been detained by Richard Khoury and Rana Germanos for ten long years. She was prevented from leaving George Shop, the celebrity barbershop owned by Richard and his brothers. The shop was her home all this time. She was released, although the family refused to pay her ticket back to Nepal or her accumulated salary of $22,000.
Sajita was lucky to escape the Kafala (sponsorship) system, which has brought some 250,000 female foreign workers to the country, according to figures of the Lebanese Ministry of Labor.
Sajita started working for Khoury and his wife in September 2010. According to her, she was paid for a year and three months. Her salary was $100 a month, while foreign domestic workers in Lebanon generally receive $150 to $200 a month, even though the law stipulates a minimum wage of $450 a month for Lebanese labor.
The law considers the housing, airfare and food recruiters provided for foreign domestic workers as a form of compensation, which explains the difference in payment. The Khoury family claims it paid Sajita, yet it cannot provide proof, because she “kept her money in a place she did not disclose to them.”
At one point, Sajita managed to contact the Nepalese embassy in Lebanon, which questioned the family. Yet, the latter forced her to lie. She contacted the embassy again to deny what she had said the first time and confirm that “everything was fine.”
As a result, the embassy could not do anything and Sajita was forced to continue her struggle alone, stuck between the threat of her “family” in Lebanon and the needs of her true family in Nepal, which depended on the little money Sajita, for a short while, sent home.
One Death A Day
Lebanon’s sponsorship law denies foreign domestic workers the rights to which other workers are entitled, such as a minimum wage, a maximum number of working hours, a weekly day off, overtime wages and freedom of association.
It is furthermore customary to link the migrant worker’s legal residence to that of the employer’s. And workers can not leave or change jobs without the consent of their employer.
The high degree of control over the lives of workers under the Kafala system has led to cases of human trafficking, forced labor and exploitation, as documented by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and local organizations.
Due to the hardening economic crisis and the Corona pandemic, violence against migrant workers has increased. Many were forced to work longer hours and, with the devaluation of the national currency and rising inflation, many employers cut their salaries or did not pay them at all.
There have been numerous stories of female workers left in the street after their employers abandoned them in front of consulates or embassies, often without any money, passports or personal belongings, let alone a ticket back to their home country.
One employer offered “his” Nigerian domestic on Facebook to trade her for such second-hand items such as furniture and clothes. Media reports caused outrage in Nigeria. Following several phone calls from the Nigerian authorities, the Lebanese authorities arrested the employer for violating the country’s human trafficking laws.
“A 2008 HRW investigation found that one domestic worker dies every week from unnatural causes, with suicide and attempted escapes being the most common,” HRW’s Aya Mazjoub wrote on January 4, 2022. “Though it has not been possible to replicate this research more recently due to a lack of accurate statistics, the media continue to report deaths of domestic workers in similar circumstances.”
The Kafala system prevents domestic workers from opening their own bank account. As a consequence, they are forced to transfer money to their families through money transfer companies or their employers’ bank accounts. The system is a severe blow to human rights and facilitates workers to be imprisoned and exploited economically and even sexually.
The solutions provided by the law include submitting a complaint to the security forces, whose members may receive a bribe from the family to prevent accountability. The file most likely will be “forgotten.” The family may also have a relative in the security forces and thus evade accountability and punishment. This is assuming that the worker was able to leave the house in the first place and reach the security forces to file a complaint.
Another way is submitting a complaint to the labor recruitment office, which is supposed to be the worker’s “guardian.” This is supposed to be easy, yet such offices, like any company, are first of all concerned with their customers. So, generally they only contribute to “disciplining the workers” for the sake of the customer and to preserve the company’s reputation, for it not to become known for offering “headache workers.”
Resorting to associations or organizations concerned with protecting workers’ rights or human rights, of which there are only a few in Lebanon, and even less in other Arab countries that bring in large numbers of foreign workers.
Finally, a foreign worker could resort to the media and “public opinion” to try to hold employers accountable. The weakness of this step lies in the media’s approach to humanitarian issues, as they tend to look for a scoop that “fills the air,” not a well-known issue that has been repeatedly presented.
In addition, most media outlets are partly or wholly owned by politicians or public officials who tend not to address the rights of foreign workers.
Thus, workers and their work are placed in the commodity basket based on exploitation for the recruiting family to achieve the highest possible productivity and the recruiting company to achieve the highest profit rate.
Thus, the work comes out of the “services” framework and enters that of “manufacturing,” as the worker is treated as a commodity to be consumed, and not as a person providing services for a wage that is supposed to be fair. It suffices to pay attention to the everyday language used to talk about recruited workers.
A “Sri Lankan” has been transformed from a nationality to a profession, as it is most often used to mean “domestic worker.” In the best, and least racist, case, the label is replaced by the term “girl,” a word that eliminates the individual differences between one and the next, and places them all in one simple framework with the burden of gender that femininity bears.
It negatively reaffirms gender roles, as we hardly ever see the term “domestic workers.” The use of it is unusual because domestic work is associated with females, while males work in factories, construction, or gardening. Such “manly” activities require physical strength.
Domestic workers express workers’ problems, women’s problems, and the failure of the Kafala system. They also shed light on the racism that the foreign girls face, the class system that determines their social status, the commodification of their work, and the weakening of laws that protect women.
These intertwining issues express something deeper than skin color or nationality. They express an inferior view of certain social groups weakened by the state in order to create the “Lebanese individualism,” which allows itself to thrive socially and economically on the weakness of others and frame them in a cage of the worst, the least, and the lowest.
This all results in an organization having to pay the travel ticket of a domestic worker returning to Nepal with only a pair of clothes, and not even a present for her mother, after ten years of confinement and hard work.