'Dreams for Sale': an inside look into the domestic worker life in Lebanon

Published September 9th, 2014 - 04:03 GMT
The brokers also demand a large fee, on average $908 for Bangladeshi workers and $581 for Nepalese workers.
The brokers also demand a large fee, on average $908 for Bangladeshi workers and $581 for Nepalese workers.

Migrant worker recruitment agencies are making elaborate profits off the back of migrant domestic workers who continue to face extrememly harsh labor and living conditions in Lebanon, a new report said.

“The report found that those migrant domestic workers interviewed as part of this study are victims of practices that are akin to human trafficking and forced labor,” according to the overview of the KAFA (Enough) Violence and Exploitation report.

Of the 200,000 – 250,000 migrant domestic workers in the country, most are brought in by agencies under the kafala sponsorship system, generally meaning their employees sponsor their stay in Lebanon.

Lack of regulation and obscure laws leave this system open to abuse, with recruitment agencies working within a grey area of the law.

Migrant workers are also excluded from labor laws in the country, adding to their vulnerability.

The report, titled “Dreams for Sale: The Exploitation of Domestic Workers from Recruitment in Nepal and Bangladesh to Working Lebanon”, was compiled through interviews with 100 Nepali and Bangladeshi workers currently employed in Lebanon.

Its findings were presented at a conference Monday hosted by KAFA and The Legal Agenda at the University of Saint Joseph’s Faculty of Medicine, attended by legal representatives from Nepal and Bangladesh along with the Migrant Forum in Asia.

The report found that recruitment agencies make elaborate profits on two fronts: First by charging exorbitant fees to migrant domestic workers before they came to Lebanon, and second by drastically overcharging employers.

Nepalese and Bangladeshi workers are usually approached by the agencies’ brokers, with the agency often based in the Kathmandu or Dhaka. These brokers often deceive them about the nature of the work they will be doing as well as the living conditions and salary. The report states that 88 percent of the migrant domestic workers surveyed said they would not have come to Lebanon “had they fully known the reality.”

The brokers also demand a large fee, on average $908 for Bangladeshi workers and $581 for Nepalese workers. Given the GDP per capita in Bangladesh and Nepal is $829 and $694 respectively, workers usually borrow money or sell their houses to afford these fees.

“The most surprising or important thing that I found from this report is the amount of money that migrant domestic workers pay to come to Lebanon for work opportunities,” Bernadette Daou, a program coordinator for migrant domestic worker issues at KAFA, told The Daily Star. “The money that [she] borrows causes her to not complain about the living and working conditions, and her rights here in Lebanon, and it allows her to accept the situation that she’s in.”

The report also found that employers are subjected to similar exploitation by placement agencies in Lebanon that work in collaboration with recruitment agencies in origin countries.

“The study found that the profit margin of placement agencies to be relatively high and may double when the same fee (e.g. for airfare or a visa) is collected twice from both the migrant worker and the employer,” the report said.

The cost of completing the immigration procedure for a worker from Nepal or Bangladesh is no more than $650 but agencies charge employers anywhere from $1300 to $3000.

Employers often transfer this cost on to migrant domestic workers by not paying them for the first three months or until they recoup the costs.

Dipendra Jha, a lawyer in the Supreme Court in Nepal, felt that the crux of the migrant domestic worker problem in Lebanon was a lack of cultural exchange between Lebanese employers and their migrant domestic workers.

“The freedom of movement for MDW’s is the most important. If they allow them to be in touch with their family that is psychologically [beneficial] but if you keep them in isolation that’s the problem,” Jha said.

The Nepalese government has actually banned its nationals from migrating to Lebanon following wide spread reports of human rights abuses but many still manage to come by migrating from India.

According to Jha, the Nepalese government is trying to crackdown on recruitment agencies and several brokers have been imprisoned and fined.

Samir Soufy, owner of Soufy Services, a recruitment agency in Lebanon, was the only representative from a recruitment agency present at conference.

“We need to work on coming up with a solution for the current situation,” he said. “If everyone says that it has nothing to do with me then the situation will get worse.”

“General Security was supposed to be here. I’m surprised that they are not here. They are the people that take care of the situation.”

No representatives from General Security or the Ministry of Labor were present at the conference.

But Jha is hopeful that the web of corruption within the Lebanese system will eventually unravel.

“My impression is there is a nexus between recruitment agencies, bureaucracy [in Lebanon] ... an unfair nexus ... I think this nexus will be broken.”

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