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Domestic worker takes Lebanon employer to court for slavery

February 11, 2022 at 1:29 pm

Migrant domestic workers carry placards during a protest in the Lebanese capital Beirut on 5 May 2019, to call for the abolishment of the sponsorship (kafala) system and for the inclusion of domestic workers in Lebanese labour laws. [ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images]

A migrant domestic worker has taken her former employer to court in Lebanon alleging slavery and slave trading.

The lawsuit, which was brought to court by the London-based non-profit group, Legal Action Worldwide (LAW), marks the first criminal case of its kind in the Middle East.

Ethiopian Meseret Hailu Deneke, 37, says that she was exploited and treated like a slave by her employer, May Saadeh, 49, alongside the recruitment agency that brought her to Lebanon.

Deneke alleges that she was forced to work without pay for seven years and during that time was beaten and prohibited from communicating with the outside world. Her family say that after years of no communication, they sought the help of Ethiopian lawyers and activists, who finally located and returned her home in 2019.

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Speaking from her hometown, Dera, she told the National: “I want justice. I wish my case could serve as a warning to all abusers that their crimes will catch up to them one day.”

A preliminary hearing took place yesterday in Justice Palais, Baabda, Mount Lebanon, which was attended by the employer, Saadeh. However, the recruitment agency accused in the lawsuit of slave trading did not appear.

While LAW requested an arrest warrant for the recruiter, the judge was reportedly unable to do so as their identity remains unknown. The case will be heard again on 31 March.

An estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers are currently in Lebanon, predominantly from countries across Africa and Asia. Many are ensnared by the kafala system, which effectively ties the legal residency of a worker to the contractual relationship with an employer.

Under this form of sponsorship, migrants are excluded from Lebanon’s labour laws and are not protected from exploitative conditions. In turn, a migrant is vulnerable to exploitation, as they fear losing their residency status and being deported.

Convictions for kafala system related crimes are extremely rare in Lebanon.