BEIRUT — The first criminal case filed in Lebanon alleging slavery and slave trading of a migrant domestic worker by a Lebanese kafala employer was set to open Tuesday but was postponed when the defendants failed to appear in court.
Here’s what we know:
• The case, filed by Legal Action Worldwide (LAW) on behalf of a 38-year-old Ethiopian worker identified as M.H. against her former employer and the recruiter who brought her to Lebanon, was set to be heard in the Justice Palace in Baabda today. A number of migrant workers and representatives of human rights organizations staged a sit-in outside the Justice Palace in support of the case.
• The worker was allegedly imprisoned by her employer in the home where she worked for nearly eight years, during which she was not allowed to go out or to take any days off and was not paid her salary, says Fatima Chehade, LAW’s Lebanon program manager. Her passport had also allegedly been confiscated. Chehade declined to name the defendants, citing confidentiality rules.
• According to Chehade, the hearing was postponed until February 2022 because the defendants did not appear in court. If they fail to appear for the next hearing, the firm can request the judge to issue an arrest warrant for them, she said.
• Chehade told L’Orient Today that the case, if won, will be a step toward reforming or eliminating Lebanon’s widely criticized domestic worker sponsorship program, known as the kafala system.
• Although figures on the kafala, or “sponsorship,” system since the onset of the economic crisis are hard to come by, about 200,000 migrant domestic workers were in Lebanon before the crisis. These workers are connected to a single employer and do not have the same labor rights as other employees.
• The kafala system has often been decried as abusive by rights groups and the workers themselves. Last year a 23-year-old Ghanaian domestic worker named Faustina Tay died after falling from a fourth-storey home after allegedly having experienced months of abuse by her sponsor. (Tay’s employer denied ever physically assaulting her.) Since the crisis began, workers who allegedly experienced mistreatment but were without the financial means to return to their home country have been forced to camp out in front of their countries’ embassies to demand repatriation.