BEIRUT — Lebanon's Internal Security Forces claimed Tuesday that they stopped a woman leaving Lebanon to Ethiopia at Beirut's airport over the weekend after they found her carrying "$117,200 and two gold pounds" that they accuse her of stealing from her employers, the state-run National News Agency reported.
The woman, T.B., originally from Ethiopia, was working for a Lebanese family for the past four years, the ISF said.
In Lebanon, migrant workers are governed by the kafala, or work sponsorship, system. This system lacks safeguards guaranteeing freedom of movement, the right to work breaks and free time, and the ability to end the work contract with a month’s notice without incurring financial penalties.
"Interrogated by the judicial and administrative police section, she admitted that she had saved $12,000 during her work at her sponsor's house and that she was transferring another $9,000 to an Ethiopian friend in Lebanon who had asked her to hand over the money to her families," the ISF statement said, adding that "as for the remaining amount, she stole it in several batches from the house in which she worked during her four-year stay in Lebanon, and that she used to take small amounts, from time to time, so that no one would notice the lack of money."
The ISF included a statement from the employer who said that "he was surprised by the huge amount of money that she stole," but failed to include a statement from the woman accused of stealing. The ISF also said that the money they seized from T.B. included her salary savings and her friend's money, allegedly amounting to $21,000 "based on the indication of the competent judiciary."
Commenting on the matter, rights group Egna Legna founder Banchi Yimer told L'Orient Today, "first of all, everyone is innocent until proven guilty according to the law, so for me it is hard for me to say that this women is guilty because I have to see the case and evidence and I would like to hear the women’s side of the story."
"It is hard for me to believe that this women stole thousands of dollars over the years without her sponsor noticing," Yimer said. "Hundreds of migrant workers get stuck [ in Lebanon] because of accusation of false murder and other things so it has become common that the sponsor would accuse the women whenever they run away or whenever they want to get paid and go home," Yimer continued. "This has become a common phenomena with no accountability from their sponsor," Yimer added, noting that "in most cases the workers would be innocent, or would pay a penalty for a crime they did not commit."
The kafala system makes foreign domestic workers vulnerable to abuses — such as being deprived of the right to sue their employers in cases of mistreatment and defaulting on salary payments.
One recent tweet by migrant workers' rights group This Is Lebanon accused a Lebanese couple of withholding salary payments from a domestic worker in their employment and falsely claiming she stole from them.