Ethiopian domestic worker in Lebanon accuses employer of slavery in landmark case

A migrant domestic worker has taken her former employer and a recruitment agency in Lebanon to court on charges of slavery and the slave trade in the first-ever criminal case of its kind in the Middle East.

The complainant – a 40-year-old Ethiopian woman identified only as MH – says she was exploited and treated like a slave by the people she worked for, alleging she was overworked, underpaid, trapped inside and beaten.

A Baabda judge presided over the final hearing of the case on Thursday.

Rights groups have long campaigned against the abusive treatment of migrant workers in the region, likening the Kafala (or sponsorship) system used in Lebanon and the Gulf to modern day slavery.

Under this system, migrants are trapped and vulnerable to abuse: they cannot change jobs or leave without permission from their employer, who often confiscates their travel documents.

While civil lawsuits have already been filed to recover unpaid wages, this is the first time a worker in the region has brought criminal charges for slavery.

The case has therefore been welcomed by international rights groups who have said it could expose “systemic” abuses within the Kafala system they hope to abolish.

London-based group Legal Action Worldwide (LAW) is representing the plaintiff, who returned to Ethiopia in 2019. Lawyers for LAW said the case could have “enormous legal ramifications”.

If the defendants are found guilty, they said it would set a precedent “in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East” and potentially open the door to legal remedies for many others.

The complainant alleges that during her employment, she was completely cut off from the world, locked in an apartment day and night, and forced to work 15 hours a day, seven days a week, while being beaten, insulted and threatened.

His legal team, which worked on building the case with professors from Oxford University, said The Independent she was only paid for seven of the eight years she was employed.

One of the defendants, his employer May Saade, attended Thursday’s session at the courthouse in Baabda, Mount Lebanon, but did not address the slavery allegations. Saadé asked for a delay to appoint a lawyer and prepare his defense.

Fatima Shehadeh, LAW’s Lebanon program manager, said the case “has the potential to be groundbreaking”.

“We argue that the circumstances in which she lived constitute slavery, slave trade and torture, racial and gender discrimination,” she said.

“If successful, it will open the door for many thousands of migrant workers living in similar circumstances across the Middle East to be further encouraged to claim their rights.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) welcomed the legal process, saying it could help shed light on systemic problems inherent in the Kafala system.

“For many years we have had statements from the authorities saying that the system is not the problem but rather a few bad employers giving Lebanon a bad name,” said Aya Majzoub, HRW Lebanon researcher who wrote a detailed report on the matter.

“Hopefully this case will show that the Kafala system is inherently abusive and exploitative and in some cases amounts to the most serious abuses of slavery and the slave trade.”

Migrant workers have long been mistreated in countries where the problematic Kafala system is implemented, but their conditions have only worsened with the economic downturn and pandemic lockdowns.

Ethiopian domestic workers camp outside their embassy in Beirut after being dumped by their employers

(Bel Trew)

In Lebanon, where around 400,000 migrant domestic workers live, this situation has been exacerbated by an unprecedented financial collapse.

Not only are migrant domestic workers not being paid, but they have been literally thrown outside their embassies by their employers. Advocacy groups have reported that in some cases employers have even attempted to “recoup” the cost of obtaining sponsorship papers by “selling” them.

The Independent spoke to women who have confirmed that they are trapped in their employers’ homes and have been subjected to verbal, physical and even sexual abuse, but cannot leave.

Last month, a harrowing video emerged online showing a Lebanese employer dragging an Ethiopian domestic worker by her hair down the street and beating her in broad daylight.

Despite well-documented abuses, in Lebanon there are few avenues for justice, Majzoub said. LAW hopes this case will change that.

The complainant’s family said that after years of no communication with their loved one, they contacted the Ethiopian community, activists and lawyers in Lebanon to locate her.

She was eventually found and returned home in 2019.

On Thursday, LAW requested an arrest warrant for the second defendant, Matta Agency – the recruiter accused of slave trafficking, because they failed to attend Thursday’s hearing.

The judge was unable to issue an arrest warrant because the identity of the person running the recruitment agency is unknown.