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The Lebanese government must announce a set of immediate measures to protect migrant domestic workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, Amnesty International said today.

The authorities must ensure that migrant domestic workers are protected from exploitative working conditions during lockdown, and that all domestic workers – including the undocumented – have access to healthcare during the pandemic.

An estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers remain trapped under the country’s kafala system, putting their rights and lives at risk during the outbreak.

“The kafala system has always been a form of imprisonment in the home for migrant domestic workers. While staying at home will help prevent the spread of COVID-19, it increases the risk of exploitation and other forms of abuse suffered by live-in migrant domestic workers at the hands of their employers,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Regional Director.

“Exploitative working conditions, the threat of violence, and living under lockdown can also have a devasting impact on the mental health of domestic workers, many of whom are far removed from their own homes and families.

“As one of the most marginalized groups in Lebanon, the government needs to clearly warn that it will prosecute employers who exploit or abuse migrant domestic workers. It should also ensure they are granted access to health care during the pandemic.”

Examples of abuse and exploitation suffered by domestic migrant workers include being forced to work extreme hours, being denied rest days, having pay withheld or deductions applied, having communications restricted, and being deprived of food.

The Lebanese authorities must ensure that human rights are at the centre of all prevention, containment and treatment efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to best protect public health. Under the right to health, health care goods, facilities and services should be available and accessible to everyone without discrimination, especially to the most vulnerable or marginalized groups of society.

Amnesty International is calling on Lebanon’s Ministry of Labour to take immediate measures to help protect live in-domestic workers, such as issuing circulars outlining clear penalties against employers who exploit workers. The Ministry of Labour must also establish a complaint mechanism specifically designed for migrant domestic workers, ensure that the Ministry’s hotline for reporting abuse is fully activated, and that migrant domestic workers know about its existence.

Undocumented migrant domestic workers

Thousands of migrant domestic workers who lack work permits are either working without authorization in the country, or are stuck in detention centers awaiting deportation.

Amnesty International’s research has repeatedly shown how migrant domestic workers without identification documents have often found it difficult to access state services, including healthcare.

The Ministry of Health should lead an awareness campaign for migrant domestic workers on the symptoms of COVID-19, how they can protect themselves, and where they can be tested for the virus even if they are undocumented. Access to testing and health care should be available to all, and no one should be denied access solely because of lack of documentation.

The Ministry of Interior must also ensure that any migrant domestic workers currently held in administrative detention for lacking valid residencies are able to access adequate healthcare without discrimination.

“During a global public health crisis such as COVID-19, any detention solely for migration-related reasons cannot generally be justifiable. At a time like this, the authorities should be trying to reduce their detention population rather than adding to it,” said Heba Morayef.

“When immigration detainees’ right to health cannot be upheld or when deportations cannot be carried out promptly, detainees should be released.“

Background

Lebanon is home to more than 250,000 migrant domestic workers, mostly women, who come from African and Asian countries and work in private households. Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are trapped in a web woven by the kafala system, an inherently abusive migration sponsorship system, which increases their risk of suffering labour exploitation, forced labour and trafficking and leaves them with little prospect of obtaining redress.

In a report published in April 2019, Their House is my Prison’: Exploitation of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon, Amnesty International found consistent patterns of abuse including employers forcing domestic workers to work extreme working hours, denying them rest days, withholding their pay or applying deductions to it, confiscating their passports, severely restricting their freedom of movement and communication, depriving them of food and proper accommodation, subjecting them to verbal and physical abuse, and denying them health care. Amnesty International also documented some extreme cases of forced labour and human trafficking.

In March 2020, Amnesty International contributed to the consultation to revise Lebanon’s Standard Unified Contract for the Employment of (Migrant) Domestic Workers. Amnesty International is calling on the Minister of Labour Lamia Yammine to ensure that the revised draft includes provisions that address the current inequalities and power imbalance between the employer and the worker, and other restrictive aspects of the kafala system.

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