Trafficking of Migrant Domestic Workers: A Tale of Two Cities

By Arthur Brown

Trafficking in persons, or human trafficking, is the second most lucrative illegal trade in the world today. It was also one of the four main themes IMES addressed at our recent Middle East Conference, 17 -21 June 2013, exploring the issue of human rights from both Biblical and Islamic perspectives. We felt that the multi-faced practice of human trafficking was of such critical importance that we could not ignore it.

At MEC 2013, we explored issues related to the internal trafficking of children for labor in Lebanon, the trafficking of women to be [ab]used within the Lebanese sex industry, as well as the enormous issue of the trafficking of migrant domestic workers in and beyond Lebanon. It is this final dimension of human trafficking to which I turn in this post.

Human Trafficking has been defined as:

“The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”[1]

I am of the strong personal opinion that this definition applies to far too many migrant domestic workers living within Lebanon and wider MENA region.

Last week,  a high profile case of alleged trafficking involving a Saudi princess was reported across the media. Meshael Alayban (42), one of the wives of Saudi Prince Abdulrahman bin Nasser bin Abdulaziz, was arrested for human trafficking in Irvine, California, USA.

It is alleged that in 2012 Alayban employed a Kenyan woman and brought her to Saudi Arabia for the purposes of carrying out domestic work. The contract stated that the woman (as yet unnamed) would receive $1,600 a month for working five 8-hour days per week. The reality it seems turned out to be very different as the Kenyan woman was forced to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and was paid only $220 per month since March 2012. This equates to less than 50 US cents per hour!

Upon moving Southern California, the Kenyan woman was also forced to work in four different apartments in the building within which she was trapped. Furthermore, the woman’s passport was taken by Alayban and only given back long enough for her to enter the US, when she, along with 4 other migrant women from the Philippines, arrived in May of this year.

In the U.S. the Kenyan woman managed to escape and flag down a bus on which she explained to a fellow passenger that she thought she might be a victim of human trafficking. The passenger subsequently helped her to alert the authorities and, as a result, police later raided Alayban’s building. Following an investigation, Alayban was arrested and bail was set (and paid) at $5 million.

Alayban is due back in court today (Thursday, 18 July). If, in due course, she is found guilty of human trafficking she faces a maximum prison sentence of 12 years, thanks to new anti-trafficking legislation in the State of California.

Whilst this has become a high profile case, and is no doubt shocking to many of our readers, the reality is that there will be many in our part of the world who will be scratching their heads and wondering what the big deal is. The truth is that this is an everyday reality of hundreds of thousands of women across the MENA region. The experience of the Kenyan woman is typical for far too many.

One difference, however, is the manner in which the Kenyan woman was treated once she escaped. Rather than being criminalized for ‘absconding without her travel documents’ she was protected by law and her employer has become the subject of investigation by the authorities.

Ghada Jabbour, Head of the Exploitation & Trafficking in Women Unit at Lebanese NGO KAFA (enough) Violence & Exploitation, stated in a personal interview that:

‘The mentality of owning the domestic worker exists throughout the Gulf and some Mashreq countries. This is exacerbated by the existence of the sponsorship system which puts the worker in a total dependency to her employer with regards to her legal status and in particular to her work and residency permits in the destination country’.

In much of the MENA region, if a migrant domestic worker manages to escape from an abusive home they are unlikely to have their passports and as such will eventually be arrested, imprisoned and/or expelled from the country. There is little or no protection, as a result of the current system in place, to protect the victims of trafficking. In fact, the system virtually requires conditions comparable to the many definitions of human trafficking in existence. For example, the UN’s Palermo Protocol describes a variety of different terms used for human trafficking, like:

  • “involuntary [domestic] servitude”;
  • “slavery or practices similar to slavery”;
  • “debt bondage”;
  • “forced labor.”

It is easy to find examples of each in Lebanon.

The central issue within Lebanon and many other Middle Eastern countries is that of the ‘sponsorship system’, a system that ‘ties’ migrant domestic workers to their employers. Migrant domestic workers are not protected by Lebanese labor laws and as a result become vulnerable to abuse.

As if this is not bad enough, employers are in fact required, under contractual agreement with the agencies responsible for ‘procuring’ domestic workers, to retain their employees’ passports. This naturally results in a situation whereby migrant domestic workers who escape from abusive situations become automatically criminalized. And if caught, they potentially face additional punishment, rather than protection, at the hands of the Lebanese authorities.

The isolated nature of domestic labour, coupled with the systemic neglect of migrant workers’ rights on such a large scale, is something that should be far more shocking than the individual case of a Saudi princess, though I certainly hope this case continues to heighten awareness about the suffering of many of the world’s most vulnerable.

During the week of the Middle East Conference, the US State Department published their annual and highly respected Trafficking in Persons Report. Lebanon, for the second year in a row, was designated a Tier 2 (Watch List) country.

This essentially means that:

  1. The absolute number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing,
  2. There is a failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year, including increased investigations, prosecution, and convictions of trafficking crimes, increased assistance to victims, and decreasing evidence of complicity in severe forms of trafficking by government officials, or,
  3. The determination that a country is making significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with minimum standards, as based on commitments by the country to take additional steps over the next year.

Whilst Lebanon is making efforts to improve legislation on human trafficking – I recently attended a national level meeting exploring legislative plans on a range of trafficking related topics – it is clear there is still a long way to go.

The Syrian refugee crises is also impacting the nature and scale of human trafficking activity, something I will address in future posts. I have previously posted in regard to the issue of women trafficked into the sex trade, and plan in the future to reflect upon child trafficking in Lebanon, as well as other aspects of trafficking in persons.

So, what else can be done to not only change the plights of countless marginalized women in isolated homes around the region?

Awareness raising and the development a prophetic voice for justice are key elements. And, there are numerous organisations seeking to work in this area, such as KAFA [www.kafa.org.lb] or Stop the Traffick [www.stopthetraffik.org]. Kafa, along with other bodies is also promoting and campaigning for a change away from the sponsorship model which encourages such awful abuses.

They suggest the following general guidelines:

  • Increase labor mobility of migrant domestic workers.
  • Decouple the employer/employee relationship.
  • Improve the recruitment process, regulate private agencies more strictly and decrease recruitment fees.
  • Decrease the number and vulnerability of migrants in irregular status.
  • Ensure social protections and legal redress.
  • Establish a national coordinating body and build the capacity of the National Employment Office.

I hope to explore many of these issues in more detail in future posts, and how we can support such actions as described above.

I conclude, therefore, with the comments of  two influential world leaders:

“It ought to concern every person, because it’s a debasement of our common humanity. It ought to concern every community, because it tears at the social fabric. It ought to concern every business, because it distorts markets. It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime. I’m talking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name – modern slavery.” Barack Obama, 25 September 2012.

And, Pope Francis earlier this year said,

“I ask my brothers and sisters in faith, and all men and women of good will for a decisive choice to combat trafficking in persons, which include ‘slave labor’.”

Christians were at the forefront of the abolishment of the slave trade. It seems that there needs to be a renewed call by people of faith today to rise up and make a stand against inhumane practices that directly confront the dignity given to all people by God, regardless of race, sex, socio-economic status or any other category within which we artificially categorize our human sisters and brothers.

We pray for justice to prevail, not only for the Kenyan women and her Saudi princess employer, but also for the countless other women caught in a system of bondage and slavery in the MENA region today.

Let’s see if we can make a difference!

________________________________________________________________

[1] Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2013. The State Department, USA.

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