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Lebanon: Domestic workers trapped without passport

On April 18, 2009

Eighty Ethiopian women have been held in Tripoli women's prison in Beirut for over a year, for the crime of not possessing a passport. However, many of these women have had their passports taken away from them by their employers - or never had one in the first place. You can read the full story on IRIN Middle East here.

Many of these women were fleeing abusive employers at the time of their arrest by the Lebanese authorities. Having broken their contracts, they are no longer entitled to a flight home paid for them by their employer, and stand to lose their documents

Kholoud from Sudan is just one woman who is stuck in Lebanon with no documents and no means of returning home:

Kholoud.. has been in Lebanon for 18 years. She came with her husband and two children to escape conflict and unemployment. But when her husband was deported, she said, he took all the family’s official papers with him. “Now I can’t prove that I am Sudanese to obtain a new passport… so I am stuck here.”

She struggles to pay US$110 a month for a one-room apartment with no kitchen, refrigerator or running water, and relies on donations from friends to pay for her children’s education.

Human rights groups have successfully lobbied the Lebanese govenernmnet to enact a law to protect migrant workers:

For the first time, workers will be able to read the same contract as their employer in their own language. Work terms have been extended from two to three years and the contract states the women should only work 10 hours a day for six days a week and are entitled to eight hours of continuous rest. Salaries, which Human Rights Watch (HRW) has reported can often be withheld as punishment, must now be paid and signed for each month.

The employer, however, will still have the right to break the contract for whatever reason, which means the worker is then responsible for paying for her ticket home or repaying any debts owed. Workers will still not be guaranteed the right to retain their passports.

However, activists believe that the new ruling will still leave migrant women vulnerable to abuse by their employers.

Human rights groups estimate that there are currently 200,000 domestic workers from countries such as the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia, who are not protected by any labour laws.