Law enforcement officers in Lebanon are cracking down on unionists committed to organizing the country’s migrant workers, and labor activists find themselves squeezed and left with few options.
Sujana Rana, a well-known Nepalese domestic migrant worker and unionist in Lebanon, was working in a home on Dec. 1, when police arrived and arrested her.
A week later, the group “Women’s Human Right Defenders in the Middle East and North Africa” (WHRD) announced on Facebook that Rana would be deported in two days, at 12:45 a.m. on Dec. 11,
Update: the Lebanese General Security announced that the unionist Sujana will have to depart by 12:45 am on Sunday.
Lebanese officials have refused to provide formal grounds for the arrest and deportation, but many suspect Rana was targeted for her high-profile role in the Domestic Workers’ Union, which she helped found.
Five days after Rana’s arrest, Lebanese authorities then came for Roja “Rosie” Maya Limbu, another prominent union organizer. At the time of this writing, Limbu is still in police custody.
Though Lebanon’s politicians and media typically devote little, if any, coverage to the country’s labor issues, the arrests of Rana and Limbu have attracted considerable attention, relatively speaking.
In response to these apparently arbitrary detentions, the Arab Trade Union Confederation stated:
Both the National Union and the General Assembly denounced the decision to deport Sujana Rana, and the “unjustified” arrest of Ms. Rose Limbu. The statement noted, “Until now the reason for her arrest is still ambiguous.” The statement added: “we even were not allowed to communicate with them so we can hire a lawyer or a minimum let us and the public know the charges against them.”
The International Domestic Workers Federation also condemned the decision:
Deeply saddened and outraged by the recent detention of two Nepali domestic workers in Lebanon — [Sujana] Rana known as Zogana Rana, and Roja Maya Limbu known as Rosie Limbaugh — without formal and clear explanation of the charges levelled against them. […] We strongly condemn this pattern of arrests which aims to weaken the union and intimidate its current and prospective members.
A Dec. 9 statement released by Lebanon’s Anti-Racism Movement, signed by 29 Lebanese and International NGOs, called for the immediate release of the two women. The statement argues that the arrests prove unions’ case about a lack of protections for migrant domestic workers:
إن سوجانا وروزي من المدافعات عن حقوق عاملات المنازل في لبنان، وقد عملتا لسنين طويلة في توثيق وكشف الانتهاكات ضد عاملات المنازل المهاجرات والتي يسببها نظام الكفالة في لبنان. هذا النظام المستند الى تعليمات إدارية يربط إقامة العاملة بصاحب عمل واحد دون منحها الحق بتغييره إلا بموافقته، ولا يقدم حماية قانونية كافية للعاملات بسبب استثنائهن من قانون العمل اللبناني. وبالتالي، يمنعهن من التمتع بالحق في حرية التحرك، والراحة والحصول على الحد الادنى من الاجور بالإضافة الى العديد من الحقوق الاساسية وأهمها الحق في التعبير عن الرأي وإنشاء جمعيات ونقابات.
وتشكل هذه القضية دليلا صارخا على هشاشة الوضع القانوني للعاملات في المنازل بحيث تتحكم السلطات وأصحاب العمل في مصيرهن، وتثير هذه الخطوة الشكوك حول احتمال وجود إجراءات تمييزية بحق المدافعات عن حقوق الانسان والحرية النقابية المكفولة في مقدمة الدستور.
Sujana and are defenders of domestic workers rights in Lebanon, and have exerted efforts for years in documenting and exposing violations against migrant domestic workers caused by the Kafala/sponsorship system in Lebanon. This system, which is based on administrative instructions, links the legal stay of a domestic worker in Lebanon with one employer where she has no right to change this employer without their consent. Moreover, it does not grant any legal protection to migrant domestic workers as they are explicitly excluded from the Lebanese Labour Law. Thereby, the Kafala system denies them from the right to freedom of movement, rest, minimum wage, and several other basic human rights, most importantly right for assembly and association.
The case of Sujana and Rose today proves yet again the legal vulnerability of migrant domestic workers are in Lebanon as their fate is always fully controlled by the authorities and employers. The latest action by the General Security raises the suspicions on the possibility of the existence of discriminatory measures against the defenders of human rights and the right to freedom of association guaranteed in the Preamble of the Lebanese Constitution.
The arrests of these two prominent labor organizers highlights Lebanon’s practice of “Kafala” — its sponsorship system that effectively deprives domestic workers of labor rights protected under international law.
According to an article published in 2015 at Migrant-Rights.org:
الكفالة نظام سلطوي. في سياق الهجرة، يسمح هذا النظام للحكومات بترك مسؤولية المهاجرين في أيدي المواطنين والشركات حيث يعطي الكفلاء صلاحيات قانونية للتحكم بمصير العمال فمن غير إذن الكفيل، لا يستطيع العامل تجديد أوراقه وتغيير وظيفته والاستقالة منها أو ترك البلاد. حينما يرحل العامل عن وظيفته من دون إذن الكفيل، فيحق للكفيل إلغاء إقامته مما يضع العامل في وضع غير قانوني داخل البلاد. وبعدما يقوم الكفيل بإلغاء الإقامة، لا يستطيع العامل الخروج من البلاد سوى من خلال إجراءات الترحيل التي تعرضهم تلقائياً للحبس لمدة أسابيع أو شهور وأحياناً لسنوات.
[The Kafala system] is a system of control. In the migration context, it is a way for governments to delegate oversight and responsibility for migrants to private citizens or companies. The system gives sponsors a set of legal abilities to control workers: without the employer’s permission, workers cannot change jobs, quit jobs, or leave the country. If a worker leaves a job without permission, the employer has the power to cancel his or her residence visa, automatically turning the worker into an illegal resident in the country. Workers whose employers cancel their residency visas often have to leave the country through deportation proceedings, and many have to spend time behind bars.