In February 2022, the violent abduction of a recently escaped Filipina migrant domestic worker by her former employer captivated Lebanese social media. The video shows a man accosting and forcing a masked woman into a silver Honda, while a second man fights off bystanders who were attempting to pull her to freedom. The woman, Rogie, whose last name is withheld due to ongoing threats to her safety, alleges months of unpaid wages and that she had been subjected to harassment and verbal abuse by the person in the video, Bernard Hanna. When Rogie finally escaped, Hanna sought her out and abducted her in broad daylight while she traveled in the company of two other Filipino migrant workers.
This public abduction is yet another chapter in Lebanon’s recent public reckoning with the labor regime that imports foreign domestic workers and conditions their lives in Lebanon—the kafala system—widely described as contract slavery. A social and legal structure, the kafala places workers under the complete control of their sponsor, or kafil. It is a system that exists throughout the Arab world, but in Lebanon, which has experienced a protracted economic crisis since 2019, abuse of the hundreds of thousands of migrant domestic workers residing there has been a particular source of controversy.
On March 31, a Lebanese court heard arguments in a case that seeks to alter this system entirely. For the first time in the region, it argues that the kafala system subjects migrant domestic workers to slavery and slave trading. The case was brought by Legal Action Worldwide (LAW), a human rights law organization representing MH, an Ethiopian domestic worker who alleges that her employer May Saadeh, who appeared in court with her attorneys, subjected her to physical abuse and torture for eight years and denied her contact with the outside world including her family, while forcing her to work 15-hour days without time off, paying her for only 13 months of work. A guilty verdict carries a sentence of up to 15 years.
Antonia Mulvey, the executive director of LAW, said, “This case is an opportunity for the Lebanese justice system to show that they take these cases seriously, and that Lebanese people will no longer accept domestic migrant workers to be abused in this way.”
But for Rogie, it took a clip of her abduction going viral on social media to spur Lebanese authorities into action. According to an activist close to the case, Rogie had made a police report the week prior claiming that Hanna had been harassing her since she left his employ, but no action was taken.
Facing community pressure, Hanna brought her to the police station and was released after two days when he made a formal pledge that he would not interact with her again. Ghina Alandry, a social worker with KAFA, a women’s rights organization that works directly with migrant domestic workers, explained that these orders are typically used in the rare cases where authorities intervene in employer abuse. She said, “This is standard procedure. There's no enforcement. They make a pledge in front of the authorities and the police don't really have a mechanism to follow up on it or to make sure it's being monitored.”
Like thousands of other migrant domestic workers who have been victimized by their employers in Lebanon, Rogie decided not to file a criminal case for her abduction, opting instead to pursue civil action with the support of the Philippines embassy to retrieve the documents that her employer had seized and to recover unpaid wages. According to Alandry, the bureaucratic Lebanese judicial system makes it almost impossible for migrant domestic workers to pursue criminal cases against employers. She said, “It takes at least five years to have an initial verdict. And that's if it’s not appealed by the defendant… In the case of domestic workers, there is no legal protection specific to them. The system itself puts them at risk. Because the employer holds the power in the situation. And it's very easy for them to abuse this power.”
With court proceedings ongoing, LAW hopes that a verdict against Saadeh, MH’s employer, will encourage migrant domestic workers to seek more cases against their employers. Mulvey said, “It is really important that victims and survivors come forward instead of hiding their heads in shame. So we have opened the door to more and more victims and survivors coming forward. And we're going to see if you, if you lock up your domestic migrant worker, if you subject them to abuse, if you don't allow them out the house, if you work them every day, you're going to be held accountable, you can be brought before a criminal court.” MH was released by her former employer in 2019 after a public pressure campaign
Recent estimates suggest that there are more than 400,000 migrant domestic workers living and working in Lebanon. Living under the kafala system, they are subjected to daily abuses. Most employers deny them even a single day off and significantly restrict their access to the world outside the home. They are routinely subjected to physical and verbal abuse and, particularly since the beginning of the Lebanese economic collapse in 2019, many domestic workers work without pay. Dramatic cases sometimes make headlines in isolation, but as Alandry says, “What these domestic workers go through is the greatest manifestation of violence against women.”
Rogie came from the Philippines to Lebanon in 2015 under a domestic work contract in the name of Edgard Hanna, Bernard’s brother. As is typical in Lebanon, she had her passport and identity documents seized upon her arrival. In a practice that is illegal under Lebanese law, but remains commonly accepted and unregulated, she was given to Bernard to work in his hair salon. According to a community member who sheltered Rogie at her home, and whose name has been withheld to protect Rogie’s safety, when the Lebanese economy collapsed, she began to have disputes with her employer over partially or unpaid wages. When she raised these issues, he subjected her to verbal abuse.
Upon summoning the courage to escape, Rogie sought refuge in the house of one of Bernard’s former clients. For three weeks, she did not leave the house. Bernard tracked her down and waited outside for her day and night. When he couldn’t be there, he hired men to stand outside the house in case she left. When she finally thought the coast was clear, he abducted her in broad daylight.
Stories like Rogie’s are not uncommon in Lebanon. Her abuse may have been captured on camera, but thousands of other migrant domestic workers suffer silently behind closed doors. Employers have rarely been held accountable for the suffering that they cause. By alleging that the abuses of the kafala system constitute slavery, LAW hopes to create a prescient for accountability.
Four days after abducting Rogie, Bernard Hanna reopened his hair salon.