KATHMANDU, Nepal— With the help of the International Organization for Migration, along with the Nepali Embassy in Egypt, 39 Nepali migrant domestic workers returned home.
For years, the women lived illegally in Lebanon after leaving abusive employers; some having been beaten and forced to endure slave-like conditions, the majority having been trafficked. With Lebanon’s strict kafala, or sponsorship system, which binds migrant staff to their bosses, the women had no means to escape without losing their legal status, passports and wages.
Nepali workers who escape an abusive employer can be arrested and deported, while the employers go mainly unpunished.
There are an estimated 12,000 Nepali migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. According to a report by Anti-Slavery International, almost half of employers never give domestic staff a day off and a third of workers state that they are locked in the house when their employer leaves.
The report also mentions a complete vacuum in “relation to the protection of migrant domestic workers” as a result of counter productive policies and practices from both Nepalese and Lebanese governments.
“My madam used to scold me for nothing. I was forced to work all the time, yet madam was never happy,” said Anita Niraula, one of the women who recently returned to Nepal. “She even asked her husband to beat me. I was often beaten with sticks.”
Niraula, and the other women, found that by working illegally, they would be able to earn 10 times the amount they made as domestic workers. Instead of earning around $150, working part-time allowed the women to earn around $1,500 a month during the summer and $600-$700 in the winter.
However, many of the women wish to return to Lebanon thanks in part to the scarcity of well-paid jobs in Nepal.
“The choice in Lebanon should not be between low-paid, and too often unpaid, legal work, and better paid illegal work,” said Audrey Guichon of Anti-Slavery International. “If the Lebanese system guaranteed that women were paid well and treated fairly in the first place, they wouldn’t be forced to live illegally in order to make a living.”
“There is nothing here in Nepal,” said Niraula. “I do want to live with my husband and children, but the problem is how will I secure my children’s future? I am very confident if I go back to Lebanon then I can find my way out—no one can cheat me as I know how things work there.”
According to the International Labour Organization, more than 2 million Nepali men and women work abroad as domestic workers, construction workers or in other low-skill jobs.
Nepal responded to the numerous cases of abuse by introducing an official ban for women under 30 to travel to work in Lebanon. However, this ban only serves to make migrant workers “seek unofficial routs of migration” and therefore prevent them from receiving support and representation from their government.
Despite large numbers of Nepalese migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, Nepal has yet to establish an embassy or a consulate there, denying the workers a place of protection, assistance and refuge.