A Tale of Two Cities: Trafficking of Domestic Workers

Excerpt of a blog post by Arthur Brown, Assistant Director, Institute of Middle East Studies of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, Lebanon

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 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 to 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 four other migrant women from the Philippines, arrived in May of this year.

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.

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’ – which ‘ties’ migrant domestic workers to their employers. Migrant domestic workers are not protected by Lebanese labour 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.

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.

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