BEIRUT (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It was Betty’s 22nd birthday when she landed in Beirut from Ethiopia with the promise of a well-paid job, but her dream of a better life ended when she found herself at the mercy of her employers.
Betty - whose name was changed for security reasons - is one of more than 100,000 Ethiopian migrants in Lebanon working under the kafala sponsorship system, which binds them to one employer.
Ethiopians are the biggest group of migrant workers in Lebanon where there are also more than 47,000 Bangladeshis and nearly 19,000 Filipinos, according to 2016 government data.
For two years Betty said she worked like a slave, facing sexual, verbal and physical abuse, until she managed to escape.
But her new-found freedom was not all she had hoped and for the past five years she has found she is still trapped, working without legal work and residency permits.
“I live in fear at any minute I can get arrested and go to jail,” Betty, now 29, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in Beirut.
The kafala system applies across the Arab world and is highly criticized by human rights group for exploiting workers and denying them the ability to travel or change jobs.
This criticism has led to some nations reforming the system, with countries like Bahrain and Jordan introducing flexible visas that stop workers being under one sponsor, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).
In 2017 Qatar, host of the 2022 soccer World Cup, pledged a series of reforms including introducing a minimum wage and removed restrictions preventing migrant workers leaving the country without their employers’ permission.
But Lebanon is one of a list of Arab countries yet to introduce changes to the kafala system.
Georges Ayda, general director of the Ministry of Labor, said the kafala system was necessary to protect both the employer and the employee.
“When they work in houses there has to be somebody that is responsible for them. You are putting a stranger within a family,” said Ayda.
Despite the kafala system and Ethiopia banning its citizens from working in Lebanon since 2008, nearly 48,000 Ethiopians entered Lebanon between 2013 to 2016, government data shows.
But there are no official numbers of workers like Betty - so-called “irregular” workers - who do not have the legal paperwork to let them stay and work in the country.
Groups working with migrants see this as a widespread problem as it leaves people with no legal right to escape abusive bosses or poor working conditions.
“The sponsorship system allows this to be a systematic problem ... you don’t have the right to be in the country, workers become trapped and they can’t leave without their passport,” said Zeina Mezher, migrant specialist for the ILO.
Under the kafala system an employer sometimes holds the worker’s passport, residency and work permits even though the Ministry of Labor states migrants have the right to keep their passport and all legal papers.
“The employer holds everything relating to their freedom,” said Farah Salka, executive director of local non-government group Anti-Racism Movement.
“There is no way to negotiate under this system of slavery ... You can’t upset the person who is your sponsor because they are the only the legal tie for you in Lebanon.”
Betty said she managed to get to Lebanon after a smuggler gave her a visa to get into the country via Yemen with a promise she would be paid $250 per month and have regular working hours with a family.
But her first job was working unpaid for an illegal recruiter for three months because of the “debt” she owed him.
Betty said she was sponsored twice by two different families but faced physical, sexual and verbal abuse, limited meals, no days off, and was often forced to work for other relatives too.
“I went through a lot,” said Betty in a soft voice, adding that she felt she had no choice but to flee, leaving behind her passport and legal papers with her last sponsor.
“That time it was about surviving,” she said, adding that she dreams of working legally and maybe getting a law degree in Lebanon with the hope of one day returning to Ethiopia.
Betty is now living with relatives picking up jobs in various houses around Lebanon, but without legal papers.
“Without my papers I can’t do anything. (The sponsor) didn’t sign a release paper. It’s like you own a slave. No matter where you go, you are somebody’s property unless that person sets them free,” she said.
Sponsors can sign release papers, but rights groups say migrant workers would still have be under another sponsor to allow them to legally work.
“The system doesn’t allow a person to escape an abusive situation without falling into irregularity,” said Ghada Jabbour, head of the anti-trafficking unit at Kafa, a local NGO working with migrants and against gender-based violence.
“The sponsorship system traps the worker since there is no legal protection ... the worker has no way to untie this knot.”
Rights groups have called for the sponsorship system to be abolished but the government has ruled that out.
“The situation is not perfect. We strive for improvement - but we will not be going down the road of abolishing kafala. If you take away kafala there will be no guarantee that the employee will respect the contract,” said Ayda.
Ayda told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the Ministry of Labor is looking into the possibility of domestic migrant workers being sponsored by cleaning companies, allowing them not to live-in with a sponsor and to have flexible hours.
“If we go into something like this, in my opinion we fix many of the problems and we guarantee better rights for the domestic migrant worker,” he said.
Reporting by Heba Kanso @hebakanso, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org