No Lipstick in Lebanon

By Paul Timblick with Fasika Sorssa

High-rise hell: an Ethiopian maid’s frantic scramble for life in the Middle East

Friday, 17 October 2014

Support Anti-Slavery Day Tomorrow (18th October)

“Happy Anti-Slavery Day!” or is it “Unhappy Anti-Slavery Day!” Judging from the state of the world, including the UK, it would seem to be distinctly “Unhappy”.

Slavery, ISIS or Ebola, there are evils in the world that we assume most right-minded individuals are firmly opposed to and it is difficult to understand how they flourish. But I have serious doubts about the world’s commitment to abolishing slavery, rampant in so many forms. (I have doubts about the others too but this is not the place...)

Let’s examine three countries. In the UK, proudly boasting the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833, many people today are probably not aware of slavery when it is toiling under their very nose. It is not a simple colour distinction as it was two centuries ago and we badly need educating on this. But one glance at the Anti-Slavery Day events around the country ( ) and it is clear that large swathes of Britain are distinctly disinterested and not a single city will be grinding into a Hong Kong-style paralysis in the wake of  mass anti-slavery protests. Anti-ISIS and anti-Ebola Days would generate a little more commotion. William Wilberforce, we need you back before disinterest sleepwalks into the equivalent of ‘pro-slavery’.

In my next country, Lebanon, the law incorporates a contractual mechanism called ‘kafala’: this sponsorship system is neatly explained in a recent German news article ( ). ‘Kafala’ is the root cause of migrant worker mistreatment: it is ubiquitous and most foreign maids are employed/owned on this basis, ie. as paid-for commodities (or legal ‘slaves’). The kafala system is also widespread in other Middle Eastern states: Lebanon and this region is clearly ‘pro-slavery’.

Finally, Ethiopia. Our local newspaper this week posted a best-forgotten video clip featuring my wife, Fasika, and I talking about her time in Beirut as an oppressed maid. It was a completely improvised snatch of muffled conversation with Fasika’s English language ability dissipating by the second (I’m certainly not providing you with the link). Nonetheless, this seemingly feeble clip was somehow discovered by an obscure Ethiopian news site and posted with an Amharic caption. Within hours, there were comments from over a hundred unknown people, many emotional and highly charged. Why? Almost everyone in Addis Ababa knows someone who’s worked in the Middle East and absolutely everyone understands the issues. Naturally, slavery is loathed, though nobody will be marching tomorrow because public demonstrations are illegal. So next question: why do Ethiopians continue to migrate to the Middle East in huge numbers with the kafala system still in place?

The root cause of modern slavery is poverty and the desire for a better life. Many young Ethiopians will travel abroad and put up with slave-like conditions to break free from their near-destitution at home. And why is Ethiopia the eleventh poorest nation on Earth (World Bank, 2014)? This partly emanates from the unequal trading relationships between Ethiopia and more developed countries who purchase the latter’s under-priced commodities (eg. see Al Jazeera ‘Ethiopia – Land for Sale’ 30.1.14). In effect, Ethiopia is treated, as a nation, in a similar way to its migrant workers in other countries: looked down upon and exploited.

Modern day slavery is set to thrive as long as there are poorer nations yielding desperate citizens willing to risk anything for a better life and therefore vulnerable to exploitation. So what can we do? As I mentioned, it is definitely “Unhappy Anti-Slavery Day!” tomorrow, because the problem is horribly intractable. But until we see an equal distribution of global prosperity based on fair terms of trade – in a century or two – a few things CAN be done to ease the problem.

Let’s begin with the kafala system: it needs to be abolished immediately. The UK Ambassador in Lebanon, Tom Fletcher, recognises this and last week performed a high-visibility job swap with an Ethiopian maid in Beirut (@HMATomFletcher). It generated media attention in Lebanon. Well done. That was one man’s useful gesture and may assist in eventually bringing down this medieval sponsorship system. We can’t all be Wilberforce or Fletcher, but we Brits should do far more to nudge Lebanon et al in the right direction. A bit of marching tomorrow can help this along.

Oh. Sorry, I have a dodgy knee so no route-marching for me. My armchair gesture is to raise awareness through my Ethiopian wife’s maid story ‘No Lipstick in Lebanon’: please help us publish this through pledging and sharing. It all helps.

One day, not in my lifetime, the cry will be “Happy Anti-Slavery Day!” to which the answer will be “What is this thing... slavery?”

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