The Kafala System is ‘Civilized’ Slavery

There is a meme that was posted on Instagram on International Women’s Day depicting a fictional conversation between a migrant domestic worker and a Lebanese woman participating in the women’s day march. Between a “Yes Madame” and “Okay Madame”, the Lebanese woman texts the following: “I know it’s Sunday but I’m busy reclaiming my rights, so no off today, do the laundry, do the dishes, take out the garbage, keep an eye on the children and the food ready @7”.

The meme speaks to a great dissonance between much of Lebanese society, including those protesting since October, and those that live in Lebanon as migrant domestic workers. The underlying culprit of that dissonance has a name, the Kafala system. It is not well-known outside of Lebanon, but an estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers in the country, mostly women, know it all-too-well. It governs their lives 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It has lead to horrific abuses by those that are their ‘sponsors’.

You see, Kafala means sponsorship in Arabic, and this works the way you might guess. Migrant domestic workers, from countries such as Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Nepal, come to Lebanon under the sponsorship of a ‘kafeel’ (sponsor in Arabic) and live with a sponsoring family, often in a household of a couple and their children. There, they usually take care of all household shores, from the cleaning to the cooking to the raising of kids to even walking the sponsors’ dogs. They are often visibly identifiable by their costume. 

So normalised is this state of affairs that one can still reasonably expect, despite relative gains in recent years, to hear the word ‘sirlankyyeh’, which simply means a Sri Lankan woman, to be used as synonymous with ‘maid’, leading such questions as ‘what is your Sri Lankan, an Ethiopian?’ depressingly common. 

In recent years, migrant domestic workers have been organising like never before. Groups with or without the support of Lebanese and Palestinian activists have been getting increasingly vocal. One can think of the anti-racism movement or the migrant workers’ task force as two notable example. Full disclosure: I briefly worked with the latter some years ago.

We go back to the summer of 2018 when I sat down with Sami, a Beirut-based Ethiopian activist with, Mesewat, a solidarity network that supports migrant workers in Lebanon and the Middle East, and Ali, an activist with the Anti-Racism Movement. It was recorded at one of the Migrant Community Centers in Beirut.