This piece was initially published on the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy on the 1st of September 2020.
In a video posted on Facebook, six activists took it upon themselves to explain the ‘Kafala’ system in six languages: English, Swahili, Akan, Somali, French, and Kinyarwanda. It is, they argue, “an exploitative sponsorship system found in the Middle East whereby the employer has full control over their employees.” The Kafala system, from Arabic for “sponsorship,” dominates the lives of migrant workers in Lebanon, Jordan, and the Gulf.
With the advent of the October 2019 revolution, Lebanon has particularly been under the spotlight regarding its treatment of migrant domestic workers—most of whom come from Ethiopia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, as well as other African and Asian countries. These workers have been pointing out that no revolution in Lebanon can be complete without tackling systematic racism in the country. With the more recent Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. that followed the brutal murder of George Floyd, various racialized migrant activists have used the increased attention on race-related issues to decry the horrors of Lebanon’s Kafala system and to call for its abolition.
One thing that is commonly pointed out is the fact that the legal status of migrant workers is entirely dependent on their employers. If, for various reasons, the worker chooses or is forced to leave their sponsor’s house or company, she or he could be immediately deemed an illegal alien in the country and would be put at the mercy of Lebanon’s security forces. It could be months or years before that person leaves prison to be deported, and many don’t make it out alive. There is also an added gendered component placed on migrant domestic workers, a largely female workforce, of being both racialized and women in a patriarchal society, one with a racism problem. Furthermore, working behind closed doors in households puts workers at greater risk of physical and emotional abuse.
Although the anti-Kafala movement has become increasingly louder over the years, subsequent Lebanese governments have so far refused to abolish the Kafala system. Indeed, migrant domestic workers have been calling for its abolition, with the support of allies, for years. They’ve organized yearly marches on Labor Day, established a Domestic Workers’ Union, and taken and/or given English and/or Arabic classes to navigate life in Lebanon more effectively. More recently, activists such as the Beirut-based Ethiopian migrant rights collective “Egna Legna” have been campaigning and organizing for the repatriation of Ethiopian workers stuck in Lebanon and providing direct support to migrants of all backgrounds. As for the Sierra Leone Committee, to name a second example, it has provided shelter to fellow nationals escaping abusive households. Some, like Egna Legna, have even taken an explicitly feminist approach, linking racism to patriarchy in Lebanon. As Lebanon falls into a deep-rooted economic crisis aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the more recent devastating Beirut explosion, such desperate cases have increased in recent months—and so have the networks providing support.
The problem is structural
Whereas there has always been a small but vocal anti-Kafala presence among Lebanese civil society, this issue has largely been ignored in the three decades since the country’s civil war ended in 1990. Even when the issue is brought up, it rarely included migrant domestic workers themselves. Indeed, the more common tendency has been for the Lebanese to address other Lebanese rather than platform those victimized by this system. Furthermore, traditional anti-Kafala campaigns have tended to focus on individual acts of visible abuse and opted for “raising awareness” among the Lebanese population. In addition to failing to accord these workers their own agency, such approach also fails to understand the wider structural components that make the Kafala system possible in the first place.
In her conversation with me, Daryn Howland, a Beirut-based researcher who recently finished her MA thesis on the Kafala system, emphasized the structural components behind the racialization and dehumanization of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon—namely: commodification, inferiorization, criminalization, and sexualization. All of these components are crucial for such a cruel system to be maintained, according to Howland. To put it simply, both Lebanese employers and Lebanese workers must believe that migrant domestic workers are inferior to them. Indeed, the dehumanization of this workforce through these four components not only encourages the strict separation between Lebanese employers and migrant domestic workers, but the separation between migrant workers and non-migrant workers more broadly.
This is often done through the creation of “maid’s rooms” in Lebanese (middle and upper class) houses and through daily humiliations inflicted upon these workers’ minds and bodies. It is further strengthened by the restriction of movement imposed on these workers which separates them from the country’s remaining workforce. Howland pointed out that dehumanization thus weakens the potential for class-based solidarity. It also opens up the way for these migrant workers to be exploited by the local working class—even though the recruitment agencies cater to a largely middle- and upper-class clientele—and for nationality to ultimately be the main qualifier of difference. These separations make most spaces in Lebanon inaccessible to migrant workers, including anti-government protests.
Within the Lebanese population, an entire vocabulary has been established to facilitate the dehumanization process. Words such as “Sri Lankan woman” (“sirlankyyeh” in Lebanese Arabic) denote both the nationality and the profession so that, for example, an Ethiopian migrant domestic worker could be “working as a Sri Lankan.” Anecdotally, this is best summarized by the question “is your Sri Lankan Ethiopian or Filipina?” (“sirlankytak/ik essyopiyyeh aw filipinyyeh?”), used almost exclusively in the female form.
This inferiorization, to use Howland’s terminology, is coupled with a commodification process that is best symbolized by the Facebook buy and sell groups that feature migrant domestic workers being sold by Lebanese employers. Although these have more recently provoked some outrage, they continue to be frequent. Another example is how these women are described by employers or agencies with their “features and skills” (nationality, age, height, weight, etc.).
As the Lebanese state effectively delegates the Kafala system to private agencies, any accountability sought by migrant domestic workers against their Lebanese sponsors becomes quasi-impossible, and ordinary Lebanese civilians further participate in the system by taking for granted this separation between Lebanese and non-Lebanese civilians. In other words, the Kafala system is maintained by the Lebanese society as a whole. It can only be sustained if every component of the country—the state, the agency, the household, and the public—partake in it.
As for the other two components, criminalization and sexualization, they refer to the fact that migrant domestic workers are legally bound to Lebanese households as racialized working women. Their subjugation is structurally reinforced by the simple reality that any defiance to routine abusive practices leads to the punishment of the racialized woman—not the Lebanese employers, nor the Lebanese civilian in general. Their sexualization further aggravates their multi-layered struggle in a highly patriarchal society which polices their bodies. This can take the form of sexual harassment and/or rape as well as physical and/or emotional abuse, both within the household and on the streets.
Current situation and recommendations
With the recent economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic that accelerated Lebanon’s downward turn into a long-term crisis, and the more recent Beirut explosion, migrant domestic workers have been forced into positions of extreme vulnerability. At the time of writing, a number of migrant domestic workers are attempting to leave Lebanon through their embassies or consulates—many of whom no longer have access to their passports as they have been withheld by their employers. Workers from Ethiopia and Gambia have been protesting in front of their consulate demanding repatriation from Beirut. Similar demands were made by Kenyan migrants after running away from “physical or sexual abuse, unpaid wages, or other violations in their employers’ homes,” as one African media outlet noted, giving the example of one worker who was abandoned by her Lebanese employers on August 17. Furthermore, groups such as “This is Lebanon“–a migrant activist collective that came to prominence for publishing the info of Lebanese abusers on its social media—is now campaigning for the evacuation of workers under the hashtag #SendUsHome.
Yet, returning home is not an easy option for many workers. As workers attempt to get PCR tests for COVID-19, required by their embassy to leave, they face mobility issues (no access to driving license and therefore no access to cars) to reach testing centers. Assuming workers manage to get tested, they will still have to go through airport security which could arrest them for not having passports even if their embassy provides temporary laissez-passers for their travel. They could then be forced into crowded prisons (since they are no longer legal workers in Lebanese households), risking COVID-19 again and further traumatization at the hands of male guards, before being deported. Even to get departed, many obstacles can stand in the way, such as consulates or embassies sending mixed messages (as happened with Ethiopia), cancelled flights, COVID-19-related closures, harassment by Lebanese security forces, and so on. The worker’s ongoing struggle to do something so simple—leaving the country—best summarizes the multi-layered cruelty of the Kafala system and the society that upholds it.
As there is no one law called Kafala, what abolishing it means in practice is for migrant workers to be included in Lebanon’s labor laws—which would make the right to fair wages, form unions, provide ways out of abusive households or companies, and so on—more attainable. The idea is to reduce migrant domestic workers’ dependency on Lebanese employers who regularly confiscate passports, withhold wages, restrict freedom of movement, physically or verbally abuse this workforce or even engage in human trafficking. It would give workers their agency back and allow them to form connections with other members of Lebanese society on a more equal footing. While abolishing the Kafala would not mean the end of racism in Lebanon, it would significantly reduce the ability of racist employers to withhold their employees, giving workers more freedom as to where they want to work and in which conditions.
It is worth noting, however, that even though the abolition of the Kafala system is a primary demand of all migrant groups, the return of workers home is an urgent priority that been repeatedly requested by migrant workers and activists. Migrant groups, including This is Lebanon, are asking the international community to pressure their respective embassies or consulates to repatriate them without the multiple obstacles (financial or otherwise) put in their way.
Even if the Kafala system is abolished, which the current government has shown no interest in doing, migrant workers would still be stuck in a country where their wages have been significantly reduced in recent months. If they had managed to save up some money to send back home before the crises, this has been rendered all but impossible now. To give one example: Mohamad Jamal was a 20-year-old worker from Bangladesh who died in the Beirut explosion. Before his death, he was making the equivalent of $55 a month and was unable to even send that amount to his family due to the banking restrictions put in place. Jamal’s story exemplifies how the situation of migrant workers in Lebanon has been drastically worsened in recent months, and why repatriation is now an urgent priority for migrant groups.