Slavery continues in Lebanon

I’ve been writing about the Kafala system for over a decade now. For those who don’t know, this is the system of ‘sponsorship’ (Kafala in Arabic) in Lebanon whereby migrant domestic workers (and most foreign workers) require a Lebanese ‘sponsor’ to remain in the country. What it means in effect is that migrant domestic workers – primarily women from countries such as Ethiopia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka among other countries – are excluded from the country’s already-poor labor laws. It’s not uncommon for their passports to be confiscated by their Lebanese ‘Kafeel’ (sponsors), leaving them vulnerable to all sorts of abuses. If one were to try and escape, for example, she now faces the dangers of being an illegal immigrant in a country that is extremely hostile to any non-white presence. Stories of all forms of abuse from rape to torture, passing by extremely degrading treatments like being forced to sleep on the balcony or in the living room or the bathroom, to stories of murder or suicide are not uncommon.

In effect, the Kafala system is quasi-legalized slavery. I say quasi-legalized because it’s not technically a law, but merely a set of practices that include legal dimensions such as the one that excludes migrant domestic workers from the right to form a union – which they’ve already tried to do and were illegally prevented from doing so even though they met the legal criteria – to the right to any form of labor autonomy – quitting your job is extremely difficult if you need your boss’ permission to find another job in a market that already limits you.

This is the gist of the Kafala system that I’ve been writing, as already mentioned, for over a decade now. I’ve why I have #AbolishKafala on my Twitter handle. It’s why most articles on my former blog ‘Hummus For Thought’ were about the Kafala system. The exact same scenarios have been playing out on a regular basis ever since (and before then too). The only difference is whether anyone catches these on video or not, and how both Lebanese and migrant domestic workers respond.

Yesterday was one of such days. The Lebanese media collective Megaphone, which you should absolutely support, released a graphic video showing a Lebanese man dragging a black woman by her hair and beating her as he did so.

This has happened many times. One of the first stories I covered was the abuse and then apparent suicide of Alem Dechasa (also) in March of 2012. It will soon be a whole decade since that event. Alem was kidnapped by Ali Mahfouz and his friends in front of the Ethiopian embassy in Beirut, where she was trying to seek shelter (denied by the Ethiopian government). They forcibly carried her and dumped her in their car and took her away. After some online outrage, she was taken to Deir El Salib, a mental health hospital, where she allegedly died by suicide. Do not forget Alem Dechasa, I wrote a few days later. Many didn’t, but most did. I also wrote “for we have slaves and slaves is the only word to describe them” nearly a decade ago, and slaves is what the Lebanese continued to have the entire decade that has passed since then.

It permeates every level of the Lebanese nation, and it is coupled with a deep denial of slavery on a daily basis. The very term ‘Sri Lankan’ continues to denote the occupation of migrant domestic work – not to be confused with non-migrant domestic work, which is still heavily gendered and usually reserved for Lebanese women, and is sometimes complimented by migrant domestic work where the Lebanese ‘madame’ dominates the migrant ‘girl’ (who is sometimes older than the ‘madame’) – and the term Sirlankyytak/Sirlankyytik (‘Your Srilankan’) can even refer to Ethiopian or Filipina or other African or Asian women. This feels so old at this point that I remember a protest in 2010 where a bunch of us had signs (in Arabic) with ‘what is your Sri Lankan? Ethiopian or Filipina?’ written on them to mock that cultural reality.

I have seen migrant domestic workers sleep on balconies, in dog houses, in people’s living rooms, in their kitchens or in their bathrooms. More revealingly, I’ve had conversations with other Lebanese who realize mid-sentence that the migrant domestic worker they’re talking about is effectively a slave.

Even with Lebanon’s catastrophic economic crisis, I have heard of conversations in middle/upper class families (what’s left of the middle classes, anyway) lamenting the mass-exodus of migrant domestic workers, although too many are still trapped in Lebanon and too many still are planning on going to Lebanon because they do not know about the realities of the Kafala system.

By now, the Kafala system is deeply rooted in modern Lebanese culture and I think attempts to deny that reality should be viewed as complicit in it. I am a Kafala abolitionist. Slavery cannot be reformed. It can only be abolished.

We have known for a long time what the path forward is. Activists, migrant and Lebanese, as well as lawyers and others have laid down the path forward for a long time. It feels like a long time to me, and I’m a Lebanese cis-male. It must feel like an eternity in hell to migrant domestic workers who have to meet the combine scourge of Lebanese racism, misogyny and classism while being overworked and underpaid at the same time.

Abolishing the Kafala system will not solve Lebanese anti-Black racism. This will require a much deeper engagement with our identity, with our presence and role in West Africa, with our denial of the very existence of Lebanese who are of African or Asian heritage (if only we notice how ridiculous ‘Asian-Lebanese’ can sound given that Lebanon is literally an Asian country), and with the role that migrant domestic labor played in the neoliberal ‘post-war reconstruction’.

What abolishing the Kafala system will do, however, is allow migrant domestic workers to organize themselves. They have already been doing so for several years, but the Lebanese state continues to block their efforts. Migrant domestic workers do not need saving. What they do need is for us to end our complicit in their oppression because the Kafala system is, first and foremost, a Lebanese problem.