Lebanon has had a turbulent year, to say the least. Amidst a global catastrophe, it faced its own economic crisis, revolution, and explosion, and continues to be ensnared by its woes. However, one of its long-standing sins existed long before the people took to Martyr’s Square or the Port was engulfed in flames: its treatment of migrant workers. The country is extremely reliant on migrant domestic workers, primarily from countries in Southeast Asia and Africa (e.g., The Philippines, Ethiopia), and majority of whom are women. In 2008, Human Rights Watch reported that a migrant domestic worker in Lebanon dies every week. At the time of writing, almost 700 would have died since then, assuming that this average rate stayed the same. But it has not. In 2017, statistics showed that the death rate doubled to over two per week. This horrendous status quo has only gotten worse. The country’s economic crisis, explosion, and near-societal collapse have exacerbated the pre-existing, deeply-rooted problem, and there is little hope on the horizon. While it may be too late to save the 700-plus victims who have lost their lives thus far, this is an attempt to shed light on the system that took their lives, and what can be done to change it.
Kafala System: Modern Slavery for a Modern Age
The suffering of domestic migrant workers in Lebanon is a result of the Kafala system, a “restrictive immigration regime” that places migrant workers at the mercy of their employers. Derived from the Arabic word of the same name (though a perversion of the original concept), “kafala” creates a sponsorship system in which the sponsor-employer, or “kafeel”, sponsors the migrant worker’s presence in Lebanon, thereby tying the worker’s residence to their employer. Under such a system, the employer is able to control the worker’s rights, and thus the worker themselves. This is manifested in the common practice whereby the employer takes and withholds the worker’s passport, effectively confiscating their right to free movement. While such practice is widespread (a selected survey found it in 94.3% of 1,200 cases), it is merely one example of the humiliation and degradation that is inherently and systematically perpetuated by Kafala. Others include legal discrimination, as the exclusion of migrant workers from Lebanon’s labour law denies them key rights such as “minimum wage, limits on working hours, a weekly rest day, overtime pay, and freedom of association”. As such, they have no guarantees of basic rights, little legal protection, and are unable to leave or change employers without permission. Any attempts to do so, or demands for humane treatment, are often met with detention or deportation. The injustice in this is self-evident. 250,000 migrant workers are currently caught in this system, with scores of domestic workers, primarily from Southeast Asia and Africa, arriving in Lebanon for domestic work. This issue, however, extends past Lebanon, and is endemic to the Arab world, with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE, and others such as Jordan all employing the same system. All in all, it amounts to a system of modern slavery.
Treatment Under Kafala: First They Took My Passport
Kafala, in its existence as a form of neo-slavery, brings with it all the horrors one might expect, enabling and perpetuating abuse of migrant workers. This abuse exists and begins at the first structural level: the recruiting agencies. In Lebanon, hundreds of recruitment agencies operate as the “middlemen” through which domestic workers come to Lebanon and find work, arranging for the migrant workers to travel to the host country, pairing them with prospective employers, and charging fees for their services. Though regulated in theory, these agencies are often the start of cyclical and structural abuse. Workers, the majority of whom are female, are degraded to mere commodities, referred to indiscriminately as “girls” (one agency owner even boasts that his “girls” call him “daddy”), discussed in terms of their “price”, and presented to prospective employers in a photo gallery of options, as if they were purchasing a new car. In addition to such degradation, they are often beaten, left with little or no food, and kept against their will. Moreover, domestic workers are often abused as free labour, forced by agency owners into doing work for their cousins, sons-in-laws, or other family relations, in what effectively amounts to human trafficking. Though such abuses are rampant, agencies operate with little regulation, primarily due to the cash inflow they bring to the country and the powerful Syndicate of the Owners of Recruitment Agencies, both of which find favour with the Ministry of Labour.
When domestic workers finally arrive at the household, the treatment they receive often only gets worse. Though not universal, household abuse under Kafala is widespread in Lebanon. Firstly, workers are exploited in various ways, facing long working hours, often to the point of exhaustion, receiving no days off and subject to non-payment or delay and deductions in their salary payments. Secondly, domestic workers (in at least a quarter of reported cases) are often confined to the employer’s house, being locked in and sometimes prevented from going outside freely for years on end. Similarly, they often face “food deprivations” and other “exploitative working conditions”. Finally, and perhaps worst of all, domestic workers face regular abuse, ranging from verbal to physical and even sexual abuse. Name-calling, insulting, and shouting are all widespread, as are slapping, beating, choking, and, though to a lesser extent, sexual harassment. Non-enforcement of regulations, police bias, and fear of arrest and deportation prevent workers from seeking any meaningful justice from the law. Desperate, many instead attempt to escape or commit suicide.
Responsibility of Home Countries: Put Your Own House in Order
Those who escape do so for the second time, having first ran away from their home countries in hopes of finding an opportunity. Countries of origin thus share a responsibility to address the domestic problems encouraging such continued emigration. It goes without saying that if the situation in the migrants’ places of origin were not as destitute, they would find little reason to go abroad. As such, domestic reforms are needed, though these will undeniably be difficult, complicated, and will take time. Outward reform is also needed. Though travel bans demonstrate an attempt to address the issue, illegal avenues remain widely used, and home countries benefit greatly from the billions of dollars’ worth of remittances sent back home. In the short-term, home countries should focus on combatting the continued spreading of misinformation by recruitment agencies, who target low-income areas with misleading, exaggerated, or outright false claims and promises. Importantly, embassies in Lebanon must also play a more proactive role, which, though difficult in the wider workings of the Kafala system, is absolutely necessary. Having first run away from their homes in search of a better life, migrant workers were met with horrors in a foreign land. One can only run so much: it’s time for change.
Change on the Horizon: Dream or Reality?
To address Kafala, systematic change is needed; the whole house must be brought down. Ideally, the entire system should be abolished, and migrant workers should be treated equally to other foreign workers in Lebanon. However, wholesale abolition is extremely unlikely. Lebanon is too deeply reliant on foreign, cheap labour to take care of the country’s domestic work, too many groups have a stake in the continued existence of the status quo, and there is not enough momentum among different social groups for any tangible change to occur. It seems then that change must then be piecemeal, with one step at a time. The first major step to meaningful social reform is almost always legal change—domestic workers need better legal protection, followed by deeper, more fundamental reform through a change in social attitudes.
This is the gist of the recommendations issued by civil societies and humanitarian organizations, who propose, among other things, an extension of the labour law to include domestic workers, the adoption of a new standard form contract, and compliance with Lebanon’s international obligations. For a short while, it seemed as if change was on the horizon, with positive reform being implemented. In September 2020, the Ministry of Labour adopted a new standard unified contract, offering new safeguards such as the ability for workers to terminate their contract without the employer’s permission, a weekly rest day, and minimum wage. However, this was suspended less than two months later by the State Shura Council, Lebanon’s highest administrative court, following a challenge by the Syndicate of the Owners of Recruitment Agencies. Where there was change, there is now fog on the horizon.
Unfortunately, the harsh reality may be that change is not coming anytime soon. Lebanon is in bad shape right now, facing extreme poverty, political instability, and one of the worst crises since the 1850s. Its own citizens barely have enough to eat, so it would be naïve to expect it to focus on foreign workers anytime soon. Lebanon is broken right now, and it will need to build itself back up. When it does, Kafala is a piece it cannot keep. It is a pressing issue, and, though it may be the least of Lebanon’s worries at the moment, it is one we ought not to forget about. If we do, Lebanon’s spirit will never heal, no matter how many reforms are thrown its way.