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Lebanese Financial Crisis Validates Importance of Abolishing ‘Kafala’

Outside of the Ethiopian embassy in Beirut, June 2020. Credit: This is Lebanon

KESERWAN, Lebanon , Jul 10 2020 (IPS) - They were promised the world but ended up in a Lebanese household. This is the story of many domestic workers in Lebanon. With a 70-year-old sponsor system still in place, domestic workers are tied to their employers with little or no basic rights. The ‘Kafala’ system is the major problem behind what we have been seeing in Beirut in the last months.

Dumped outside of their embassies, many domestic workers were left without money, belongings, or their passports. In June 2020, when Lebanon witnessed a new wave of economic crisis, many of the Ethiopian domestic workers were left abandoned at their embassy doors in Beirut. With recent events that escalated the country’s economic situation, Lebanese people started losing the value of their national currency. And, since all domestic workers are paid in foreign currency, especially in US dollars, their employers were no longer able to pay what they owed their employees.

This situation exposed the reasons why Lebanon should abolish the ‘Kafala’ system and why Black Lives should also matter in Lebanon.

‘Kafala’ means sponsorship in Arabic. The International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA) worked on policy briefs to explain and examine the situation of domestic workers in Lebanon and in the Middle East. While referring to the ‘Kafala’ system they analyzed the main points of why it should change. The system makes the worker’s immigration status legally bound to the employer or sponsor. The migrant worker must sign a written acceptance of his or her ‘kafeel’ (sponsor) in order to exercise their rights, without which they would not be able to leave the country.

“This situates the migrant worker as completely dependent upon a ‘kafeel’ for their livelihood and residency” (ILO, MFA). In other words, an employer or sponsor can restrict the movements and any communication of the worker leading to abusive practices such as overwork, underpayment and even extortion.

With the power granted to the sponsor, many ‘kafeels’ used it to oppress Migrant Domestic Workers (MDW), resorting to physical and psychological abuse.

Domestic workers in Lebanon are mainly from developing countries in Africa or from South and South East Asian countries. The majority of them are women and, according to Amnesty International, Lebanon is home to 250,000 domestic workers.

Working conditions in Lebanon under the Kafala system. Credit: Eliane Eid

There have been many approaches by international and local communities to reform the Kafala system and even abolish it. Several NGOs, the ILO and many foreign embassies have raised the issue of reform with the Lebanese Ministry of Labor in order to ensure the safety and protection of foreign domestic workers from forced labor and exploitation.

This is Lebanon’ (TIL) is one of the organizations that has been working to help raise awareness of this modern-day slavery and protect MDWs from abusive families and employers. To protect those who agreed to speak, TIL used pseudonyms to ensure that they are safe and can continue with their mission.

When asked about the existence of modern-day slavery in Lebanon, a member of TIL, Patricia, told IPS that the answer is “an unequivocal yes”. She explained that the system justifies racial and class discrimination leading to apartheid-style societies. The reason why MDWs are considered “inferior” or even “subhuman” is because the system creates a culture of xenophobia, race superiority, sexism, and classism, and because employers see themselves as owners of these workers due to the power granted by the system.

According to Patricia, many workers don’t even know that they will be working in homes. They are usually lied to and promised job opportunities such as working in shops, restaurants, offices, schools and many other positions. She also mentioned that Nigerians are the worst affected by these falsehoods.

Zahraa Dirani, a freelance journalist and member of Fe-Male, an NGO that works with women and girls in Lebanon to eliminate injustice in the country, told IPS that the situation of MDWs is inhuman.

“Kafala puts domestic workers under the legislation of slavery” said Dirani. She explained that this situation is not humanly acceptable and is not part of the 21st century. Dirani stated that “NGOs are playing an important role in the society because they are intercepting and helping MDWs while the government is practically nowhere on this”.

According to Dirani, when Fe-Male decided to work on the relationship between domestic workers and employers, “people asked us why would we mention the rights of domestic workers; they are stubborn and deserve what is being done to them. Why would I give her a cell phone, she gets more money than I do, she doesn’t need more rights – this Lebanese mindset was one of the main challenges that we had to face”. Dirani continued to explain that what they heard was expected, especially because the system gave the employers all the power to feel “higher” or even “better” than MDWs.

As of today, the solution remains opaque or unknown. Many MDWs were able to leave the country, but a lot of them are still waiting to see how this period unfolds. What is of concern, though, is how much pressure was brought on by the foreign embassies on the government and why they have been silent on the plight of their own nationals. IPS learned from TIL that most embassies are consulates run by “honorary consuls” and not foreign ministry officials of those countries. Here lies the conflict of interest and the unexplained businesses that have a huge impact on migrant workers. “They are Lebanese nationals who have used their position to foster their business interests and sometimes running a recruitment agency on the side”, TIL’s Patricia added.

Since many of the consulates have hidden agendas, the Lebanese government should take a stand to minimize the damage. Unfortunately, Lebanon is in a deep conflict with its own policies and the only action that came forth was to waive the fine for some MDWs in order for them to be able to leave the country.

Usually, whenever a migrant worker wants to leave, he or she has to pay 300,000 Lebanese pounds (approximately USD 200) as an exit fee. “This was prohibitive and meant that women who had escaped abusive employers who hadn’t paid them for months were effectively imprisoned in the country”, said Patricia.

The “Kafala system made people treat MDWs as if they were “things” or even a “property” while forgetting that they are human beings”, Dirani stated.

Imprisoned in a foreign country, left without money, lied to, abused, broken and left behind, why are the authorities turning a blind eye while so many are suffering? In Lebanon, each week, two female domestic workers die according to the General Security’s intelligence agency. Silence is not an option when human trafficking is pushed to the backburner.


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