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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Lebanon’s Kafala System: A Product of Patriarchy

Lebanon’s Kafala System
Migrant domestic workers carry placards during a protest in the Lebanese capital Beirut on May 5, 2019, to call for the abolishment of the sponsorship (kafala) system. ANWAR AMRO / AFP

Dana Hourani

As temperatures drop to a new low in Beirut, around 20 Kenyan women camp outside the Kenyan consulate, hiding under their bed covers, anxiously waiting to be repatriated.

The women arrived in the country as domestic workers under the “Kafala” system, a set of rules and regulations that govern the relationship between the workers and their employers. Domestic workers are therefore excluded from the Lebanese labor law with the legality of their residency tied with their “Kafeel,” or sponsor.

Due to Lebanon’s economic freefall and lack of dollar circulation in the market in what is otherwise a heavily dollarized economy, many employers have been unable or unwilling to pay the workers’ monthly salaries, which on average rounds up to $200 in cash.

As the local currency continues to collapse, losing over 90% of its value, foreign domestic workers are increasingly being denied their salaries in dollars, despite the fact that most of them depend on hard currency to send back to their families in their home countries.

As a result, many migrant domestic workers were left with no choice but to leave their employers and set up camp in front of the consulate, hoping for some kind of resolution. They spoke to Fanack about their ordeal, the Kafala system, and why they have taken to the street.

“We’ve been sexually harassed, locked in bathrooms, denied food, sleep, and water. We are sometimes given only bread and tea to eat the whole day but they’ve recently stopped paying us as well. We came here to work but instead, we got abused,” one domestic worker told Fanack on condition of anonymity.

Ruth (not her real name), also a migrant worker, told Fanack that most of them do not have their passports at hand, so even if they were able to gather enough money for flights back home, it remains an impossibility under Kafala.

“My employer demanded that I give them $1700 in exchange for my passport… money that I do not have. So now, we’re waiting to receive temporary travel documents from Kenya that would permit us to leave,” she said.

The Kafala system was put in place in the 50’s; it grants full power to the employer over the worker, including possession of the worker’s passport and other legal documents. Under this system, foreign domestic workers find themselves trapped in often exploitative conditions with no means for protection or legal access.

“If they leave their places of work, the police do not investigate the reasons behind the escape. Once caught, they are taken to court and prosecuted for violating the law. They can also be coerced into prostitution or marriage by men who promise them safety and security,” Lawyer and Head of Legal Affairs and Advocacy in the Anti-Human Trafficking Department at KAFA, Mohana Ishak, told Fanack.

Afraid of repercussions, workers do not file complaints against their sponsors even when evidence of maltreatment is available. The cycle of exploitation and violence continues, leading many to suicide.

Kafala up close:  

Although men migrant workers are also affected by the Kafala system, women workers, many of whom live in the homes of their employers, remain the most vulnerable.

ABAAD’s Policy and Gender Coordinator, Melkar El Khoury told Fanack that legislators and lawmakers who draft the laws that govern workers’ and women’s rights are generally men in positions of power. Women are excluded from the decision-making process.

“Lebanon is traditionally patriarchal and men have always been granted legal privileges over women. Even though things are changing, traditional gender roles and status remain highly influential,” El Khoury said.

Domestic work, as a feminized form of labor, is often considered unskilled and inessential despite the high demand for it. This has paved the ground for exploitative working conditions, protected by law.

“Although there’s a high demand for domestic labor, workers are still looked down upon due to the type of work they do, which some perceive as not worthy of respect,” Ishak explained.

Contracts under the Kafala system do not allow workers an alternative source of income, leaving them vulnerable to blackmail and violence if they choose to seek work outside the homes of their sponsors.

When they do run into the legal system, oftentimes they are unable to afford legal assistance. Language gaps are another obstacle; many migrant workers are unable to navigate laws and contracts written in a language they cannot read, nor are they able to understand the little rights they have, Ishak continued.

While some efforts have been made to amend the Kafala system, these efforts were all but adopted. In 2020, caretaker Minister of Labor Lamia Yammine Douaihy announced a new law for migrant domestic workers. Hailed as an important step at the time, it never saw the light of day for many reasons, namely the profit generated under Kafala. According to Human Rights Watch, recruitment firms produce $57.5 million in revenue each year, despite the fact that many of them have been accused of abusing people, forcing them to work against their will, and engaging in human trafficking. These employment agencies were successful in blocking the new standard unified contract for migrant domestic workers, which would have incorporated important measures to combat forced labor.

A matter of racism:

“Lebanon has a multifaceted racism issue in the country where some people view themselves as superior so as to justify treating others with inferiority,” Farah Baba, Advocacy and Communications Officer at the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM) told Fanack.

“Employers can have very misogynistic perceptions towards the workers. They see them as uneducated women from underdeveloped countries that need to be disciplined so as to not run wild,” Baba added. This has led to a climate where they are openly dehumanized and abused. It has also led to a climate of rampant discrimination when it comes to the salaries of migrants themselves.

Filipinos and Nepalese workers, for example, have higher salaries. Having a lighter-skin tone seems to have influenced the respect and rights they are afforded in comparison to their south-Asian and African counterparts, Baba said.

Socialization and upbringing has normalized verbal abuse which opened the door for physical abuse and sexual assault, according to Baba, and this too has affected the amount of money afforded to workers.  And all of this is made possible and normal under Lebanon’s traditional patriarchal laws and institutions.

“There is discrimination in the Lebanese law towards everyone that’s not a man so it becomes easier to exploit women and women workers – especially if they are foreign. We need a holistic approach that looks at the financial, legal, racial, and gender aspects if we are to see real improvements,” Baba said.

Workers fight back:

The increase in cases brought upon by the pandemic and the lockdown helped introduce the public to issues concerning the maltreatment of migrant workers that were stuck in abusive households, Baba said, but it has not been able to foment an environment of sufficient support given the multiple crises in the country. Nevertheless, many are fighting back.

“Domestic workers often sought help from local NGOs, but many  can help only to a certain capacity due to the large volume of requests. As a result, many workers began creating their own spaces and groups,” Baba said.

One such group, Egna Legna, has taken a feminist approach, linking Kafala to patriarchy. The Beirut-based Ethiopian migrant collective has for years been campaigning against Kafala and for the repatriation of Ethiopian migrant workers stranded in the country.

Based on principles of sisterhood and feminism, Egna Legna’s mission is to protect and empower women domestic workers in the country. The group’s website provides tools and resources for activists. On the ground, they have provided direct support to migrant domestic workers in need of aid.

Similarly, the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM), a non-governmental organization, was launched in 2010 as a grassroots collective by young Lebanese feminist activists in collaboration with migrant workers and migrant domestic workers. ARM also established the Migrant Community Center (MCC) where migrant workers meet, organize, build alliances, and access information, resources, and direct assistance. For these groups, it is a fight against patriarchy, racism, and inequality.

For now, the Kenyan women remain camped outside the consulate. But they are not alone. ARM has organized social media campaigns to support them. It has also provided them with food, winter clothes and sanitary kits. Additionally, ARM is seeking human rights organizations in Kenya to help create pressure.

Some Kenyan women seem hopeful about the possibility of leaving the country in the upcoming week, as promised by the immigration office in Kenya.

“We refuse to take shelter anywhere else because if we leave our spot, the consulate will forget about us and we want to pressure them till the very end,” Ruth said.  But with the presence of support, the women at least do not stand alone, she added.

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