Lebanon: Domestic Workers in the Shadow of Kafala System and COVID-19

COVID-19 has magnified cases of domestic violence and femicide worldwide. The number of domestic violence calls and cyber violence has doubled during COVID19. The Lebanese Security Forces reported an increase by 110% of hotline calls in March 2020 compared to 97 complaints in March 2019.1 For a long time, home has not been a safe place for millions.

Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon have already been suffering due to the long standing kafala system, yet as the Lebanese government exercises stricter movement restrictions and quarantine, the weight burdens the shoulders of domestic workers.

Under the kafala system, workers cannot travel, resign, change jobs or return home without the permission of the family who hired them. The kafala system binds the worker to their employer.2 A worker may not change employer or break the terms of the contract unless the employer signs a release waiver. This is especially difficult for those who are abused daily by their employers with no way to turn. Although Tunisia has abolished this system, many Middle Eastern countries continue to abide by it, such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.3 Lebanon has had this system in place since the 1950s, and regardless of several petitions by Amnesty International and the Domestic Workers’ Union in Lebanon4, the Lebanese government has refused to change it.

“The sponsorship system’s economic objective was initially to provide short-term, rotating labor that could be swiftly brought into the country in periods of economic boom, and then expelled during less prosperous periods.”5 Lebanon continues to practice slavery by not allowing migrant workers to be considered in the Lebanese Labour Law, not abolishing the kafala system thus restricting workers’ freedom to leave their jobs, and although signed the UN convention against human trafficking and modern day slavery in the country, serious measures to end the two crimes are not being taken.6

Even before the pandemic, migrant domestic workers in Lebanon suffer from: sexual abuse and rape, verbal and physical violence, passport confiscation, long working hours with little breaks, no days off, no payments, late payments, deductions from salary, restrictions on movement and communication, food deprivation, inadequate accommodation and lack of privacy, restrictions on access to healthcare, and impact on mental health.7 All migrant domestic workers are excluded from the Lebanese Labour Law8 and are governed instead by the kafala system, which ties the legal residency of the worker to the contractual relationship with the employer. Workers are not allowed to leave their employers even in cases of abuse, and suffer repercussions of losing their legal status, deported, or being arrested if they do.

With greater movement restrictions and the quarantine, domestic workers’ already exploitative situations have grown in severity. They are required to cater to a full household, care for the children and work late hours until all family members are asleep. Domestic workers rarely have a room of their own to retreat into, making them sleep deprived and forcing them to sleep on the couch or balconies, which has posed great danger to their physical and mental health. In these times of pandemic, they are the ones sent to grocery stores, the ones to walk the dogs, or run errands outside the home. As the economic situation in Lebanon continues to worsen since last year and throughout the Lebanese revolution, the Lebanese Lira has plummeted, leaving many migrant workers without jobs and unpaid, especially domestic workers.

Amid the country’s quarantine, the most recent incident was the death of Faustina Tay, a 23 year old Ghanaian woman, working in domestic work in Beirut’s southern suburbs. Her body was found in the garage of the employer’s home. She had sent several pleas for help and accounts of her being beaten to both her brother and organizations working on the issue of modern slavery in Lebanon. Although investigators initially reported as a suicide, investigations continue to determine whether the evidence suggests murder.9

Lebanon has over 250,000 migrant workers, predominantly women, from African and Asian countries working in private households. The primary source countries for Lebanon’s female domestic workers are Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Ghana, Indonesia, Philippines, Madagascar, and Nigeria.

Domestic workers in Lebanon are trapped in slavery, and Lebanon’s persisting racist culture has heightened the abuse to migrant domestic workers. There is an evident Lebanese culture that thinks of itself as superior to other nations, which has been stemming from an ingrained construction of colonialist beingness. Domestic workers are a symbol of status to the Lebanese nouveau riche which is very similar to slavery in history. The worker is greatly regarded as a non existent entity in the household, that does not eat at the same time as the family, is the one holding the children or in the background at gatherings, and even the living space offered to the worker is the most indecent, minimal space at the rear end of a home. There is a Lebanese notion of superiority to people of color. Often approaching migrants of color from the prejudice thinking that people of color are poor and dirty thus deserving less respect. Racism manifests itself in the assumption that if someone is working for you, they are less than you, thus exercise their power through violations and abuse. People of color are often turned away from renting apartments, entering beach resorts or finding a job of high status. Racism also manifests itself towards Syrian and Palestinian refugees with the excuse of past political conflict with these countries. Lebanese racism is one of the root causes to violence exerted against domestic workers. The pandemic has magnified racial and gender issues, which unfortunately were greatly visible and magnified before the quarantine began.

With Lebanon’s current economic crisis and the hustle to end the pandemic, the Lebanese government continues to turn a blind eye to migrant domestic workers’ rights. The practice of the Kafala system is rooted in slavery and has created significant cases of violence and exploitation. The pandemic has exacerbated the situation, increasing hardship and incidents of exploitation and violence. Yet, there is no sign that the Lebanese government has any interest in protecting migrant workers. How many more lives will be lost by the Kafala system before the Lebanese government makes a change?

1 Hamdan, Hanan. “Domestic Violence in Lebanon Spikes under Lockdown.” AL-MONITOR, April 23, 2020. https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/04/lebanon-domestic-violence-abuse-lockdown-coronavirus.html#ixzz6NFg3lr69.

Motaparthy, Priyanka. “Understanding Kafala: An Archaic Law at Cross Purposes with Modern Development.” Migrant Rights, March 11, 2015. https://www.migrant-rights.org/2015/03/understanding-kafala-an-archaic-law-at-cross-purposes-with-modern-development/.

“Policy Brief No. 2: REFORM OF THE KAFALA (SPONSORSHIP) SYSTEM.” International labour Organization, July 2011. ilo.org/dyn/migpractice/docs/132/PB2.pdf.

Ayoub, Joey. “The Lebanese Revolution Must Abolish the Kafala System.” Middle East | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, November 14, 2019. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/lebanese-revolution-abolish-kafala-system-191114115435950.html.

Diab, Jasmin Lilian. “Protecting Migrant Workers’ Rights in Lebanon amid Political, Economic and Health Crises.” Rights!, April 30, 2020. https://rightsblog.net/2020/04/30/protecting-migrant-workers-rights-in-lebanon-amid-political-economic-and-health-crises/

“2019 Trafficking in Persons Report: Lebanon.” U.S. Department of State. U.S. Department of State, 2019. https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-trafficking-in-persons-report-2/lebanon/

‘THEIR HOUSE IS MY PRISON’ EXPLOITATION OF MIGRANT DOMESTIC WORKERS IN LEBANON.” Amnesty International, 2019. https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/MDE1800222019ENGLISH.pdf.

8 “Lebanon: Migrant Worker’s Abuse Account.” Human Rights Watch, June 21, 2018. https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/04/06/lebanon-migrant-workers-abuse-account.

Azhari, Timour. “The Desperate Final Days of a Domestic Worker in Lebanon.” Lebanon News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, April 7, 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/200323183606796.html

MEET THE AUTHOR

Mona Ayoub is a human rights advocate and visual artist. She is passionate about ending gender-based violence and human trafficking. She works as an advocate for refugees, migrants, and survivors of domestic violence. Her work centers around empowerment through writing, education, permaculture, language, art, and art installation. Her art and art installations explore stories of war, gender-based violence, Arab women, and Islam.