Kafala and its ʹcommoditiesʹ

Antoine Abou-Diwan 15.04.2019
“Where is your bint from?” is not an unusual question in Lebanon. ‘Bint’ means girl in Arabic, but here refers to housekeepers, maids or nannies working in Lebanon under kafala sponsorship. It is a loaded term that refers to thousands of African and Asian workers arriving in Lebanon every year.

Grace* moved to Lebanon five years ago seeking better opportunities. She was 38 years old at the time, her home country of Togo was unstable and recruiters promised her good work as a live-in maid in Beirut. Grace says she initially felt a small measure of optimism. Her salary, while low, would allow her to wire much-needed money to her family back home.
Desperate to escape her employerʹs cruelty and abuse, Grace ran away. Unfortunately, he had confiscated her passport as is common practice under the kafala system in Lebanon. He turned it over to the police, telling them she had run away, effectively absolving himself of any responsibility for her well-being.
Nowadays Grace is a fugitive in the eyes of the law. She is not allowed to be in Lebanon, but is unable to leave as the borders are closed. If she sought help from the authorities, she would risk getting locked up in one of Lebanonʹs notorious prisons, not knowing if she will ever see the light of day again.
The root of the problem
Around 250,000 migrant domestic workers are employed in Lebanon under the kafala system, just like Grace was. Most hail from Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Philippines.
The kafala system originated in the Gulf States and was introduced in Lebanon following the civil war. In Lebanon, domestic work is unregulated, excluded from the labour law that guarantees the rights of most other actors in the labour market. This has given rise to the treatment of migrant domestic workers as property. Their legal and residential status is fully in the hands of their employers/sponsors, making them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
Reports of abuse are so common that Ethiopia, Nepal and the Philippines have banned their citizens from travelling to Lebanon for work. However, the Lebanese government has not been preventing those nationals from entering the country. Except in the most outrageous cases, the Lebanese media turns a blind eye.
Francis*, a Sudanese working in south Lebanon, recalls the story of a maid from Ghana who was abused by her employer for three years and never received her full salary. Someone from the local church helped her out with food and eventually convinced her employer to pay for her plane ticket back home.
Francis is also aware of a maid from Kenya, who has been in Lebanon since 2016 and is beaten regularly by her employer. Forced to sleep in the kitchen, she is not even granted a decent place to rest. “The kafala system is modern slavery,” Francis concludes.
Grace lives in the shadows. “If I talk to the police, I will be arrested,” she says. “I donʹt have a residency permit.” What is more, without a work permit, which she can only get through a sponsor, she cannot work legally. Nowadays she cleans the houses of four families and shares an apartment outside of Beirut.
Lebanonʹs Citizenship Act complicates the situation for children of migrant workers. A child whose father is not Lebanese is not eligible for Lebanese citizenship, even if they are born on Lebanese soil. They thus live in constant fear of being deported to a country they have never visited.
Judicial failure
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) review of over 100 judicial decisions in cases where migrant domestic workers were involved concluded that the Lebanese judicial system fails to protect the rights of these workers, while security agencies do not adequately investigate claims of abuse or violence in the first place.
The situation of maids is especially dire. Many are locked inside their employerʹs house, forced to work seven days a week for up to 20 hours a day and denied any contact with their family back home. Salaries are withheld. Frequently, live-in maids have to sleep in the living room, kitchen or even on the balcony, unable to enjoy any privacy.
Emotional and physical violence against domestic workers is rampant in Lebanon. In many cases, the abuse becomes so unbearable that the women will look for any possible means of escape, such as jumping from the balcony, even if that means serious injury or death. HRW found that every week one migrant domestic worker in Lebanon dies from unnatural causes, with suicide and attempted escape topping the list. However, the actual number of deaths is believed to be higher than that.
“All those involved – from the Lebanese authorities, to the workersʹ embassies, to the employment agencies, to the employers – need to ask themselves what is driving these women to kill themselves or risk their lives trying to escape from high buildings,” says Nadim Houry, a senior researcher at HRW.
In a cruel twist, those domestic workers that survive their fall from the balcony or are able to escape, are taken into custody by the police and forcibly returned to their employers, where the abuse continues.
Small victories for migrant workers
As dire as the situation is for migrant domestic workers, they have allies in a number of non-governmental organisations working on their behalf. And, indeed, together they have achieved some victories. In a rare case several years ago, a maid sued her employer who had confiscated her passport and refused to return it under the pretext that she had not yet completed her contract. The judge ruled in favour of the worker, saying that her employer denied her freedom of movement.
In addition, Lebanon has finally introduced a unified employment contract for migrant domestic workers and employers, says Ramy Shukr, programme officer of the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM), a Lebanese NGO. “But rarely do employers and migrants read the contract. Itʹs not written in the migrantʹs language,” he says.
ARM has established several Migrant Community Centres across Lebanon, which offer migrant workers a sense of community and empowerment. Activities include legal rights and safety workshops, computer classes, as well as Arabic, English and French language instruction. “We do believe in migrant workers and everyone [should] have political rights,” Shukr says. The public is now more aware of the vulnerability and exploitation of migrant domestic workers, he continues.
Meanwhile, Lebanonʹs community of migrant domestic workers is not waiting for the Lebanese government to have an epiphany, abolish the kafala system and include them in the labour law. They are increasingly vocal, taking action themselves and routinely calling for their rights at marches and rallies.
Antoine Abou-Diwan
© Goethe-Institut/Perspectives 2019
*All names have been changed.