No personal development under the Kafala system


Elena Fassi, Case worker, MCC Beirut, Lebanon /


Video: An exclusive product? #KafalaIsSlavery

This video was posted by the Anti-Racism Movement to call for participation to the International Domestic Workers' Day Protest, which took place in Beirut on June 24th 2018. Credits: Ash Wadi. 

The Kafala system in Lebanon

Today, there are more than 250,000 migrant domestic workers living in Lebanon. Still, domestic work is not regulated by Lebanese labor law and migrant domestic workers' lives and labor are governed by a sponsorship system (in Arabic, kafala).

The kafala does not have legal or juridical basis but is a system of practices organized and implemented by the Lebanese General Security, which arose from and intertwined with the Lebanese middle class use of a foreign domestic workforce.

Within the kafala system, the worker's legal status depends entirely on the contract with her employer, or sponsor: for the worker, breaking the contract means losing the right to exist legally on Lebanese soil, but an employer can break a contract or deport the worker at almost any time. This deprives the worker of any bargaining power, while giving the employer the possibility, if not the right, of disposing as they wish of their employee. Abuse  then becomes the norm, to the point that confiscating the worker's passport and confining her to the house is common practice. Non-payment of wages, or reducing the amount paid - as well as physical if not sexual abuse, deprivation of food, and daily humiliation - are widespread side effects.

"Bad employers" are only the last link in a chain of exploiters: the Lebanese Government silently favors cheap flows of foreign labor, which fills the workplaces left empty by the local workforce and at the same time allows Lebanese women to enter the job-market, often forcing patriarchal logics on the foreigners who took their places in the 'cage'-household.  

The governments of the sending countries, even with their bans that are little more than formalities, often ignore obvious violations, valuing the remittances coming from Lebanon  more than the wellbeing of those who send them.

In between, Lebanese recruitment agencies are free to do as they like, with low to zero oversight from the Ministry of Labor, commonly deceiving and abusing workers, trading them from house to house, and rewarding themselves with the workers' first 3 months of salary.


The implications of the kafala system: once a worker, only a worker

The structures and logic of the kafala system imply that the worker is not a subject with rights, but rather a tool at the employer's disposal. The worker's existence and permanence in the country is justified only as long as she/he is productive.

In the case of live-in domestic workers[1], the overlap between personal life and work life is complete, with working hours that can be prolonged indefinitely. Private space is a luxury for the very few workers that are lucky enough to have decent sponsors. Even a weekly day off is a contested negotiation and, when it is not denied, is easily perceived as a generous concession from the employer and not at all as a basic right.

Being a domestic worker in Lebanon means spending two, five, ten years of your life cleaning someone else's house, cooking someone else's food and raising someone else's children. Search for vocation, personal growth, professional, and spiritual satisfaction, which are so dear and obvious rights to most of us, are simply not accessible to domestic workers. More than this, in a painfully racist atmosphere that the kafala system contributes to perpetrate, the unspoken, unconscious reaction of many would be "And why would that be otherwise? Do our maids even feel these needs?"

Agare is a 30 year old Ethiopian woman who spent the last ten years of her life in Beirut, as a domestic worker in the home of a wealthy Lebanese family. She cleaned, she cooked, and she took care of the children. She was told many times by her employers that she had become part of the family, but when she had to go through a painful medical operation, none of her "family members" even asked how it went. The very next day, she was ordered to work as usual.

Agare always wanted to do social work and to invest her energy for positive change, perhaps to work in a local NGO, or even to start a new one. Under the kafala system, someone who enters the country as a domestic worker has very little hope to change her profession: working in any area that is not domestic work equates to breaking the contract, while changing visa type implies endless bureaucracy and costs and is close to impossible without leaving the country first.

When she looks back, she feels that she did not grow, that she did not expand her knowledge, nor did she find her talents. She feels that, under many points of view she stayed the same woman she was when she first came to Lebanon, just much more tired. She knows that the right to personal development that should be assured to all people was denied to her. And she does not wish to anyone to feel the same.


The Anti-Racism Movement and the Migrant Community Centers

The Anti-Racism Movement (ARM) is a Lebanese NGO that was founded in 2010 to address racist discrimination and abuse on the social and institutional level. ARM created Migrant Community Centers (MCCs), in three major cities.

The MCCs are safe spaces for migrant workers, with a focus on migrant domestic workers, where they can meet, organize, launch initiatives, attend free classes, where they can, in other words, have at least a minimum access to the right to self-development that is so violently taken from them.

At ARM, we believe that the mere existence of the kafala system represents a violation of human rights and our decency as a society. We believe that the only solution to this is the simple and complete abolishment of the kafala system and its replacement with a safer and more just alternative immigration system that does not allow for treatment of workers as machines, and does not normalize ownership of people. All reforms that would not drastically change the status quo would end up prettifying the kafala system, thus making it more resistant, and more resilient.

[1] Within the kafala system, only live-in domestic worker are regular. Leaving the house of the employer and free-lancing means being illegal in the eye of the General Security. Whenever a domestic worker leaves the house, she is automatically reported (Shakwa el firar, or complaint for escaping) and, if caught, can be easily detained and deported