Two hundred and fifty thousand workers under the Kafala system in Lebanon are currently struggling to survive in an exploitative system. Conflicts within the country due to an economic recession and corruption add to the challenges these workers face.
What is the Kafala System?
The Kafala System is an oppressive system that controls unskilled migrant workers in the Arab states, most of them being women from Africa and South Asia. The system requires each worker to be sponsored by a citizen of the host country. That employer, also known as a kafeel, is responsible for the worker’s legal status and visa. When the worker’s term finalizes, the employer can either renew it or terminate the worker’s status, which requires that the worker be immediately deported. Under this oppressive system, workers are excluded from Lebanese labor laws regulating minimum wage, maximum working hours, vacation, and overtime.
In essence, the Kafala System creates a power dynamic, enabling employers to have complete control over their employees. The workers are not protected by law against basic labor abuses and they are subject to deportation if they speak out about their conditions. If beaten, raped, or starved, the workers have nowhere to go. In practice, they either risk getting deported if they report their conditions to the police or they are ignored. A worker also cannot move without their employer’s consent: they are often forced to stay at home through financial limitations, emotional abuse, or physical abuse. Additionally, workers have no say in transactions between one employer and another. The employees are treated as objects, expected to do their work with disregard for their personal conditions. They have no safety barriers and, as a result, are subject to multiple human rights abuses.
The History of the Kafala System
The Kafala System began in the 1950s as a way to control migration into Arab countries. It was intended to be a means by which foreigners could gain short term employment for projects hosted in countries that practice the Kafala System, which include the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan, and Lebanon. It was supposed to be hospitable, named kafala after the word that means “to take care of” in Arabic. The system trusted that the kafeels, sponsors of the workers, would protect them properly.
Before the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, wealthier Lebanese families would hire poor girls from Lebanon and bordering countries to work for them. This practice created Lebanon’s reliance on outside domestic work. Over time, relations with other Arab countries deteriorated and job security decreased. As a result, the Lebanese had to look elsewhere to find employment. In the 1970s, an opportunity arose with the arrival of the first large waves of immigrants from Africa and Asia. With time, a complex system of oppression was designed to target people from impoverished areas of the world to work for them. The system was supported by Lebanon due to the reduction of debt as a result of the remittances that the migrants would send. Even today, the government is battling unsustainable debt in efforts to pay it off. Over time, the workforce became gradually more female dominated; this pattern persists to this day.
As the Kafala system continues, Lebanon has received international backlash, notably from the United States in the early 2000s when they deemed Lebanon Tier 2 in terms of human trafficking. They still remain at Tier 2 today. Recently, multiple organizations such as the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International attempted to shed light on the exploitative system within Lebanon. Despite recent coverage, the Lebanese government is still exerting minimal effort to solve the issue.
Who are the Victims?
The numbers vary, but there are estimated to be around 250,000 kafala workers in Lebanon. The majority of the workers are women who come from the Philippines, Ethiopia, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, as well as from various other African and Southeast Asian countries. Most come from impoverished backgrounds where they earned just enough money to survive. They took a part in the system under the assumption that they could help themselves and their families.
In multiple households, however, workers are not given days off, starved of food and deprived of water, physically abused, restricted access of movement and communication, and not provided with proper living conditions. Their passports, freedom, and basic human dignity are disregarded for the sake of pleasing the kafeel who invested money into their acquired worker.
Their nightmarish conditions can be reflected through multiple suicide reports. In a 2017 report by The New Humanitarian, official Lebanese government figures found that an average of two domestic workers were dying every week, often by suicide. Specifically, it was revealed that workers jump off of their employer’s balconies, unable to cope with their dire situation any longer.
This prevalence of abuse and suicide can be seen in an interview by This is Lebanon, where a worker named Halima explained her life as a domestic worker under the Kafala System. She would get locked inside of her bedroom at night and “have to relieve herself in the room” because she did not have access to a bathroom. She is covered in scars as her “madam” would throw hot coffee at her or beat her with a broom for minor mistakes such as spilling something. At one point, Halima was brought to see the body of a dead Ethiopian woman who had jumped off her balcony under the employment of her employer’s family. The employer did not care to bring the woman to the hospital.
Most workers enter the Kafala system through a very unregulated recruitment industry. Every recruitment agency varies in its operations, but some of the most abusive ones require that workers pay fees and incur debt in order to travel abroad for work. The agencies travel to poverty-stricken neighborhoods and have agents manipulate citizens into believing that they will better their lives if they join the system. The agencies tell the citizens that they will have enough money to send back to their children as well. When the workers accept, many end up spending the rest of their time working every day to try and pay off debt acquired as a result of traveling to the host, which often never gets fully returned. That indebtedness leaves them in irreversible bondage to an owner, a power dynamic that resembles that of slavery. Recruitment agencies commonly lie to the kafala workers, claiming higher than average wages, reasonable jobs, well-maintained living conditions, and recruitment fee reimbursements. Upon arriving in the host country and being assigned to their kafeels, the workers are left terrified upon realizing that the life that they were advertised was falsified. Now, they have no way of getting out, as they are already indebted to either the agency or host, and left without a passport, which was quickly confiscated by the kafeels after the first interaction. As many as 84 percent of workers would not have traveled away from home if they were informed about the truth of their situation.
Impact of Kafala due to Recent Events in Lebanon
Lebanon has had a turbulent year. The Lebanese pound has lost 80 percent of its value due to irresponsible financial handlings by the government, resulting in the majority of the middle class becoming significantly poorer and putting the economy into a deep downwards dive. This collapse in the currency caused unemployment rates to surge past 30 percent and public discontent to be at the highest rates since the Lebanese Civil War. The government is ignoring these issues and is instead attempting to please more powerful individuals in Lebanon at the expense of everyone else. Currently, over 50 percent of Lebanon lives below the poverty line and the middle class is rapidly disappearing. In addition to extremely high unemployment rates, a severely inflated currency, and a corrupt government, Lebanon endured yet another tragedy with the explosion of the Beirut port on August 4, 2020. The explosion ended up costing almost 200 lives and resulted in over 5000 injuries. In addition to this, the explosion destroyed the infrastructure for several miles out along the path. The mushroom-cloud explosion was said to have shattered windows dozens of miles away from the epicenter. An astounding 90 percent of imports came through the Beirut port, including massive amounts of food in a country that relies on imports to feed its people. The result could be a famine in the distant future. Food prices have risen 56 percent from October 2019 to June 2020, an impossible price for an already poor population to pay. The long term damages of the explosion are estimated to cost around $15 billion, a hefty sum, especially for a country under so much duress already.
The poorest of Beirut and Lebanon have suffered the most as a result of the tragic recent events. Kafala workers are often paid in Lebanese dollars, while the kafeels hoard their US dollars for themselves. This has caused the kafala workers to work for well below living means with little to no money to send back home as remittances. In addition to a disruption in their wages, a higher number of kafala workers are also being left in the streets outside of their respective embassies. Hoards of kafala workers have been thrown out of homes as a result of the financial and emotional stress placed on everyone in Beirut, leaving them homeless. Kafala workers and their employers are legally required to sign a contract that says that the employers will pay for the Kafala workers to get sent home, but that has not happened in practice. The Ministry of Labor is ignoring the crimes that hosts are committing. If one was to walk outside the Ethiopian embassy, they would see dozens of kafala workers sleeping on the streets, hoping that they will somehow be saved and sent back home.
Multiple organizations are working with the Lebanese government to lobby new legislation that changed the labor laws surrounding the Kafala System, including NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. This year, there have been strides made in Lebanon to reconstruct the rules surrounding the Kafala system. The Labor Ministry of Lebanon has drafted new legislation that will allow 48 hour workweeks, overtime pay, and other amenities to ensure that the Kafala system will no longer be binding. Despite these clear legislative efforts in the right direction on paper, it is unknown if the authorities will actually enforce these rules. In a country so dependent on the Kafala system and run by a corrupt government, it will have to take more than a few sentences to fix the issue.