Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon: Forgotten Victims of the Socio-Economic Crisis

Devastated Beirut port
Image credit: Katarzyna Rybarczyk

Since the end of the civil war in Lebanon the complex power-sharing agreements, incompetence of political elites and widespread corruption have been undermining the country’s development. After decades of Lebanon’s ruling class neglecting the interest of the people and ignoring the rapidly increasing public sector debt, almost 80% of the population have been dragged below the poverty line and the currency has lost 90% of its value.

The situation in the country went from bad to worse after the Beirut blast that, to this day, no one has been held accountable for.

Lebanon is currently dealing with one of the most severe socio-economic crises in the world and extreme inequalities in wealth are more apparent than ever before. Amongst those who have been hit the hardest by the country’s fall are around 250,000 migrant domestic workers who came to Lebanon under the Kafala system.

This inherently cruel sponsorship system, assuming sponsors’ control over workers, has been present in Lebanon since the 1950s but the abuses associated with it remained somewhat hidden for years. Now, the country’s multiple crises also expose the harms of Kafala.

The Kafala system is degrading to migrant domestic workers

The Kafala system is a legal framework that allows Lebanese to sponsor migrant workers from abroad, especially from Africa and South Asia, and bring them to Lebanon. Once they do that, they gain almost complete control over their employment and immigration status.

Residency of migrant domestic workers coming to Lebanon under the Kafala system is dependent on their relationship with their sponsor. That means that they have the right to live in Lebanon as long as they are working for the person who hired them but the moment their employment ends, they have to return to their home country.

The workers do not have the right to decide to quit employment or change employers even in cases of abuse. Moreover they are excluded from the Lebanese Labour Law so they are not guaranteed a minimum wage and do not have the right to social security.

“Sometimes employers take the workers’ passports away to exercise even more control over them,” an activist advocating for the rights of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon told me.

The harsh reality migrant domestic workers in Lebanon live in constitutes being confined to the sponsor’s house and being deprived of their fundamental human rights. Still, despite many finding themselves working in poor conditions for very little pay, they remain silent about their exploitation in fear of being deported. Typically the migrant domestic workers send money to their families abroad so losing employment would negatively affect not only them but also their loved ones.

The crisis exacerbated the vulnerabilities of migrant domestic workers

Migrant workers who come to Lebanon under the Kafala system survive almost entirely at the mercy of their sponsors. Even before the crisis stories of unpaid wages, not having access to their identity documents, or facing physical and sexual violence were not unheard of.

Recently, however, their situation became even more dire as, because of the economic downturn, increasing numbers of employers using the Kafala system have been refusing to pay the workers’ wages at the same time forcing them to continue working. As reported by Amnesty International, there have also been more extreme cases where employers have abandoned workers outside of embassies without their belongings, money, or plane tickets to return home. 

Destitute and desperate migrant domestic workers want to go back to their home countries but with no money and no passports they find themselves trapped in Lebanon with no choice but to sleep on the streets.

“Prior to 2019, it was estimated that one in four Lebanese families employed a full-time, live-in migrant domestic worker,” Middle East Research and Information Project revealed. Now, however, as many Lebanese can no longer afford hiring migrant workers, some decide to get rid of them overnight in an inhumane manner. 

The Kafala system promotes modern slavery

Despite the popular appeal of the Kafala system and claims that it benefits the workers and their families abroad by giving them the possibility to earn an income, comparisons could be drawn between the practice and slavery.

Being treated as inferior to their sponsor, not having the right to leave the house without the employer’s permission, and being trapped in a never-ending cycle of exploitation and discrimination; all these characteristics fall under the description of modern slavery.

Then there is the problem of racism as these are primarily Black and Asian women who are othered and put at the very bottom of social hierarchy.

Occasionally, migrant domestic workers refuse to be segregated this way and Lebanon sees them uniting and protesting in public spaces. In 2018, for example, Beirut was shaken by rallies marking International Domestic Workers Day on June 16. Protestors demanded better treatment of migrant domestic workers and the abolishment of the Kafala system. Voices advocating for eradicating forced labour and protecting the rights of migrant domestic workers could also be heard throughout the October Revolution in 2019.

And yet, over the last two years especially, the socio-political crisis in Lebanon has exacerbated the vulnerabilities of migrant domestic workers to the point where they have been stripped of not only their basic freedoms but also their dignity. They became one of the most marginalized groups in Lebanon’s society. 

Quoting the signs held by protestors standing up against their abuses, they are “workers not slaves,” thus an end needs to be put to the political elites’ impunity for their abuses. 

Katarzyna Rybarczyk is a Political Correspondent for Immigration Advice Service, an immigration law firm based in the UK but operating globally. Through her articles, she aims to raise awareness about security threats worldwide and the challenges facing communities living in low and middle-income countries.