By Sara Fakhry ’26; Image by Human Rights Watch
These are not easy times to be a Lebanese citizen. Lebanese people have watched their country be engulfed by wildfires, corruption, explosions, revolutions, collapsing democracy, and an extreme economic crisis over the past 5 years. Amid the chaos of the collapse of the country, economic migrants, an “integral part of the population and workforce has once again been forgotten”.
It is an accepted practice for affluent Middle Eastern Arabs to have domestic helpers in their home, primarily women from Africa and Asia. In Arab Gulf states (excluding Iraq), Jordan, and Lebanon, these migrant workers are required to work under the Kafala (sponsorship) system. Bahrain and Qatar have claimed to abolish the system, however there is poor enforcement of the abolition. Based in Islamic jurisprudence on legal guardianship, the Kafala is a way to define the relationship between foreign workers and their local sponsor. The Council on Foreign Relations explains that the system was originally created in the 1950’s to “supply cheap, plentiful labour in an area of booming growth”, and defenders of the system continue to claim that the system supports local businesses and drives the development of the country. Overtime, however, it became a system used to exploit migrant workers rights due to the lack of regulation and protections. This results in low wages, poor working conditions, abuse of the domestic workers, human trafficking and an overall subjugation of domestic workers.
Currently, Lebanon’s “modern day slavery” crisis is among the many humanitarian crises in the country. While the system clearly needs to be taken down, change will be impossible until Lebanon’s larger crisis of political and economic corruption preventing any sort of positive change is addressed. Only when the decades-long legacy of political corruption, stealing, judicial manipulation, and overall ignorance to basic human rights is finally addressed, can the Kafala system be permanently disbanded in Lebanon.
Lebanon has used the Kafala system since the 1950s, promoting it as an employment system to allow people, specifically young women from countries like Ethiopia, the Philippines, Kenya, Sierra Leone, and Bangladesh to be able to escape political and social unrest. But this system is prone to abuse. In Lebanon only an estimated 400,000 migrant domestic workers are at significant risk of exploitation. Workers are “psychologically, verbally, physically, and sexually abused”. Some were even enslaved or trafficked. On average two domestic workers in Lebanon die per week, either in attempts to escape or committing suicide. Despite the high number of deaths, they are rarely investigated thoroughly. As Lebanon’s instability increases, so does the neglect and abuse of domestic workers.
Workers under the Kafala system have no legal rights or ability to escape. Employers confiscate passports, have no regulation on working hours/days, can withhold or change salaries, restrict movement and communication, deprive food, and provide inadequate accommodation and health care access. Employers are not required to meet minimum wage expectations, nor sign a standard contract for workers. Additionally, labour laws do not cover domestic workers. Worst of all, workers are unable to escape or report this due to fear of consequences. Lebanon is the only country with the Kafala system that requires employers’ permission to quit their job. While they are allowed to leave the country without their employer’s condition, this is made impossible as employers will keep workers passports. As “Lebanese law does not explicitly prohibit withholding a worker’s passport”, employers will keep these to prevent domestic workers from running away. If they attempted to leave without their employer’s consent, they would “lose their legal status in Lebanon”, risking detention and deportation. “Eva”, one domestic worker from the Philippines, said “I didn’t report to the police. They scare me. I was afraid they’d put me in jail”. This fear is common among domestic workers: Amnesty International explains that when interviewing domestic workers, none of the interviewees reported their employers in any way due to fear of arrest, inability to obtain new employment, and being falsely accused of theft.
Despite efforts to end the Kafala system by migrant domestic worker groups and rights organisations, authorities have failed to do so as it is a lucrative business so many people are involved in. One study found the Kafala system generates more than $100 Million, annually. Recruitment agencies, who have also been accused of playing a role in the exploitation and human trafficking, were also found to generate $57.5 Million in revenue. This high amount of revenue bolster the economy significantly and “plug gaping holes in the country’s deficient social services”. The system is relied on to keep the Lebanese economy running, while greatly benefiting the corrupt politicians. Politicians have no incentive to take down the system as it allows for the country to stay afloat while they continue to exploit it for their own personal gains.
The Kafala system is just a glimpse into the political, economic and social instability of Lebanon. Without taking the current politicians who allow for this instability out of power, as well as creating proper reforms to ensure non-repetition of these corrupt powers, the Kafala system and the larger human rights abuses in the country will never be sufficiently addressed.