Issues that have long been put aside in Lebanese politics can no longer be ignored in light of one of the worst economic collapses in modern history. One of these pressing issues is migrant workers’ rights and the sponsorship system, known as Kafala, that has been a key aspect of the failed crony Lebanese economy. Currently, over 200,000 migrant workers and migrant domestic workers are going through the same economic collapse as their Lebanese counterparts, only their conditions are far from being newly precarious. Dismantling the oppressive system that they are forced to participate in to survive would go hand in hand with fighting corruption and pushing for more inclusive socioeconomic policies. Inaction concerning this matter now would represent a missed opportunity that might not present itself in the future.
A decades-long system
Prior to the Lebanese civil war, domestic workers were often working class women from Lebanon and other Arab countries, hired by wealthy Lebanese families for housework. However, things started changing during the civil war, as Arab workers left due to the deteriorating economic conditions in Lebanon, and domestic workers from African and South East Asian countries started arriving in the country through recruitment agencies. Kafala was thus adopted to “import” cheap labor and was presented as an affordable alternative for households that otherwise could not access services. With the privatization of social services following the war, and the consequent high costs to access them—such as healthcare, daycare, and cleaning services, among other things—the average household could alternatively hire a helper that could do all of their care work around the clock in the house at once, for a low wage, ranging from $100 to $300.
While significantly fewer migrants have come to Lebanon since 2020, Lebanon’s migrant community still faces multi-faceted and structural oppression ranging from unemployment, housing insecurity, and the constant risk of arrest and deportation by Lebanese authorities. In addition to this, mainstream traditional media and other less known outlets have often scapegoated migrant domestic workers by spreading misinformation even before the onset of the crisis. An example was the surge in media reports and online posts falsely claiming that migrant domestic workers were among the main reasons for the dollar shortage, arguing that the money workers sent back home could have stayed and been used in Lebanon. This emphasis on their remittances is meant to portray them as one of the main reasons for Lebanon’s financial woes over the years.
According to the Anti-Racism Movement, an organization that works on improving the lives of migrant communities, the number of undocumented migrants is estimated to exceed that of documented migrants.
Currently, there are no comprehensive estimates for the number of undocumented migrant workers in Lebanon, be it by official entities such as the General Security, or other channels such as consulates and embassies that used to give estimates of the number of their citizens. However, according to the Anti-Racism Movement, an organization that works on improving the lives of migrant communities, the number of undocumented migrants is estimated to exceed that of documented migrants. It is worth noting that the last official number was provided by the International Labor Organization (ILO) back in 2012, with the overall number of migrant workers estimated at 250,000. This number has not been updated to this day.
It goes without saying that having an irregular status means that migrants are even more vulnerable, as they can only take jobs in the informal sector in which neither salaries nor working conditions are negotiable. Furthermore, they often face threats of being reported to the police by employers should they demand better working conditions, and by landlords who demand they pay higher rent that they cannot afford.
An entire system which benefits
Both the private and public sectors are involved and benefit massively from the Kafala system. First, recruitment agencies charge $2,000 to $3,000 for employers to hire a foreign domestic worker, and the General Security Office and the Ministry of Labor both charge fees to grant a residency permit and a pre-approved work permit respectively, each of which cost LBP 300,000 (previously the equivalent of $200). These two permits need to be renewed by the employer annually, each costing an additional LBP 300,000. On top of these costs, the sponsoring employer has to pay LBP 1,500,000 (previously the equivalent of $1,000) to the Housing Bank as a guarantee. It is a profitable business for the different parties involved: according to a report by Triangle Research, Policy and Media Center, recruitment agencies earned around $57.5 million in revenues for 2019, while General Security made $36.5 million and the ministry of labor $6.1 million.
This all means that there is no official channel to protect migrant domestic workers, thus fostering a situation which constitutes a structure of exploitation without any means to access justice.
This Kafala system renders domestic workers dependent on their employers and does not grant them the most basic rights. For the domestic worker to work in Lebanon, they must be legally tied to a Lebanese employer who becomes their sponsor. In addition, domestic work is excluded from the Labor Law, as explicitly stipulated in Article 7, meaning that domestic workers do not have any legal protection. They also cannot form or join syndicates or receive the national minimum wage. Additionally, previous attempts to create a union for domestic workers were shut down by the ministry of labor. This all means that there is no official channel to protect migrant domestic workers, thus fostering a situation which constitutes a structure of exploitation without any means to access justice.
In addition, representatives of the labor ministry have often responded to civil society organizations’ demands for intervention to protect workers by admitting there were not enough inspectors to ensure safe and dignified living conditions for domestic workers. To add insult to the injury, this comment would sometimes be followed by an emphasis on the fact that domestic workers’ workplace—the house of the sponsoring employer—is a private space and hence ministry officials cannot just go in and inspect it, out of respect for the sanctity of the house.
Given the sponsorship’s restrictions, domestic workers who leave employers’ houses are automatically considered irregular, and are often undocumented if their legal papers and documents remain with their previous employers. This subjects them to the risk of arrest, detention, and deportation for breaking the legal tie from the sponsor.
Recruitment agencies alongside the General Security and the ministry of labor ensure the resilience of Kafala’s power structure by enforcing customary practices and policies that give all power to the sponsoring employers, who can then do as they please without any sort of accountability. Agencies in particular often force migrant women to return to abusive employers and have been accused of sometimes abusing them themselves as a punishment for not complying with their orders. Additionally, they are organized in a powerful syndicate, the Syndicate of Owners of Recruitment Agencies in Lebanon (SORAL), which is backed by official protection. They manage to obstruct any step to improve the situation of migrant domestic workers in order to protect their financial interests since their entire business model is built on the exploitation of migrant labor. This was shown by the 2020 decision of the State Shura Council, Lebanon’s top administrative court, to reject a new draft of the standard unified contract for migrant domestic workers, which was adopted by the ministry of labor itself one month prior, after lobbying by the syndicate.
Recruitment agencies alongside the General Security and the ministry of labor ensure the resilience of Kafala’s power structure by enforcing customary practices and policies that give all power to the sponsoring employers, who can then do as they please without any sort of accountability.
Another example of how the authorities are complicit in mistreating migrant domestic workers is what is dubbed as the “mysterious” deaths of workers, which have been documented over the years by various activist groups and rights organizations. These deaths were either dismissed as suicides or became closed files without sufficient—or any—investigation. One such case was Faustina Tay, a Ghanaian woman who was found dead after pleading for help following abuse by her employers, which she had been documenting. Despite local and international attention to this case, and the promise for investigation, no action was taken and no justice was served.
There were numerous cases of migrant women abandoned on the street by employers at their consulates shortly after the first COVID-19 lockdown back in the spring of 2020. The only official action taken by Lebanese authorities was to blacklist employers to prevent them from sponsoring domestic workers in the future. However, given the lack of inspection and follow-up by the ministry, blacklisted employers managed to hire new domestic workers sponsored by a family member or friend, knowing that no adequate measures would be taken to stop them.
Aspirations for better conditions despite the crisis
In such an unprecedented context of the economic collapse, a quite practical step toward improving the situation of migrant workers is to render the Kafala system obsolete. There are two fronts to focus on: first is to lobby for the parliament to abolish Article 7 of the Labor Law that excludes domestic work from its provisions, and second is to legalize freelance domestic work which would then cause a ripple effect in removing the Kafala system altogether.
Legalizing domestic work would help regularize the situation of migrant domestic workers. At the same time, workers would be able to communicate directly with employers, diminishing the role of recruitment agencies. This would address the corruption networks in state institutions and their connections to the private sector, and would also institutionalize care work and make it valued and viewed as the dignified labor that it is.
The end of Kafala means that migrant workers would be guaranteed legal and syndical protection. Employers would also benefit from this since they would no longer need to go through recruitment agencies to hire a worker, and they would no longer have to pay the fees to the General Security and the ministry of labor. The interaction would then be purely an employer-employee relation, which is arguably projected to concretely improve the worker’s conditions by making them an equal party in the balance of power.
The way forward is to opt out of these work conditions and to build a new framework to push for a new kind of legislative change, making the current legislation and practices obsolete. Not tackling the issue of migrant domestic workers means missing yet another opportunity for decision makers to fight corruption by passing and pushing for legislation to improve the socioeconomic situation of some of the population most affected by the country’s collapse. Fighting the Kafala system would automatically mean combating cartels and institutions that have long used the Lebanese economy at the expense of citizens and non-citizens alike. The opportunity for fighting this system may not repeat itself in the future with the worsening impact of the crisis. Now is the right time to talk about the Kafala system and make sure to get rid of it.
Farah Baba is a postgraduate student of Social Development Practice at University College London. She was previously the advocacy and communications officer at the Anti-Racism Movement working with migrant domestic workers in Lebanon.