The iniquity of the kafala system
Lebanon's migrant workers – exploited, then abandoned

Foreign employees in Lebanon have been working for months without pay. Many have been cast out into the streets by their employers, and others are in forced labour. Their embassies have refused to help them. Most of them want only one thing, to finally go home. By Sandra Wolf

An elderly woman sits in her living room, destroyed by the recent explosion, and plays a song on the piano. A slow camera pan reveals the extent of the damage. A broken balcony door, now lying on the sofa, a carpet littered with rubble, the broken glass of the interior doors and, behind them, an African maid who is trying to clean and tidy everything up.

The video has been shared thousands of times on social media and has now also been picked up by the international media. People love watching how the Lebanese woman seems to be persevering in the face of catastrophe. However, as Lebanese and other users on Instagram and Facebook have pointed out, the African housekeeper in the background is often overlooked. She has gone through the very same trauma as the elderly lady and the family she serves, and yet, unlike them, she has no time to process the experience. Like any household item, she is simply expected to keep functioning.

"Foreign domestic workers and refugees are being ignored by Lebanese policymakers and society. But it is the kafala labourers and the Syrians who will be the ones to rebuild Beirut. Many of them, particularly those who clean private homes, are foreign workers who are not being paid," says Dara Foi'elle, a Syrian human rights activist and member of the aid organisation Syrian Eyes.

Even before the explosion, many foreign employees received either a meagre wage or none at all. The country has been hit hard by an economic crisis, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. The Lebanese lira has meanwhile dropped 70 percent in value. And 50 percent of the Lebanese population is now living in poverty. Over the past few months, the middle class has all but disappeared. Unemployment has exploded, as have the prices of many staples such as food and petrol. Lebanon is heading for a famine.

"Domestic workers, who have not been paid for months and in some cases years, now have almost no hope of ever getting their money. They are cleaning up after the explosion like slaves," writes the activist Patricia (pseudonym) from the aid organisation This Is Lebanon.


"They are slave owners, not employers"

Bukola is sitting on the floor of the small two-room apartment in Beirut she shares with over 25 other women. Opposite her are three doctors wearing protective clothing. The 30-year-old Nigerian woman was abused by the family for whom she was keeping house and was finally thrown out on the street with no money. She cannot walk properly, does not speak and hardly eats anything. She has a fever. Bukola lived on the street for four days before finding shelter in the apartment. Due to lack of hygiene, she is suffering from three painfully inflamed abscesses.

The Nigerian is now at last receiving medical care, from doctors who are treating her free of charge. Hospitals and private practices had refused to see her. "She was not admitted to hospital because she has no passport and also obviously because she is black," reports Dara Foi'elle.

Foi'elle is looking after Bukola and 40 or so other Nigerian women who were all cast out by, or ran away from, employers who in most cases physically abused them. "On Wednesday (5 August), after the explosion, there were 20 women, and now there are 40.

Crowded together in the tightest of spaces, these women, aged between 20 and 50 years, are waiting to finally be able to go home. But several factors pose obstacles to their return. They lack the necessary funds for a plane ticket, and more than half do not even have a passport. "Many of the employers – if you can even call them that, because in my opinion they are slave owners – confiscated their passports," said Dara Foi'elle.

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