The iniquity of the kafala systemLebanon's migrant workers – exploited, then abandoned
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.
Some employers have also reported the women to the police for alleged theft. This is a common practice used to avoid paying outstanding wages and return tickets, and a way to disavow any responsibility for the employee. And now this tactic seems to be serving another purpose as well. "One of the madams wrote: You stole a hairdryer, if you give it back, you'll get your passport. But that's just a trick to make the worker come back, so that she can be locked up," says Foi'elle.
Another problem makes it even more difficult for foreign employees like the Nigerian women to leave Lebanon. As soon as they leave their jobs or are kicked out, the women lose their legal residence status in Lebanon, because under the kafala system they are bound to their sponsors, whether they pay them or not. "Kafala" means sponsorship in Arabic.
The kafala system legally binds the employee completely to the Lebanese "kafil" (sponsor), i.e. the employer. The workers, most of them women, are thus utterly at the mercy of their sponsor. They are not covered by Lebanese labour law and have no personal rights or freedoms. Nor are they allowed to leave the country without the written permission of the kafil, even after their employment contract has ended. As soon as the worker leaves the kafil's household, even against her will, she is in the country illegally and can be arrested at any time.
To leave the country, the women first need to obtain a valid exit permit. But this permit is only issued by Lebanese General Security, an office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Foreign Ministry building is currently occupied by demonstrators. Moreover, the government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned on Monday (10 August). Without a functioning government, no one knows when exit permits will be issued again.
"The suicide rate is rising"
Many of the migrant workers stranded in Lebanon share Bukola's fate. Even before the explosion in the port of Beirut, hundreds of people had been dropped off outside their respective embassies with their suitcases. And those who have not been put out on the streets are often in forced labour. "Domestic workers in Lebanon have been left at the mercy of the slave owners. The suicide rate is rising," says "Patricia" from This Is Lebanon.
Before the coronavirus crisis, two female migrant workers were dying in Lebanon every week, according to official statements by the secret service detail of Lebanese General Security. The most frequent cause of death is apparently suicide. But non-governmental organisations and anti-kafala activists suspect that some of the deaths officially declared as suicide were actually cases of murder. And they presume that the number of deaths is much higher than stated. When a domestic worker dies, there is no proper police investigation, says This Is Lebanon. The Lebanese employers are taken at their word.
There have also been several incidents in recent months where Lebanese employers have tried to sell their domestic workers through online ads or social media posts. An April post read (in Arabic): "1,000 U.S. dollars. African housekeeper for sale (Nigerian woman) with new residence permit and valid papers. 30 years old. Active and very clean."
Bring your citizens home!
Following the explosion in the port of Beirut on 4 August, which killed over 200 people, injured over 6,000 and left 300,000 homeless, the situation of foreign workers is expected to deteriorate further. Aid organisations and activists are calling on national governments to bring their citizens home immediately and without any red tape.
However, most embassies still refuse to come to the aid of female migrant workers. As This Is Lebanon reports, the Kenyan Embassy has posted police outside its doors so that their own citizens are prevented from seeking refuge there. This happened shortly after an investigative report by CNN revealed human rights violations by the embassy.
Other official agencies, such as the Ethiopian Embassy, demand outrageous prices for plane tickets. Various aid organisations, such as Egna Legna Besidet, the Anti-Racism Movement and This Is Lebanon, along with private activists, are trying to raise funds to help the women return to their home countries as quickly as possible.
Some migrant women are coming up with creative solutions. A group of female workers from Sierra Leone formed the band Thewanthdean (A Sisterhood) and recorded the song "Bye and Bye". In the song, the women tell their future grandchildren about their hard lives and the abuse they have suffered in Lebanon. This is their way of drawing attention to their plight and earning the money they need to survive and to buy plane tickets.
Activists call for the abolition of the kafala system
Over the past decade, both Lebanese and international organisations and activists have been calling for the abolition of the discriminatory kafala system. In 2019, Minister of Labour Camille Abousleiman publicly acknowledged that the kafala system was a form of modern slavery. And yet he did not deem that to be a sufficient reason to abolish kafala.
Increased media coverage of the fate of women abandoned outside their embassies now gives reason to hope that international pressure will force the Lebanese government to come to the aid of these migrant workers.
Dipendra Upreti from Nepal, co-founder of This Is Lebanon and himself a former worker there, sees the financial crisis currently affecting the country as another route for abolishing the kafala system: "Lebanon expects to receive international humanitarian aid in the crisis. But it should only be granted on condition that Lebanon abolishes the kafala system, guarantees the rights of migrant workers and treats all people as equals. Otherwise there is no hope."
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor