Lebanon has had a turbulent year, to say the least. Amidst a global catastrophe, it faced its own economic crisis, revolution, and explosion, and continues to be ensnared by its woes. However, one of its long-standing sins existed long before the people took to Martyr’s Square or the Port was engulfed in flames: its treatment of migrant workers. The country is extremely reliant on migrant domestic workers, primarily from countries in Southeast Asia and Africa (e.g., The Philippines, Ethiopia), and majority of whom are women. In 2008, Human Rights Watch reported that a migrant domestic worker in Lebanon dies every week. At the time of writing, almost 700 would have died since then, assuming that this average rate stayed the same. But it has not. In 2017, statistics showed that the death rate doubled to over two per week. This horrendous status quo has only gotten worse. The country’s economic crisis, explosion, and near-societal collapse have exacerbated the pre-existing, deeply-rooted problem, and there is little hope on the horizon. While it may be too late to save the 700-plus victims who have lost their lives thus far, this is an attempt to shed light on the system that took their lives, and what can be done to change it.

The suffering of domestic migrant workers in Lebanon is a result of the Kafala system, a “restrictive immigration regime” that places migrant workers at the mercy of their employers. Derived from the Arabic word of the same name (though a perversion of the original concept), “kafala” creates a sponsorship system in which the sponsor-employer, or “kafeel”, sponsors the migrant worker’s presence in Lebanon, thereby tying the worker’s residence to their employer. Under such a system, the employer is able to control the worker’s rights, and thus the worker themselves. This is manifested in the common practice whereby the employer takes and withholds the worker’s passport, effectively confiscating their right to free movement. While such practice is widespread (a selected survey found it in 94.3% of 1,200 cases), it is merely one example of the humiliation and degradation that is inherently and systematically perpetuated by Kafala. Others include legal discrimination, as the exclusion of migrant workers from Lebanon’s labour law denies them key rights such as “minimum wage, limits on working hours, a weekly rest day, overtime pay, and freedom of association”. As such, they have no guarantees of basic rights, little legal protection, and are unable to leave or change employers without permission. Any attempts to do so, or demands for humane treatment, are often met with detention or deportation. The injustice in this is self-evident. 250,000 migrant workers are currently caught in this system, with scores of domestic workers, primarily from Southeast Asia and Africa, arriving in Lebanon for domestic work. This issue, however, extends past Lebanon, and is endemic to the Arab world, with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE, and others such as Jordan all employing the same system. All in all, it amounts to a system of modern slavery.

English | November 9, 2021



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