Cover Image

Illustration by Dhabia Al Mansoori

The Kafala System, COVID-19 and Economic Collapse

What are the repercussions of Lebanon’s economic collapse and the coronavirus pandemic on migrant domestic workers in the country?

Aug 30, 2020

Given the immense corruption and human indignity, nothing on the news in Lebanon surprises me anymore. What we have been witnessing these past few months is a new groundbreaking low my country was astonishingly able to reach.
Wailing calls ascend from the streets of Beirut and touch every person with a minimal amount of human decency.
“Shame on you, we are human too.”
This is what one migrant worker said on live television after seeing many Lebanese families desert their domestic workers.
Abandoned on the streets by their so-called “sponsors” in broad daylight, during a global pandemic and an economic crisis, hundreds of Ethiopian and Kenyan workers implore the Lebanese to offer a helping hand.
The Kafala System Explained
Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are governed by a system named the kafala system. This system was thought at first to merely be the mechanism needed to regulate the relationship between the employer and migrant worker. According to Azfar Khan, a retired International Labor Organization (ILO) migration specialist, the kafala system was “supposed to be a good system that makes it incumbent upon nationals to look after non-nationals.”
However, this sponsorship system became a legal way of perpetrating domestic mistreatment. The kafala system slowly morphed into a legalized exploitative relationship that binds a migrant worker to ruthless terms. In return, this gives the “sponsor” legal abilities to abuse migrant workers to the fullest extent.
For example, without the sponsors’ permission, domestic workers can’t change jobs, resign or leave the country. This ties the workers’ fate to their sponsor. Moreover, if domestic workers by any chance flee the house, the sponsor has the ability to nullify their residence visa, rendering the domestic worker illegal and prone to jail time and deportation. By prohibiting domestic workers from having a say in their mobility, the kafala system encourages mistreatment and exploitation to remain unnoticed and unprosecuted.
Human Rights Watch asserts that the current standard unified contract doesn’t meet international human rights and labor standards and thus doesn’t protect migrant domestic workers from forced labor.
From exhaustion and privation to physical abuse and rape, domestic workers are severely mistreated. These working conditions have pushed hundreds to the point of suicide. Each week in Lebanon, two domestic workers die. However, the sponsors are rarely held accountable. This results in hundreds of deaths per year that could be avoided as soon as the system is abolished.
Current Health and Economic Crisis
Lebanon’s economy is deteriorating in front of our eyes. With today’s dollar shortage, the prices of imported goods are escalating tremendously, rendering the purchasing power of the Lebanese, who are paid in Lebanese Pound, low. This liquidity crisis amplified poverty and hunger in the entire country and made many sponsors unable to afford to pay their domestic workers.
As such, domestic workers are also impacted by this stark downturn. Getting paid in US dollars is one of the main incentives for thousands of migrant workers to leave their countries and work in countries like Lebanon; however, when there is a dollar shortage in the country, domestic workers can’t get paid and in turn, can’t send remittances to their families. This dire situation has encouraged many domestic workers to return back to their countries. That said, because they do not have enough money to purchase a plane ticket, domestic workers remain stranded jobless, homeless and “unsponsored” by the sponsorship system, in a country they wish to leave but can’t.
Black Lives Matter in Lebanon
The Black Lives Matter movements in the United States gave way for other countries all over the world to partake in this anti-racism fight — Lebanon included. This would have been a golden opportunity for us to let go of outdated ideologies and derogatory terms that suppress 250,000 migrant workers in the country. But instead, what was thought to be a breakthrough in morals turned out to be a temporary performative activism trend that many countries, including Lebanon, hopped on.
Our own version of the Black Lives Matter movement transcends any other version in the world. Rather than abolishing the system that promotes racism and slavery, many Lebanese decided to pay tribute to the Black community in the country by throwing migrant workers out of their houses into the clutches of wretchedness and privation.
The extreme abuse enacted by sponsors through the kafala system is amplifying racial segregation in the region. Sponsors are abandoning domestic workers on the streets, and the majority are not taking action against this inhumanity. This normalization of exploitation and maltreatment has woven racism into society’s unconsciousness at a time when BLM movements have conquered the world.
Lebanon; it is time to reject this obsolete system of oppression. It is time to abandon our old-fashioned racist ideologies that have been oppressing migrant workers for the past 50 years.
Even though the entire country’s economy is suffering and collapsing and many “sponsors” are unable to pay domestic workers their monthly salary, viciously throwing a person out on the streets can never be justified.
An instant solution to the workers’ problems remains unclear amidst the economic and health crisis in Lebanon. However, sponsors should proceed with compromisation. Instead of leaving migrant workers on the streets, families should, no matter the circumstance, support their domestic worker until a travel plan is achieved.
What We as Youth Should Do
Truth be told, many households in my country and in the region employ domestic workers. This doesn’t mean, however, that we should remain silent bystanders to injustice. I took the initiative to ask a couple of my friends some questions.
Do you have a domestic worker? How is your relationship with them? Are you for the abolition of the kafala system? What should we as youth do? Do you think you’re part of something wrong for having a domestic worker?
While most of my friends and I employ a domestic worker, we all seemed to have a healthy relationship with them based on mutual respect and care. While some only kept the relationship professional, others have befriended their household worker. One of my friends watches movies on a daily basis with her “helping hand.”
Moreover, all of my friends agreed on the necessity to abolish this system. Let’s get one thing straight: while working as a domestic worker — and by extension, hiring a domestic worker — is not wrong, exploiting and undermining domestic workers on the basis of race definitely is.
Many would argue that this system is justified because it helps migrant workers secure a source of income. However, the kafala system has been heavily exploited, so the only solution is the rethinking and replacement of it with a new system.
In 2019, the previous Labor Minister Camille Abousleiman established a working group headed by the ILO in order to dismantle the kafala system. This working group has proposed to the ministry a new model contract to replace the existing kafala system. The Ministry of Labour in return decided to draft its own contract based on the working group’s version.
Human Rights Watch, a member of the working group, suggests that this new contract should offer equal protection for domestic workers and workers under the labor law, allow domestic workers to terminate their employment contract or change contracts without the consent of their employer, entitle them to a minimum wage, grant them the right to hold on to their passports and other identity documents, and permit them to move and communicate freely. All of the aforementioned recommendations are a step forward toward the redefinition of the kafala system.
Today, we as Lebanese are facing the economic and social repercussions of the same corrupt and broken system that has been suppressing domestic workers for many years . The Beirut explosion is one of the many results of corruption and governmental neglect. However, similar to how all Lebanese and migrant domestic workers went to the streets of Beirut to clean the rubble of the city, today must be the day all Lebanese and domestic workers unite to break free from racist and sectarian ideologies and dismantle this system of oppression.
Joe Mrad is a contributing writer. Email him at
gazelle logo