Lebanon is home to over 250,000 migrant domestic workers (MDWs), who come from African and Asian countries and work in private households. The vast majority of these workers are women. Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are trapped in a web woven by the kafala system, an inherently abusive migration sponsorship system, which increases their risk of suffering labour exploitation, forced labour and trafficking and leaves them with little prospect of obtaining redress.
All migrant domestic workers are excluded from the Lebanese Labour Law and are governed instead by the kafala system, which ties the legal residency of the worker to the contractual relationship with the employer.
If this employment relationship ends, even in cases of abuse, the worker loses regular migration status. Moreover, the worker cannot change their employer without the latter’s permission.
This allows the employer to coerce the worker to accept exploitative working conditions. If a migrant domestic worker refuses such conditions and decides to leave the home of the employer without the latter’s consent, the worker risks losing their residency status and consequently detention and deportation.
The History of the Kafala System
The Kafala System began in the 1950s as a way to control migration into Arab countries. The system requires each worker to be sponsored by a citizen of the host country. That employer, also known as a kafeel, is responsible for the worker’s legal status and visa. When the worker’s term finalizes, the employer can either renew it or terminate the worker’s status, which requires that the worker be immediately deported.
Under this oppressive system, workers are excluded from Lebanese labor laws regulating minimum wage, maximum working hours, vacation, and overtime.
Before the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, wealthier Lebanese families would hire poor girls from Lebanon and bordering countries to work for them. This practice created Lebanon’s reliance on outside domestic work. Over time, relations with other Arab countries deteriorated and job security decreased. As a result, the Lebanese had to look elsewhere to find employment. In the 1970s, an opportunity arose with the arrival of the first large waves of immigrants from Africa and Asia.
With time, a complex system of oppression was designed to target people from impoverished areas of the world to work for them. The system was supported by Lebanon due to the reduction of debt as a result of the remittances that the migrants would send. Even today, the government is battling unsustainable debt in an effort to pay it off. Over time, the workforce became gradually more female-dominated; this pattern persists to this day.
As the Kafala system continues, Lebanon has received international backlash, notably from the United States in the early 2000s when they deemed Lebanon Tier 2 in terms of human trafficking. They still remain at Tier 2 today. Recently, multiple organizations such as the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International attempted to shed light on the exploitative system within Lebanon. Despite recent coverage, the Lebanese government is still exerting minimal effort to solve the issue.
Harrowing Tales from Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon
Amnesty International interviewed 32 women migrant domestic workers in 2018-2019. Their testimonies revealed significant and consistent patterns of abuse. These included employers forcing them to work extreme working hours, denying them rest days, withholding their pay or applying deductions to it, severely restricting their freedom of movement and communication, depriving them of food and proper accommodation, subjecting them to verbal and physical abuse, and denying them health care.
Nineteen of the women interviewed said they were forced by their employers to work more than 10 hours a day and were allowed less than eight continuous hours of rest, while 14 of them said they were denied their weekly day off despite such conditions being breaches of their contract. Among the live-in domestic workers, only five out of the 32 said that they were allowed to keep their passports with them. Ten of the women said their employers did not allow them to leave the home; some even said that their employers went as far as locking them in when they left the home. Many said their employers also controlled who they talked to.
Among the live-in domestic workers, only four had their own private rooms. The majority of women interviewed reported being subjected at least once to humiliating and dehumanizing treatment by their employers, and six women reported being subjected to severe physical abuse. Most women interviewed reported that their employers had not provided them with the appropriate medical care when they needed it.
Exploitation and other abuse can have a devasting impact on the mental health of any individual. Amnesty International interviewed six women who either had suicidal thoughts or had attempted suicide as a result of their exploitative living and working conditions, their isolation and the violence to which they were subjected.
Amnesty International documented evidence in eight cases of forced labour and four cases of human trafficking. In the eight cases of forced labour, the women could not leave their jobs and were compelled to work because they feared the consequences of quitting. Some women experiencing abuse asked their
employers to return them to the recruitment agencies or to their home countries, but their employers refused. Had they attempted to leave without their employers’ consent, they would have lost their legal status in Lebanon and thereby put themselves at risk of detention and deportation. Other women reported being
asked by their employers to reimburse the latter for the money spent on their recruitment when they asked
In the most serious cases of labour exploitation of migrant domestic workers, the organization documented evidence that four workers were victims of human trafficking. Amnesty International interviewed two women who reported being deceived by recruiters about the terms and conditions of work; once they arrived in Lebanon, they were unable to leave because their employers confined them to their home and withheld their passports. In two other cases, migrant domestic workers reported being confined to a particular location by recruitment agents in Lebanon, who abused their power to subject them to forced labour.
New Contract Protections for Migrant Domestic Workers Introduced
In 2020, the caretaker minister of labour announced that the Lebanese government has approved a new standard unified contract for migrant domestic workers. According to the statement, the new contract abolishes the current Kafala system.
The new contract gives migrant domestic workers the right to the minimum wage of 675,000 Lebanese pounds ($450 before the crisis, less than $100 according to the black market rate). It also gives workers the right to keep their passports and to resign without the employers’ consent. The new contract also provides that workers should have good and healthy living and working conditions including a private and well-ventilated room, the right to daily rest, sick leave and paid holidays. However, the contract allows the deduction of an undefined amount of the salary to cover food, clothes, etc.
Activists and rights groups have welcomed the new contract. Yet, they see it as only a first step as it is still not clear how the new contract will be enforced and whether employers will be held to account for violating its provisions. They called on the parliament to amend the labour law to include all domestic workers, regardless of their nationality, in its protection.