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The Middle East’s Kafala System Imprisons Millions of Women
Domestic workers face abuse and exploitation at the hands of their employers
It’s late afternoon in Beirut. Traffic is gridlocked and the city is soaked in heat; taxi drivers jamming the roads are edgy and impatient.
Down a side street is a migrant community center. Inside, Salina is also feeling on edge. As she talks, the 22-year-old rubs her fingers — they are swollen and cracked because of the two years of abuse she suffered as a domestic worker in the mountains near Beirut. Since running away, six days before our interview, Salina has become one of the city’s many undocumented escapees — women who are now in Lebanon illegally after fleeing abuse at the hands of their employers.
Before running away, Salina (not her real name) was one of the Middle East’s 1.6 million migrant women living under kafala sponsorship, a system that binds them to one employer. They come from places like Ethiopia, the Philippines, and Bangladesh to work for Arab families as housekeepers, cleaners, nannies, or caretakers.
They cannot resign, change jobs, or return home without permission from the family who hired them.
By tying each domestic worker to one family, the kafala system gives employers control over a woman’s right to live and work in the country. They cannot resign, change jobs, or return home without permission from the family who hired them. This power imbalance means the system is rife with exploitation, and there are endless reports of physical and sexual abuse, even murder.
In Lebanon — where the country’s labor laws do not apply to domestic workers — women often feel that the only option to escape abusive employers is to run. But the vast majority of employers confiscate their workers’ passports and residency permits, so running away leaves them without papers, putting them at risk of detention or deportation by the authorities.
“They become criminals when they run,” says a representative of anti-kafala organization This Is Lebanon, who asks not to be named in case they are targeted by authorities for their activism.
Salina didn’t think about the consequences before running away. “It wasn’t planned,” she says. “They were beating me and I just ran. I left everything at the house, including my passport.” Salina had no idea she would then become trapped in Lebanon, unable to find alternative work or leave the country.
When 22-year-old Salina first arrived at the Beirut airport from Ethiopia, she was excited — she thought her life would change for the better. There are more than 100,000 Ethiopians in Lebanon working as domestic help. Salina wanted to work so she could send money home to support her young daughter’s education.
The abuse didn’t start immediately. First, Salina was made to clean the machinery in the family’s butcher’s shop, using harsh chemicals without protective gloves. After a week, Salina’s hands ached. After a few more, they were red and raw.
Inside the house, it took about a month for the yelling to escalate into violence. The wife would accuse Salina of not working, telling her husband to beat her as punishment. Within four months, the husband was regularly threatening Salina with a gun. After six months, he no longer needed his wife’s encouragement. “He would pull my hair, slap me, kick me, push me against the wall, and beat me with his phone,” she says. “I hated them. But because I needed the work, I kept going.”
The recruitment agency that found Salina the job told her that the family denied all allegations of abuse. It’s her word against theirs. Salina says she’s fine, but cries as she pushes a balled-up tissue to her eyes. She wants to stay in Lebanon and get another job, but her employers still have her passport and owe her $600. She’s too afraid to complain to the Ethiopian embassy or General Security, the Lebanese intelligence agency in charge of residency permits. She worries she could be deported.
“I didn’t know where else to go, so I slept at the airport.”
Bassam Khawaja, of Human Rights Watch in Beirut, says domestic workers are often reluctant to report abuse. “Lebanese authorities have a track record of failing to secure justice for migrant domestic workers, failing to adequately investigate allegations of abuse, and arbitrarily detaining and deporting workers,” he says.
With a legal system rigged in their favor, abusive employers feel they can act with impunity. For domestic workers, that can result in a feeling of hopelessness. In 2017, two migrant domestic workers died every week in Lebanon, a grim trend that suggests high rates of suicide or botched escape attempts.
Since arriving in Lebanon in April 2015, another domestic worker named Faith has suffered a litany of abuses from multiple employers, from being locked inside her employer’s apartment to being underpaid and beaten at random.
When sexual harassment drove Faith (also not her real name) from her third and final employer’s house, she went straight to the airport, desperate to return home to Kenya. But her employer still had her passport.
Faith’s parents had already bought her a plane ticket home. In desperation, she went to the airport anyway, and begged the staff to let her onto the plane without identification. She wanted to be reunited with her husband and children. The plan didn’t work. “I didn’t know where else to go, so I slept at the airport,” Faith says.
Later, when she went to Beirut’s Kenyan embassy for help, Faith found out that her employers had not renewed her paperwork and she was already illegal in Lebanon. The embassy told her she could only be sent home if she, or her employer, paid a penalty of $600 for the period of time Faith had been in the country without permission. She could not afford to pay, and her employer refused.
That was more than a year ago, and Faith has remained trapped in the country ever since. Without work, she relies on strangers or acquaintances for somewhere to sleep and often struggles to afford food. “In one year, no one has been able to help me,” Faith says. “I didn’t expect Lebanon to be like this. I want to eat. I want to sleep. I’m sick of moving between places. I just want the embassy to release my documents so I can travel back.”
While attitudes are slowly shifting, the pace of change is too slow to have real impact.
The Kenyan consulate confirmed that domestic workers who have been in the country illegally must pay $200 for each year they were undocumented before they can be sent home. But Sayed Chalouhi, honorary consul for Kenya in Lebanon, says, “If we are sure that she is unable to pay, we will contribute, together with the Kenyan community, to help her.” Faith, however, is still waiting.
When the International Labour Organization surveyed employers across Lebanon, Kuwait, and Jordan, it found that some employers worried their worker might run away or become pregnant on her day off — meaning they would need to hire a new domestic worker. Each hiring process can cost employers up to $4,000 through one of Lebanon’s 500 licensed recruitment agencies. The agency is then responsible for bringing the worker into the country. According to Ghada Jabbour, co-founder of KAFA, an organization that campaigns against gender-based violence, if the worker runs away after three months, that money is nonrefundable.
“The amount [employers pay] is exaggerated because a lot of it is pure profit made by private recruitment agencies,” Jabbour says over the phone. “This sector of recruitment should be organized or overseen by the government. But right now, the government has completely subcontracted the migration process.” Jabbour says attitudes are not just linked to money. “It’s more complex than that… there are a lot of misconceptions around the basic rights of the worker.”
Regional attitudes came under fire recently when Sondos Alqattan, a beauty blogger, criticized new Kuwaiti legislation that gave Filipino workers one day off per week and prevented employers from confiscating their passports. In a YouTube video, she said, “How can you have a servant at home who keeps their own passport with them?” Backlash to Alqattan’s comments revealed how attitudes are changing. She was dropped by several beauty brands she worked with, including Max Factor Arabia.
Social media is also increasing awareness of abuse cases. In March 2018, the case of Lensa Lelisa attracted widespread attention on Facebook. The domestic worker had jumped from her employer’s balcony but survived. From the hospital, Lelisa testified in a video that the family beat her, and gave detailed descriptions of horrific abuse.
The family said she was lying. After a police investigation — which provided Lelisa no guarantees of safety — the 20-year-old Ethiopian retracted her statement, and the case was dropped. She was returned to her employer’s home and has not been heard from since.
Although media coverage was not enough to remove Lelisa from her employer, the case sparked widespread discussion. KAFA’s Jabbour sees that alone as a small step forward. “The fact that people are talking about this issue is a good indication, but we are very far from behavioral change,” he says. “For that, we would need larger reform in terms of policy and laws.”
While attitudes are slowly shifting, the pace of change is too slow to have real impact. Escapees Salina and Faith remain trapped in a system that denies them the right to exist outside their employer’s control. Faith thinks back on her time in Lebanon. “In all the three houses, the people I worked for had such hatred,” she says. “Why, I don’t know.”