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.