What the Kafala System Continues to Reveal about Lebanon’s Alarming History with Migrant Labor

Romain Mellies, Research Affiliate, IMS


In February 2022, for the first time in Lebanese history, an Ethiopian domestic worker has brought her employer and the recruitment agency responsible for her affectation to court, charging them with slavery, after several years of “abuse, torture and enslavement”. MH, the plaintiff, denounced the verbal and physical abuses she suffered from, while her employer refused to pay her for at least seven years. Both defendants, the employer and the agency, are facing monetary compensation and imprisonment, up to fifteen years. This case has not only provided the Lebanese society with the first legal discussion in court on the notions of slavery and slave trading, both deeply linked to the Kafala system, but have also shed the light on the modern-day slavery practices to which domestic workers are subjected to in Lebanon, as well as revealed the multi-layered vulnerabilities to which some domestic workers are exposed. 

Thus, although at first glance the Kafala system appears as the mere expression of low-skilled exploitation of the labor class by the Lebanese upper-middle class; a simple socioeconomic analysis would fail to capture the underlying racist and gendered dynamics of this system.

The Domestic Work Landscape in Lebanon 

Historically understood as an arrangement between wealthy and more modest Lebanese families in which young girls from unfavored environments could be sent in upper-class households to be socialized and likely to access higher social ranks through marriage, early domestic labor can be traced back to the early twentieth century. Later, the profound demographic changes that occurred following the civil war in Lebanon led to an increasing demand for foreign domestic workers, although it is truly with the influx of money dedicated to the reconstruction of the country in the 1990s that the movement of southeast Asian and African female workers, that already started in the 1970s and the 1980s, actually peaked

The Kafala System through a Legal Lens

Defined as a “restrictive regime of laws, regulations and customary practices that ties migrant workers’ legal residency to their employers”, the Kafala system is notably incompatible with domestic workers’ protection, as it is not only explicitly excluding foreign workers from the Lebanese Labor Law (thus not guaranteeing inter alia the freedom of association, a minimum wage, a limit on working hours or a resting day), but is in clear violation of several International Treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, the ILO Convention on Forced Labor and other treaties to which Lebanon is yet signatory. 

Human Rights Violations under Kafala Persist

Ranging from 250 000 to at least 400 000 according to the Lebanese Ministry of Labor, domestic workers have been exposed to Human Rights violations in overwhelming proportions, as the extremely vulnerable position in which they are is undeniably providing a context for abuses of many forms. 

In 93% of the cases, the employer confiscates the worker’s passport upon arrival, clearly depicting the control that employers have over domestic workers’ lives and legal status. Last figures show that less than half of employers provide their domestic worker with a rest day, and 50% of these employers do not allow their employee to leave the house on that day. Moreover, 40% of employers refuse or fail to pay the domestic workers their entitled salary, even though many Kafala workers frequently report forced labor up to 18h a day. One domestic worker out of three is said to be beaten by its Kafeel, not including the verbal and sexual abuses to which many of them are victims; and at least one Kafala worker dies every week in Lebanon from unnatural causes, ranging from suicide to attempted escape, including physical violence from the employer.

Overall, the Kafala system is conducive to situations of human trafficking, forced labor and exploitation, as indicators like intimidation, threats, withholding of wages or identity documents, restriction on movement and communication or food deprivation indisputably demonstrate.

Behind the Kafala System: Racial Trends in Lebanon

In Lebanon, it only takes a watchful eye to observe that the very large majority of ‘underemployments’ are mostly occupied by Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asian workers, and precisely because domestic workers primarily originatefrom Ethiopia, Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, or Ghana, the question of race appears salient and needs to be addressed to fully capture the intersectional dynamics of the Kafala system. 

By the term “Srilankiyye”, which is used to describe any female domestic worker regardless of her origin, the Kafala system shows that it largely falls within a process of racialization, which is arguably induced by the capitalist nature of the working relationship. Indeed, by implementing a hierarchy based on race between the employer and the employee, the Kafala system created a quasi-perfect synonymy between racialized foreigner and domestic servants. Even more, by distinguishing domestic workers according to their origin, where Filipinas are somewhat paid and treated better than their Bangladeshi or sub-Saharan African counterparts, what appeared to be a classist dynamic, where poor girls from south came to take care of elite families, is in fact an intersectional process, where race has a predominant role in determining the treatment, the remuneration and the human worth of the domestic workers.

The Gendered Dimensions of the Kafala System

The need to assess the Kafala workers’ situation in Lebanon through a gender lens comes not only from the fact that these domestic activities are predominantly occupied by women (99% of domestic workers in Lebanon are women), but also from the observation that this system can largely be understood as a form of patriarchal control over women, as the numerous cases of sexual and gender-based violence reported sadly illustrate. The Kafala system has indeed been impacting women differently: domestic work is often seen as a devalued form of labor that somehow would be exclusively women’s ‘natural’ role and are deemed unworthy of a decent remuneration. Moreover, because of the ‘indoor’ nature of their activities and the gendered norms associated with women taking care of the households, they are more likely to be confined and restricted in their freedom of movement than their male counterparts. 

Conclusion: Remedies and Obstacles

One possible explanation as to why it appears difficult to confront the Kafala system in Lebanon could reside in the considerable amount of profit that it generates. Indeed, according to Human Rights Watch, it is no less than 100 million US dollars a year that is channeled through the Kafala system, with recruitment agencies capitalizing more than half of it. 

To try and address the abuses to which domestic workers have been subjected to, some countries of origin, such as Ethiopia in 2008 or the Philippines in 2020, have issued travel bans to Lebanon for domestic workers. Such measures have however failed to solve the problem, as migrants have either found a way to circumvent the ban, or simply as there have been and always will be other migrants to meet the labor demand. 

Possible legal remedies, such as the one discussed in the introduction, are only possible in limited cases, as both employers and recruitment agencies do their best to make sure the domestic workers’ abuses remain silenced and unprosecuted: the contracts in which Kafala workers are informed of their (few) rights are written in Arabic, therefore often unintelligible for foreign workers. More, the fear of arrest, of retaliation, of being falsely accused, or simply the fact of having its complaint ignored by the embassy, coupled with the minimization and complexification of legal procedures for domestic workers makes it difficult at best -and impossible at worst- to seek compensation for the abuses they have been the victims of.

With the MH case still proceeding, there remains a hope for a future in which more domestic workers will press charges against their abusive employers, and even, a possible future without the Kafala system. Such a perspective would require for the Lebanese government to foster a dialogue between both workers and employers, that would equally take into consideration the employers’ deteriorating economic situation and the respect for the workers’ human rights. Innovations have emerged at the local and private level, but a significant achievement in domestic workers’ rights will only happen with the government’s endorsement.