Kafala Reform a Liberal Veneer: Migrant Workers and the Struggle for Liberation
Day 290: Saturday, August 1, 2020
On May 12, 2020, migrant workers at RAMCO, a private engineering and construction company subcontracted by the Lebanese government to manage waste in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, released a statement detailing the horrific trials of Enayet Ullah. They recount that on April 8, the Bangladeshi worker experienced symptoms of mental illness and, as a result, was imprisoned underground, tortured and abused by his supervisor and security personnel. Three days later, security employees dragged him up to the canteen and attempted to choke him, nearly sending him to his death, if it weren’t for his compatriots and allied Indian workers who heard his cries and came to his rescue.
RAMCO defended these acts of subjection using the financial collapse as a pretext, citing the inability to cover his medical expenses, but vowing to pay for his return ticket so he could recover at home. By April 26, the waste management company had clearly reneged on its promise, as Enayet Ullah, struggling more than ever, was still in Lebanon. The next day, they went on strike in solidarity with him, against the unbearable workload imposed by RAMCO — down to 40 from the customary 300 workers to man 100 garbage trucks — and to demand payment in dollars, not Lebanese pounds, as stipulated in the contract. On May 12, workers blocked roads surrounding RAMCO facilities, and prevented garbage trucks from leaving the premises. Armed forces were sent to violently crush this unprecedented strike, but ultimately the company had no choice but to negotiate with the Bangladeshi embassy to avoid yet another “garbage crisis.”
Lebanon: a Site of Racialized Violence
Racialized violence, that is, violence legitimized and/or motivated by race, is not a local exception but is constitutive of liberal democracies. Having spent formative years in the Bay Area doing graduate research, I got to witness it firsthand and study how it is mired in the imperial political economy since the founding of the US settler colony. Throughout the twentieth century, for instance, the US state and white militias enacted violence and forms of legal exclusions to discipline and govern migrant Latinx, Chinese, and Filipino/a migrant farming and construction workers on whom the state of California has depended for its accelerated growth. During slavery, racial violence was an everyday practice that was also assigned to slave patrols, predecessors of the police. They emerged in the late seventeenth century, armed with whips and guns, to discipline, capture, and punish fleeing slaves.
[L]ate capitalism, the dominant political economy of our times, depends on the constructed social hierarchies on which racism and patriarchy are founded to continuously reproduce itself.I use this comparison to demonstrate that violence toward migrant workers is systemic and racialized, which allows us to understand the local turn of events as a re-enactment of a longer history of racialized violence toward migrant laborers, partially in the fulfillment of economic interests. From this perspective, Enayet Ullah ’s story is not unfathomable, whether in the context of the “kafala” migrant-worker law in Lebanon and the region, its slightly improved equivalent in Hong Kong and Singapore, or for “undocumented immigrants” in the West, living in a state of precarious illegality. That is not to say, however, that migrant workers experience a similar form and magnitude of violence irrespective of context, legal status, and identity. What I mean rather is that late capitalism, the dominant political economy of our times, depends on the constructed social hierarchies on which racism and patriarchy are founded to continuously reproduce itself.
The Long History of Expulsion Under Capitalism
What may seem like the migrant worker’s unfortunate destiny of uncertainty and exposure to harm cannot, in fact, be abstracted from the “logics of expulsion” characterizing late capitalism since the eighties. In this most predatory phase of capitalism, financial interests began incorporating lands in the Global South to extract resources with the support of the neo-colonial International Monetary Fund-led debt servicing regime and complacent post-colonial states. The devastating outcome of this global political economy has been the mass expulsion of indigenous peoples from the lands and economies on which they have long depended. Dispossessed then displaced, they have become part of an ever growing “surplus population” left to fend for itself in the wretchedness of incarceration, internment, and circuits of human trafficking and migrant labor.
For instance, the production, then migration of Filipino “service work,” like nursing, gardening and domestic labor, is a twentieth-century imperial legacy, intimately connected to US expansion in the Western Pacific and the resulting loss of land, impoverishment of farmers, and feminization of labor. Fleeing the ravages of colonialism and the two world wars, the Lebanese diaspora has inadvertently partaken in the dispossession of indigenous communities in different parts of the world. Since the middle of the century, this implication has become serious in parts of West Africa, for instance, including Ghana, Liberia, Ivory Coast, and especially Sierra Leone, birthplace of longtime parliament speaker Nabih Berri. There, prominent families from southern Lebanon have dominated the international diamond trade through legal and smuggling chains on a hotly contested geopolitical terrain. They have accumulated wealth and influence which they used to support different political agendas, including, in one instance, the anti-colonial struggle in Palestine. But they continue to play a significant role in the extractive diamond economy at the expense of local populations. I mention this example because migrant laborers from these lands have endured decades of violence in Lebanon, and we need to expand our political work and solidarity in ways that do justice to these intimately connected histories.
Dispossessed then displaced, they have become part of an ever growing “surplus population” left to fend for itself in the wretchedness of incarceration, internment, and circuits of human trafficking and migrant labor.
Severed ties from meaningful kinship and land, an uncertain present and future, and exposure to vulnerability are essential experiences of forced migration. This experience has never been a choice and cannot be stripped from the systemic conditions that have ended centuries of economic sovereignty in the homeland. The immeasurable losses through expulsion, then the myriad forms of violence in the host country have become a double tragedy in the lives of migrant laborers. Domestic workers experience this tragedy most acutely, as egregious harm compounds when gendered power dynamics intersect with race and class.
Banchi Yimer, founder of the community-run domestic migrant workers organization Egna Legna, Amharic for “from us to us,” has exposed and fought against recurring instances of abuse toward global-south domestic workers in Lebanon under kafala. Through and beyond the stories grounding Banchi’s account, we often hear about women imprisoned within four walls, subjected to the whims of Lebanese employers, forbidden from contacting family or forming relationships with the outside world, brutalized, raped, murdered, and left with one of two impossible options: becoming undocumented, a configuration of violence, economic and legal precarity of its own, or succumbing to social, if not physical, death. Enjoying de facto protection by the state, many employers perceive these women as “labor-commodities” to be appropriated labor and body. They minimally invest in the reproduction of their bodies while maximizing their exploitation for labor power, sexual gratification, and satisfaction of their sadistic impulses.
The employer’s power to arbitrate life from death is all but enshrined within kafala, acted upon often enough that legitimate comparisons with slavery abound, especially as domestic work cannot be simply understood as “labor” in the abstract. Framing domestic work in the exclusive terms of labor falls short of adequately describing the prevalent devolving of labor-power into labor-commodity. Paying attention to the power dynamics surrounding the gendered body in captivity reveals how the position of the domestic worker under kafala is at least partially similar to the position of the slave trans-historically. In our region, the vast history of slavery, although it did not always and necessarily resemble slavery in the Americas, reaches back to the ancient world, the expansion of Islam, and the encounter with colonialism. This legacy is, however, rarely confronted, often to save face on the international scene, itself filled with the stuff of liberal hypocrisy.
Enjoying de facto protection by the state, many employers perceives these women as “labor-commodities” to be appropriated labor and body. They minimally invest in the reproduction of their bodies while maximizing their exploitation for labor power, sexual gratification, and satisfaction of their sadistic impulses.
Conversely, the historical reckoning with slavery in the United States, however incomplete, was underway since the nineteenth century. It was led by black intellectuals who were themselves descendents of slavery, including Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois. Since the sixties, racism, the legacy of slavery, has become a public matter of concern owing to the civil rights movement, the Black Panther Party, and most recently the Black Lives Matter movement. In spite of contextual differences, we are indebted to the black radical tradition for its unmatched, liberation-driven writings on slavery and racism, as it provides a rigorously incomparable framework for thinking about the slave-like conditions of migrant workers under kafala today.
In the US antebellum South, routinized violence was foundational in the slave-master relationship, a pillar to the making of the slave subject. The slave-owner’s desire to mutilate, rape, dismember, and casually kill the slave often took precedence over economic exploitation. Critical black studies scholar Saidiya Hartman conveys the profundity of this irreducible reality when she writes that “the passage through the blood-stained gate [was] an inaugural moment in the formation of the enslaved.” On this point, a comparison with slavery reveals a shared experience between the domestic worker and slave, albeit with a difference.
While violence toward the domestic worker is widespread and informs her subjectivity, it does not fundamentally precede economic exploitation, at least in legal terms. In both contexts, violence is legitimized by race construction, but unlike kafala employers, slave-owners exercised subjection by right. Slaves were not only unpaid workers, but chattel, that is the slave-owner’s personal property for life, to dispose of at will. The Zong ship massacre of 1871 exemplifies this legal status. In this founding moment of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a number of African men and women, estimated to have been around 150, were drowned following a water shortage onboard, so the white captain and would-have-been slave-owners could collect insurance monies for ‘lost cargo.’
Abolishing Kafala Is Not Enough
Propertied enslavement is a real possibility under kafala, especially since the state has long turned a blind eye to the sadistic deeds of cruel employers and the imprisonment of migrant women within and long after the end of the two-year employment contract. The state has also tacitly supported the confiscation of travel documents at the moment of arrival, therefore restricting willful travel. But in strictly legal terms, the worker is not the property of the employer. Instead, the legal framework considers her as a “responsibility” for the employer, a less explicit temporary propertied relationship, retaining the dynamic of subjection through a paternalistic guise. Underlying kafala, literally “sponsorship” which embeds a relationship based on responsibility, is a socially ingrained racist assumption that sees the racialized migrant worker as a latent criminal whose captivity is necessary for public safety.
Underlying kafala, literally “sponsorship” which embeds a relationship based on responsibility, is a socially ingrained racist assumption that sees the racialized migrant worker as a latent criminal whose captivity is necessary for public safety.
In this complex conjuncture of colluding social, economic and legal mechanisms intended for the establishment of hierarchies of power and uneven wealth distribution, the emphasis on kafala law is necessary but insufficient. Once again, the US context of slavery provides an important historical precedent for understanding the limitations of the legal perspective. In the nineteenth century, US legal reforms — away from chattel-slavery and toward a recognition of slave humanity — did not necessarily lead to improving the living conditions of slaves. Even the abolishment of slavery in 1865 could neither truly liberate black people, nor bestow upon them in practice the privileges of universal humanity purported by liberalism.
Abolishing — and much less reforming — kafala cannot guarantee the dignified autonomy of migrant workers because the legal framework cannot, in the foreseeable future, exist outside race and the social and economic structures that directly benefit from racism. Invented in the interest of colonial and imperial conquests, racism may seem, on the surface, like a set of hierarchical social constructs floating in the abstract realm of language and ideas. In reality, however, it is an everyday practice of violence, often more harmful toward women, a differential distribution of precarity, and a legitimizing framework for myriad processes of dispossession and displacement integral to the global political economy. Formative of social consciousness and institutionalized by the state, racism deeply informs the experience of migrant laborers who were never simply laborers to begin with, but always already “darker,” gendered, feminized, migrants — inherently inferior, in need of civilizing, children, criminals. kafala, then, is not the only enabler of violence; to it we must add both racism and patriarchy, and the global political economy benefiting from these two structures.
Abolishing — and much less reforming — kafala cannot guarantee the dignified autonomy of migrant workers because the legal framework cannot, in the foreseeable future, exist outside race and the social and economic structures that directly benefit from racism
The last decade in Lebanon saw the emergence of advocacy work to reform kafala by KAFA and Human Rights Watch. Their focus on the legal framework is a necessary step, but it does not begin to address, and much less reverse, systemic conditions. Pressing but ultimately insufficient, these demands have been articulated within a human-rights discourse that has two notable limitations. First, it falls short of addressing why labor reform alone could not withstand practical racism, both within and outside the legal framework. Second, it ignores the governing late capitalist political-economy, the root cause of labor migration patterns from other Global South geographies to our own. Yet, since our immediate loyalty ought to lie with migrant, and especially domestic workers, then expanding the labor law to better accommodate migrant workers and their unions, and developing the legal provision so they could work and live independently of a sponsor are crucial short-term priorities.
Solidarity Now and in the Future
In the end, what would it mean to be in a position of meaningful solidarity with migrant workers, both in the face of racialized violence and against the dominant political-economic structure that has turned them into surplus populations? Abolishing kafala, this violent, exclusionary and racist system supporting Lebanese, middle-class “social reproduction,” that is the biological perpetuation of life necessary to ensure capitalist production and growth, is an imperative — but it is not the only imperative. Of equal, if not greater, importance is a collective imagining and, indeed, organizing together with migrant workers toward other political, economic, and social conditions for a dignified living, a trajectory that the Anti-Racism Movement and the Migrant Community Center have already forged.
Abolishing kafala, this violent, exclusionary and racist system supporting Lebanese, middle-class “social reproduction,” that is the biological perpetuation of life necessary to ensure capitalist production and growth, is an imperative — but it is not the only imperative.
Unlike the June 19, 2020, meeting of however well-meaning, non-migrant NGOs with labor minister Lamia Yammine Douaihy, this horizon for a dignified living ought to be envisioned and led by migrant workers. However distant this horizon, a first glimmer might be the legalization of a new labor status, which migrant and non-migrant groups have long been calling for, that puts a legal end to labor-commodity employment dynamics; guarantees, at minimum, conditions ensuring a migrant worker’s social and political life outside of domestic or legalistic spheres of domination; and punishes, to the fullest extent of the law, perpetrators of violence. As of now, none of these clauses are possible, the last one, for instance, remaining largely unenforceable due to the protections afforded by relations of political patronage.
Formalizing routes toward permanent settlement and citizenry, if that were a desire for migrant workers, could be the following ridge toward the horizon. This scenario is again not without a caveat, as I got to witness how the naturalization of migrant workers in the Global North may have indeed improved the legal and material conditions of migrants but could not, as of now, abolish racism. The latter continues to structure lived reality, except in places where communal organizing has become a force to reckon with, capable of enacting cuts to the dominant structure.
In the most radical, liberatory, and distant horizon, a meaningful solidarity with migrant workers would coalesce into an internationalist struggle against the imperial, racist, and capitalist regimes governing our lives and their own, here and there.
In the most radical, liberatory, and distant horizon, a meaningful solidarity with migrant workers would coalesce into an internationalist struggle against the imperial, racist, and capitalist regimes governing our lives and their own, here and there. For the disillusioned majority, international solidarity and organizing may seem long dead, if not a lofty aspiration. However, the vision of liberating our geographies and theirs from a long and ever-expanding capitalist occupation remains crucial. This does not mean that we are all on the same playing field — far from it, racism sets us apart. Instead, meaningful solidarity means working together to undo racism and regain the control of our distinct lands and economies for a dignified living, so precarious migration is no longer the better outcome, neither for them and nor for us.
The author thanks Christine Hong, Lara Bitar, Rabie Mustapha, Hicham Safieddine, Sarah Wansa, Dennis Browe, Yudi Feng, and Dima Hamadeh.
On September 4, 2020 Labor Minister Lamia Yammine Douaihy announced a revised draft of the standard labor unified contract. Although its earlier draft was legalized in 2009 to regulate migrant domestic labor, from the beginning, it has fallen short of improving the working and living conditions of migrant workers for the reasons presented in the essay above. The revised clauses of the new draft include accommodation within the employer’s house in a private, lockable room whose keys remain in the possession of the worker; an affirmation of the older salary clause, stipulating that compensation is to be paid at the end of the month (in any currency), subject to deductions for housing, food and clothes, which is a clear departure from the earlier draft; a 48-hour work week; the possibility to leave the house and communicate with others during rest and vacation days; and the right to unilaterally break the contract with a minimum one-month given notice.
This last clause, however, does not fully address the legal conditions of working with another employer, including the number of times employer switches could occur, an omission that could force many domestic workers to remain in abusive work environments to avoid economic precarity and deportation. In a personal communication with legal researcher Sarah Wansa, she gestures to the prevailing vagueness by asking, “does ending the contract with an employer mean that the legality of a migrant worker’s residence is at risk, as is the case now?” This is one of the issues that civil society and migrant workers will probe into once the new draft is widely disseminated.
Meanwhile, Douaihy promoted the revised standard labor unified contract as a law that “abolishes the Kafala system.” But for many like Wansa, this is a “misleading … media stunt” that might “bring slight improvements” but “[that] surely does not abolish a whole system and slavery structure.” Former domestic worker Banchi Yimer was also unimpressed with the fanfare surrounding the announcement, diverting the attention to the most pressing issues. Seemingly uninterested in mere Kafala reform, a tone-deaf proclamation at this moment in time, she retorted, “we need action over 300,000 domestic workers [who] are stuck in Lebanon [on] false accusations of theft[,] confiscation of passports[,] den[ied] salary[,] enslavement[,] suicide[,] mental illness[and] rape. [All] this unanswered for many years. Let us go home!"
Indeed, this has been a recurring refrain for many migrant workers, even before the explosion on August 4, 2020. Ethiopian, Filipino and other migrant-worker communities had been protesting before their embassies in response to the deplorable material and living conditions, increasingly insurmountable in the midst of the global pandemic and the economic crisis, and calling for repatriation. The explosion of the Port of Beirut was the last straw that turned protest into an everyday scene, most notably in front of the Kenyan consulate where Kenyan domestic workers have had a sustained sit-in since early August 2020 to demand immediate repatriation. Reform is no longer the issue — migrant workers want to leave.