The Lebanese Revolution: A New Chapter of Kafala Misery
Day 72: Friday, December 27, 2019
The Lebanese revolution brought hundreds of thousands into the streets with aspirations for a new country free from the grip of a corrupt elite. Lebanese from every social group seem empowered by the sense that their country's destiny finally lies in their hands. But for foreign domestic workers, some of the more powerless members of society, taking part in shaping tomorrow’s Lebanon is still not within reach. Many cannot imagine joining protesters in the streets as they are trapped in homes, barred access to the outside world, and living at the mercy of their employers — conditions made possible by the oppressive kafala system.
By legally binding a migrant worker’s immigration status to a contractual relationship with the employer, the position of the employer as tyrant is enshrined in kafala. They can withhold salaries and inflict horrific abuses with no consequence, turning the lives of domestic workers into a living hell. A former domestic worker myself, in 2017 I founded Engna Legna ("Us for Ourselves"), an Ethiopian migrants group that advocates for domestic workers’ rights in Lebanon. As protests took hold of the country, the women we work with and serve in the community wondered what lies ahead. Some feared that the peaceful protests might turn into conflict. Others harbored a faint hope that an overhaul of the political establishment might raise the status of domestic workers to humans worthy of basic rights and dignity.
At a time when the excess of the political and economic elites is pushing many Lebanese past the boiling point, horrendous abuses by home-owning employers remain largely ignored in Lebanese society. Although there are around 250,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, they remain an afterthought. Even in this revolution, mobilizations for equality and the abolition of kafala remain largely absent from the movement’s discourse and actions, minus a handful of exceptions such as a public discussion led by the Anti-Racism Movement last November. The greater tragedy is when employers capitalize on the deteriorating economic conditions to further exploit migrant domestic workers.The greater tragedy is when employers capitalize on the deteriorating economic conditions to further exploit migrant domestic workers, by withholding salaries for example, which is a common practice that is well documented. But with the financial crisis, we have come across dozens of cases of rich employers claiming they cannot pay the meager salaries of the domestic workers laboring in their homes. One of the workers we support is a single mother of two children who rely on her wages for food and schooling in Ethiopia. She has not been paid in six months, and so her children’s situation has become desperate. When she begged her employers to pay her what she is owed, they savagely beat her for raising the issue and reiterated that there is no money circulating at the moment. She will have to be patient, they said, and wait until the crisis ends.
Some employers are doing all they can to avoid the probing questions of families back home, forbidding the workers from making their monthly phone call. We have come across countless stories in recent weeks of families in rural areas of Ethiopia unaware of the dire economic situation in Lebanon, caught off-guard by the sudden interruption to their cash flow. Discontinued remittances have produced severe material consequences like food insecurity and a lack of access to education. Unexpected cuts also distress the families, as they leave them hanging in limbo, wondering what could have happened to their daughters, mothers and sisters, especially that it is now common knowledge in Ethiopia that many domestic workers contracted in Lebanon return home in coffins.
Other employers, after much prodding and pressure, have finally started to pay wages in Lebanese pounds, rather than in dollars, without accounting for the devaluation of the local currency. Domestic workers who are getting paid in pounds suffer significant financial losses. The Lebanese lira, still officially pegged to the US dollar at 1,507, has soared over 2,000 on the black market, the real exchange rate in the everyday economy. As of today, domestic workers incur no less than a 25 to 30 percent loss of value when they exchange currency to send remittances back home.
The financial crisis is also exacerbating other abusive practices like a forced undocumented status and capitivity after the end of a contract. Under kafala, it is the employer’ responsibility to file the necessary documentation to maintain the worker’s legal status. It is also the employer’ obligation to pay the return airfare when the contract ends. In the past, many employers feigned the financial inability to cover return travel costs. The emerging trend with the revolution is to take advantage of the perceived chaos and lie to the workers by claiming the airport is closed until further notice. In effect, employers are holding the workers hostage to avoid paying the required immigration fees and to escape the contractual obligation to release workers at the end of their two-years contracts. If workers have never had a process through which to hold abusive employers accountable, the latter are now emboldened by the uncertainty of the moment.
Legally registered Lebanese recruitment agencies have also contributed to the deteriorating conditions of domestic labor over the past few months. We have come across numerous incidents involving agency staff-turned-brokers who, rather than binding employers and employees through contracts, pursue under-the-table profits by selling and laying claim to the workers’ labor. These brokers enter in illicit agreements with homeowners and trap the worker in a cycle of slavery. Toiling away from one home to the next, the worker receives no wages while the broker reaps profits from multiple sources. Moreover, brokers do not pay to legalize the worker’s status, which renders their presence in the country illegal. Resisting this trap could lead to an intervention by law enforcement and a hasty deportation.
Workers who escape abusive employers, live in rented homes and work in the day, often illegally. They, too, are not spared from the effects of the economic crisis. Many have been dismissed from their jobs or told that there is no money to pay them. Though they are free from the confines of the prisons they once lived in, these workers have additional costs like transportation, rent and food, and find themselves in increasing precariousness. We have come across the case of a mother who had no choice but to abandon her infant at an orphanage because she couldn’t feed the child. There continues to be no prearranged alternatives or rescue mechanisms for the most vulnerable members of society. Months into the uprising, domestic workers don’t think of the revolution as our business, unfortunately, and don’t expect our needs to be included in any protester-initiated change.I am well aware that many Lebanese workers are out of a job and gradually losing their life savings. We’re following the news. Cuts in wages, funds withheld by the banks, and stories of men who kill themselves when unable to support their families also shock our conscience. But far too many financially stable Lebanese employers view the present economic instability as an opportunity to hold domestic workers hostage and secure free labor, jeopardizing the already precarious existence of migrant women from Africa and Asia. Months into the uprising, domestic workers don’t think of the revolution as our business, unfortunately, and don’t expect our needs to be included in any protester-initiated change. Activists affiliated with KAFA and the Anti-Racism Movement have expressed solidarity with us, but tangible support remains far too little. My hope is that they may one day provoke a much needed societal debate on the place of domestic workers in Lebanese society and how to transform their conditions.