A composite of two images: a woman in the foreground, and people standing at a railing in the background, looking outward. There is a mosque on the horizon.

A composite of migrant domestic workers holding their employers' children and enjoying the view, and a woman chatting with a friend from the balcony of her employer's home. Photos taken by Matthew Cassel between March 31, 2010 and May 13, 2010 in Beirut, Lebanon.

Neoliberalism and Kafala

What is your first memory of seeing an Asian or African domestic worker in Lebanon? Was it some time during the Civil War, perhaps the mid-1980s, when you vaguely recall seeing new faces buying vegetables in the same grocery store as your mother, and noticing their foreignness? Was it visiting a wealthy relative or neighbor sometime soon after the war, in the early 1990s, and being served by a woman in a striped uniform whom you identified as Filipina? Or was it perhaps an awkward memory of knowing all the lyrics to Elie Ayoub’s infamous 1989 song-sketch El-Bint El-Sirlankiyye, which reached you on television before you saw any actual Sri Lankan women in the spaces around you? Whenever it dates to, one thing is clear: Somewhere over the course of the last 40-50 years, the presence of African and Asian migrants, particularly domestic workers, has become inextricable from Lebanese existence. 

The Incomplete History of Lebanon’s Kafala System

The history of what we call the Kafala system in Lebanon has yet to be adequately written, an absence that speaks as much to the priorities of historians as to the many silences of the archive. But, if we focus on the practice of domestic labor, here is how the story is usually told. 

Wealthy families in the areas that today make up Lebanon have long relied on outside help to perform household tasks. In the early 20th century, this workforce was primarily supplied by poor or orphaned girls from the region, often facilitated by the girls’ families and undertaken in exchange for an education and subsequent marriage of upwards social status, rather than for wages.1  

During the Civil War, this middle- and upper-class world of domestic help was shaken on multiple fronts. Syrians were expelled en masse from Christian areas.2 Palestinians, empowered by fronts of armed resistance, threatened to call the fedayeen on those who might mistreat them.3 Certain employers no longer wanted Syrians, Palestinians, or Lebanese perceived to be in the opposing camp inside their homes. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Asia, economic and political crises led countries including Sri Lanka and the Philippines to actively begin exporting their women to the global labor market in order to build remittance-based GDPs, with the Middle East serving as a key destination for this migration.

Back in Lebanon, enterprising businessmen took advantage of limited state regulation during the war, as well as the sudden need to replace Arab and Kurdish domestic workers, to begin bringing Asian and African women to the country. It was believed that the foreign women were less likely to cause tension due to being unimplicated in the political climate, willing to work for lower wages, and allegedly more submissive.4

Enterprising businessmen took advantage of limited state regulation during the war, as well as the sudden need to replace Arab and Kurdish domestic workers, to begin bringing Asian and African women to the country.

Although the account above serves as one origin story for today’s Kafala system, understanding the entire picture requires it to be placed alongside other regional histories — especially those of domestic slavery under the late Ottoman Empire; the informal practice of Lebanese families traveling to the African continent and elsewhere and returning with racialized subjects who worked in the home and became a fixed, often intergenerational, presence in the family; and the wartime connections established between Lebanon and the Gulf region, where aspects of the Kafala system formally originated.5  

What we do know for certain, however, is that the period of the Lebanese Civil War serves as the dividing line between a country where some wealthy families had domestic help, and a country that became characterized by the widespread, multifaceted system of temporary migrant labor and racialized servitude that we today refer to as Kafala.

Despite evidence of Asian and African women entering Lebanon as domestic workers during the war itself (1975-1990), it was only after 1993 that the practice expanded to a large-scale social phenomenon.6 By 1994, half of the foreign labor force in Lebanon was reported to be Asian versus 44 percent Arab, and this difference increased to 65 percent Asian vs. 22 percent Arab by 1997.7 A full half of the legal migrant workforce in 1997 was reported to be Sri Lankan, with nearly 20,000 work permits issued for Sri Lankan domestic workers in the first ten months of 1997 alone.8 In the year 2000, over 90 percent of Asian migrants to Lebanon were working as maids.9 By the time the economy collapsed in 2019, it was estimated that an astonishing one in four families in Lebanon had a full-time, live-in migrant domestic worker.10  

There is a question I have been wondering for some years now. Why did having a stranger at home — someone who you have no relationship to, who doesn't speak Arabic, and whose hiring is not an insignificant expense, particularly in a society of rising inequality — become the postwar solution to housework in Lebanon?

There is a question I have been wondering for some years now. Why did having a stranger at home — someone who you have no relationship to, who doesn't speak Arabic, and whose hiring is not an insignificant expense, particularly in a society of rising inequality — become the postwar solution to housework in Lebanon? Certainly, the lack of state-provided services such as childcare, adequate healthcare, and care for the elderly partly explains the turn to outsourcing. But many societies have answered this question in other ways. Apart from leaving it as the traditional domain of women, one might consider having men or children do some of the work, for example, or organizing it collectively through associations, or distributing responsibilities among those who live in shared buildings or neighborhoods (as was often done during the war),11 or employing those who already live in the country to do such work part-time. Moreover, unlike in Western contexts where the growth of domestic labor paralleled an increase in women entering the workplace, this was not the case in Lebanon, where women’s workforce participation remains comparably limited. Why, then, did the country seem to arrive at a national consensus that this was a good way to organize its most basic, most essential, and most gendered form of day-to-day activity? The answer, I want to argue, can only be found if we situate the rise of the Kafala system in the context of postwar neoliberalization. 

Kafala and the Postwar Social Order

Despite the significant attention devoted to explaining what caused Lebanon’s current financial crisis, we have yet to understand its connection to the Kafala system. Although public awareness of abuse and racism connected to migrant labour has increased in recent years, Kafala is often pointed to as one in a long list of Lebanon’s many problems, alongside lack of state service provision, infrastructural failure, and widespread discrimination against noncitizens. However, if we resituate the Kafala system as a central element of Lebanon’s postwar transformation, we can understand a far deeper set of connections at stake here. 

It is well documented that the postwar Lebanese state did little to repair industries destroyed by the war, instead reorienting the economy around the service-sector and borrowing heavily to finance real estate and infrastructural projects. Public debt skyrocketed, local banks profited handsomely, and the country developed a heavy dependence on external revenue flows, particularly tourism and remittances. Together, these policies turned Lebanon into one of the most unequal countries in the world, a classic example of the post-1980s aggressive economic changes referred to globally as neoliberalization. But here is where it is helpful to engage one of the key insights provided by scholarly literature on neoliberalism. Rather than define neoliberalism as purely an economic policy defined by deregulation, finance capitalism, and privatization, scholars such as Wendy Brown have asked us to see neoliberalism as a form of social reason.12 In the words of Dardot and Laval, “Neoliberalism is not merely destructive … it is also productive of certain kinds of social relations, certain ways of living, certain subjectivities. In other words, at stake in neoliberalism is … the way in which we are led to conduct ourselves, to relate to others and to ourselves.”13 The question we need to ask of Lebanon’s postwar political economy is therefore not only one about policy failures and irresponsible financial practices, but: what kind of society did this produce? 

The question we need to ask of Lebanon’s postwar political economy is therefore not only one about policy failures and irresponsible financial practices, but: what kind of society did this produce? 

In 2015, the  International Labour Organization (ILO) released a report about migrant labor around the world, noting its concentration in North America, northern, southern, and western Europe, and the Arab States.14 Interestingly, the report noted that whereas North America and Europe are “experiencing rapid demographic aging of societies”, in the Arab states, “the high demand for domestic workers… is only partially linked to growing care needs.” Instead, “the demand is driven by the increasing wealth and living standards of the national population and by socio-cultural traditions [emphasis added]. It is not uncommon for single households to hire several domestic employees to undertake different types of tasks (cleaning, cooking, driving, guarding, and gardening).” What does the ILO mean in this awkward anthropological reference to “sociocultural traditions” as an explanatory factor for this regional concentration of migrant labor?

Despite the difference between household income levels in the Gulf versus in Lebanon, we know that in Lebanon, too, having a domestic worker is a popular practice that far exceeds the simple fact of need. The hiring of a domestic worker is popularly encouraged as a solution to marital problems, offered as a gift from caring husbands or children supporting parents from abroad, and seen as a marker of social status. According to Fawwaz Traboulsi, writing in 2014, having a full-time, live-in migrant domestic worker is a “minimum status requirement” of belonging to the Lebanese middle classes, secondary to owning an apartment and sending children to private school, but of equal importance as access to the internet, a mobile phone and a credit card.15 In fact, the most explicit connection that has been made between the financial crisis and Kafala has been in pointing out how the artificial dollar peg “gave the Lebanese a higher income and standard of living than in any neighboring Arab country”,16 allowing the citizenry to enjoy such luxuries as SUVs and household servants. But how did the presence of a migrant domestic worker become comparable to leisure travel or shopping indulgences such as clothes, gadgets, or cars? 

I want to argue that the Kafala system is essential to understanding an undertheorized aspect of the postwar Lebanese political economy: the creation of a society (and not just an economy) of non-productivity.

I want to argue that the Kafala system is essential to understanding an undertheorized aspect of the postwar Lebanese political economy: the creation of a society (and not just an economy) of non-productivity. Although Lebanon’s economy has never been characterized by the large-scale production of goods or natural resources, and has been organized around commerce, banking, and the service sector since independence, it was under Hariri that such policies were accelerated and expanded. With the support of international institutions including the World Bank and the UN, Hariri’s project of disaster capitalism-as-reconstruction prioritized financial and construction sectors at the expense of industry and agriculture, turning Lebanon into a country dependent on the inflow of goods and cash, while witnessing constant out-migration due to a lack of sustainable work opportunities.17 In the words of Karim Makdisi, “farmers became taxi drivers, artisanal workers became waiters and hotel staff, university graduates became bank employees, environmentalists became NGO project managers, engineers became building foremen, academics became experts and consultants, and citizens became consumers.”18

As is now painfully evident, wealth in this economy was generated through a Ponzi scheme of high interest rates whereby money drawn from wealthy expats and investors produced a colossally larger amount of money with neither the need for labor or raw materials, nor its redistribution into the society at large. Money that produces more money for a tiny elite without producing anything we actually need to survive: this is the hollow magic of finance capitalism. Of course, the bubble burst, but while it lasted, it was spectacular in its excess. From 1993 to 2018, bank profits increased from $63 million to $22 billion.19 The country’s landscape was transformed into one of cranes, high-rise buildings, and a privatized coastline, and the cities were dotted with luxury boutiques advertising a glamorous lifestyle few could afford. Between 2003-2010, the average price per square meter in Beirut rose by 300 percent.20 All this based on rising national debt and dollar dependency, as Lebanon imported 80 percent of what its people needed to survive including food, fuel, and medicine.21 And yet, somehow, over this exact period, growing numbers of African and Asian women were brought to Lebanon to work inside homes, and then subject to exploitation ranging from surveillance to incarceration, wage theft to torture. The new norms of the Kafala system were established with such total impunity at the hands of both state and society that it is almost as if the two sets of practices — one of excessive non-productive wealth, and the other of excessive domestic abuse — might be connected. 
 

Unproductive Economy, Unproductive Society?

We already know that the Kafala system enables a transfer of wealth from marginalized subjects across the world into Lebanese hands. A recent report estimated that the system generates an annual $100 million in revenue, with slightly more than half going to the private sector composed of recruitment agencies, insurance firms, and other brokers, and nearly $50 million a year going to the public sector (the majority directly to General Security).22  Although this amount pales in comparison to annual bank profits, it remains significant in a country that is wholly dependent on dollar inflows. In addition, we also know that the Kafala system has reshaped labor practices in the country, causing what Nizar Saghieh has described as an enormous decline in cultural values around employment.23 Saghieh shows how the arrival of large numbers of foreign workers subject to the restrictive conditions of sponsorship has promoted a model of employment in Lebanon in which all power is concentrated in the hands of the employers. Saghieh’s analysis is exemplary in insisting that we situate the Kafala system at the center of Lebanese experience and not simply African and Asian experiences in the country. In fact, we can see Kafala as sedimenting a model of relating to each other that exceeds employment and extends to social relations writ large. This is because, if we are to take the contributions of feminism seriously, that undervalued realm of the domestic sphere is precisely where larger cultural values are enacted and take shape. 

Just as postwar Lebanon moved away from productivity in terms of goods, resources, and job opportunities at the economic level, so Lebanon moved away from the most basic work of production at a social level: the production of people

Understanding the relationship between an unproductive economy and domestic labor requires a deeper consideration of what we call “production.” If we adopt an anthropological reading of Marxism, one which comes to us most explicitly from David Graeber, then we can define “production” as the production of social relations and not simply of commodities,  and “labor” as “those creative actions whereby we shape and reshape the world around us, ourselves, and especially each other.”24 In turn, what feminist Marxists refer to as “reproductive labor” (what we are here referring to as “domestic work”) must be understood not simply as that which enables the reproduction of the workforce, as if real work only happens outside the home, but rather, in Graeber's words, “as the most elementary form of real value-producing labor, as the very core and essence of human creative life.” The way in which we organize the work of care is inextricable from the mode of production (or non-production) through which we organize those formal operations that are designated as the economy. What I am suggesting, therefore, is that just as postwar Lebanon moved away from productivity in terms of goods, resources, and job opportunities at the economic level, so Lebanon moved away from the most basic work of production at a social level: the production of people

To return to the words of Wendy Brown, the move away from productive labor can be seen as one of the key “forms of reason” of neoliberalism in Lebanon. In turn, we can reframe the Kafala system as not only a system where employers can abuse employees as they wish, or citizens are uniquely privileged over foreigners, or light-skinned Madames and Misters take advantage of darker-skinned subjects, but as one where Lebanese society has disinvested from meaningful value-generation — from, in the most basic sense, the work of reproducing itself. This includes not only the everyday work of cooking, cleaning, or caring for the vulnerable, but also, as Graeber insists, the very reproduction of our capacity for creativity and cultural change. Transforming Lebanon into a society that devalues housework while simultaneously legitimizing the home-as-workplace as a site of violence and hatred, needs to be thought of as part and parcel of transforming Lebanon into an economy that devalues agriculture, industry, and productive investment while legitimizing greed and oligarchic elitism. Just as the lessons of feminism have repeatedly insisted that the personal is political, here we can see that the political (ie. the postwar political economy) is deeply personal (ie. seen in the domestic sphere). And what this also means is that what is needed in order to truly reform the Kafala system is not simply a change in labor laws, or political-legal protections, but a change, to quote the ILO, in “socio-cultural traditions.” 

Transforming Lebanon into a society that devalues housework while simultaneously legitimizing the home-as-workplace as a site of violence and hatred, needs to be thought of as part and parcel of transforming Lebanon into an economy that devalues agriculture, industry, and productive investment while legitimizing greed and oligarchic elitism.

What are the consequences for this argument in reframing our understanding of contemporary Lebanon? I offer three suggestions — both as summary and as provocation. 

(1) “Neoliberalism” in Lebanon has a third pillar, one as central to the postwar socioeconomic transformation of the country as banking and real estate: the Kafala system. Not only does this mean that we have to understand the outsourcing of housework to migrant women as one element of the larger structure that emerged (profiteering banks; state debt; the privatization of public space; speculative real-estate), but also that it became socially acceptable in postwar Lebanon that, at least for those who could afford it, neither Lebanese men nor Lebanese women needed to do housework.

Hence a consensus emerged that the most elementary form of production, which is to say, the production of people (or the work of care), was to be privatized, then outsourced, then structured through exploitation. It was to be a transaction brought under the rule of money (pay someone else to do it), conducted by subjects who were brought to the country for no other reason (someone to whom you owe nothing), and treated more like slaves than employees (violate the terms of any contract with total impunity). Might Kafala, in fact, also be an elaborate Ponzi scheme?

(2) We know that a central element of the transformation of postwar Lebanon was to create a society organized around money. Whether described through the language of service over industry, of entrepreneurship and conspicuous consumption, or of the staggering gap between rich and poor, Lebanon’s disaster capitalism saw the implementation of a globally familiar strategy in the aftermath of war or natural disaster: there's never a better time to shock a system into a profit-generating extraction device than when it's already recovering from other wounds.25

But the postwar social order, it turns out, is not only one in which you either have money and enjoy life or you don't and can't, but also one in which social hierarchies are organized around nationally demarcated professions. In other words: neoliberal Lebanon became a place in which certain kinds of people came to exist only to do certain kinds of work. Whether Syrian or Palestinian, Sri Lankan or Ethiopian, the Kafala system demonstrates how the horizon of life in this society has become limited by a particular intersection of race, gender, class, and nationality, in a manner that has aggressively overturned the earlier legacies of Beirut as a cosmopolitan haven for regional exiles and Internationalist solidarity. After all, how else did it become possible to say: “Sirlankiyyetik min wein?” And who can today imagine that Lebanon was once the third most popular destination for Ethiopian students studying abroad, after North America and Germany?26

(3) If “the economy” is not some autonomous zone of society where various operations pertaining to goods and services magically work (or don’t), but is in fact shaped by social processes, then the economic crisis that remains ongoing has to be understood as a crisis not only of fluctuating currencies and inadequate state reserves, but a crisis of cultural values. Could it be that the expansion of freelancer migrant life in Lebanon — with its vibrant informal economy, and underground social world full of opportunity despite precarity — has ruptured the assumption that hiring a woman to help at home and then seizing her passport, curtailing her mobility, and surveilling her communication, is a reasonable way to organize life?

Might the vibrant image of Dawra on Sundays, filled with a diversity that has emerged as an unpredictable consequence of the growth of the Kafala system, have produced an alternate vision for Lebanon’s future than the sanitized image of Solidere and its facades of elite consumption?

Might the vibrant image of Dawra on Sundays, filled with a diversity that has emerged as an unpredictable consequence of the growth of the Kafala system, have produced an alternate vision for Lebanon’s future than the sanitized image of Solidere and its facades of elite consumption? And could it be that like the Palestinian revolt of the camps — which has been described as both an early manifestation of the 2019 revolt, and an early warning sign of Lebanon’s impending crisis27 — the many years of objection by migrant workers and their allies have also led Lebanon to a point of no return? What if what collapsed alongside Riad Salameh's scheming was the viability of a social order that sought to treat migrant women as machines from which endless labor could be extracted with only insults, spoiled food, and broken promises of payment thrown their way in return? And might the thawra of 2019, somewhere, also have been about this objection?

  • 1From the 1920s to 1950s, for example, it was so common for ‘Alawi girls from northern Syria to be sent to work in the mountains of Lebanon that a 73-year-old Lebanese woman interviewed by Ray Jureidini in the early 2000s recalled hearing the refrain as a child, “The ‘Alawites are coming!” to mean fathers were coming to place their daughters in Lebanese homes. In addition to young Arab and Kurdish girls from regions of Lebanon and Syria, Palestinian and Egyptian domestic workers were also common, particularly with the arrival of refugees across the border following the Nakba. For more on this history see Ray Jureidini, “In the Shadows of Family Life: Toward a History of Domestic Service in Lebanon” Journal of Middle East Women's Studies 5:3 (2009), 74-101; Leila Fawaz, “Sumaya: A Lebanese Housemaid” in Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East (University of California Press), 2005; and Maher Abi-Samra, Makhdoumin (A Maid for Each), 2016 + the accompanying website: https://makhdoum.in/
  • 2John Chalcraft, The Invisible Cage: Syrian Migrant Workers in Lebanon (Stanford University Press), 2009
  • 3Ray Jureidini, “In the Shadows of Family Life”
  • 4A similar pattern has been documented in the Gulf, where the Asianization of the male workforce has been shown to result not from the needs of oil-fueled development but rather to break the growing labor power of Arab workers both politicized in the context of Arab nationalism and the Palestinian Revolution, as well as linguistically and culturally confident enough to make demands beyond temporary worker status. See Omar AlShehabi, Adam Hanieh, and Abdulhadi Khalaf (eds.), Transit States: Labour, Migration and Citizenship in the Gulf (Pluto Press), 2014
  • 5On the origins of the Kafala system in the Gulf context, see Omar AlShehabi, “Policing labour in empire: the modern origins of the Kafala sponsorship system in the Gulf Arab States” British Journal of Middle East Studies 48:2 (2021), 291-310
  • 6Patrick Ireland, “Female migrant domestic workers in Southern Europe and the levant: towards an expanded Mediterranean model?.” Mediterranean Politics 16:3 (2011), 343-363
  • 7Nayla Moukarbel, Sri Lankan Housemaids in Lebanon: A Case of “Symbolic Violence” and “Everyday Forms of Resistance” (Amsterdam University Press), 2010
  • 8Lina Abu-Habib, “The use and abuse of female domestic workers from Sri Lanka in Lebanon.” Gender & Development 6:1 (1998), 52-56.
  • 9Martin Baldwin-Edwards, “Migration in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.” Global Commission on International Migration, 2005
  • 10Assaf Dahdah, L’art du faible: Les migrantes non arabes dans le Grand Beyrouth (Liban)(Institut Français du Proche-Orient), 2012
  • 11Thanks to Lara Bitar for pointing this out to me.
  • 12Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Zone Books), 2015
  • 13Pierre Dardot & Christian Laval, The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society (Verso Books), 2009, 3
  • 14ILO “Global estimates on migrant workers” Dec 2015 https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/labour-migration/publications/WCMS_43…. The “Arab States” refers to Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
  • 15Fawwaz Traboulsi, “Social Classes and Political Power in Lebanon.” Heinrich Boell Foundation, Beirut (2014)
  • 16Dan Azzi, “Lebanon’s Richest Need to Take a Haircut” Bloomberg News Nov 9 2019 https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-11-07/lebanon-s-richest…
  • 17Fawwaz Traboulsi, “Social Classes and Political Power in Lebanon”
  • 18Karim Makdisi, “Lebanon’s October 2019 Uprising: From Solidarity to Division and Descent into the Known Unknown” South Atlantic Quarterly 120:2 (2021), 441
  • 19Ala’a Shehabi, “Inequality, Rentierism and the Roots of Lebanon’s October 2019 Uprising” Project on Middle East Political Science, 2021 https://pomeps.org/inequality-renteirism-and-the-roots-of-lebanons-octo…
  • 20Julia Tierney, “Constructing Resilience: Real Estate Investment, Sovereign Debt and Lebanon’s Transnational Political Economy” Dissertation (University of California Berkeley), 2017
  • 21Makdisi, “Lebanon’s October 2019 Uprising”
  • 22“Cleaning Up: The Shady Industries That Exploit Lebanon’s Kafala Workers”, Triangle Nov 2020 https://www.thinktriangle.net/cleaning-up-the-shady-industries-that-exp…
  • 23Nizar Saghieh, “Lebanon Unlimited: Neoliberalism Dominates the Workplace” Legal Agenda April 2015 https://english.legal-agenda.com/lebanon-unlimited-neoliberalism-domina…
  • 24David Graeber, “It is value that brings universes into being” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3:2 https://www-journals-uchicago-edu.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/doi/full…
  • 25Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (Henry Holt), 2008
  • 26Richard Pankhurst, "Ethiopian Students Abroad” Ethiopia Observer Vol.11, 1967
  • 27Hana Sleiman with Beza Girma, “The Place is Not the Place” The Derivative Aug 2022 https://thederivative.org/the-place-is-not-the-place/
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