On the 4th of August, in the late afternoon, a video was taken showing a woman hoovering on a shaded apartment balcony with a little girl playing behind her. After a few moments, the cataclysmic explosion from Beirut’s port ravages the balcony. Before the curtains have even settled, she scoops up the child without a thought or moment’s pause and dashes inside to relative safety.
This woman, christened ‘angel’ on social media, is highly likely to be employed under the Kafala system. Meaning “sponsorship” in Arabic, kafala is a system of laws and customary practices which ties the residency of a migrant worker to a family, who are legally responsible for the employee. The vast majority are women, who work as housemaids, nannies, or as carers for the elderly. Most of them come to Lebanon from Ethiopia, the Philippines, and Bangladesh.
Under Lebanese labour law, domestic workers are excluded from the normal rights and protections workers have. Combined with entrenched misogyny and racism, the system creates a perfect storm of cultural and legal apathy which leaves the women employed in this way extremely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
To an outsider, and to many Lebanese people as well, kafala is anathema, an abhorrent system which facilitates the abuse of hundreds of thousands of women. In extreme cases, women are physically and even sexually abused, and such cases are sometimes condemned in Lebanese media, though very rarely in the courts.
Although horrific and far too common, cases such as these are not widely considered to be normal or acceptable practice by most sponsors. However, what is widely considered acceptable practice by many sponsors creates the permissive atmosphere in which such abuses spike. I spoke with Aya Majzoub, who works for Human Rights Watch in Beirut.
Aya Majzoub – Human Rights Watch Beirut
“The really disturbing thing is the normalisation of this kafala system, the normalisation of a system where workers come to the country and live in the house of the employers, usually aren’t allowed to leave the house, usually their passport is held onto by the employer, and many employers don’t see that they’re doing something wrong. That’s just the system. The worker comes to work for you, you take her passport. That is, unfortunately, very normalised.”
“The only legal document they have is the contract that they sign with the employer when they come to work in the country. It’s a standard contract that all domestic workers sign and it does not meet international labour or human rights standards, and there are many indicators of forced labour in this contract.
“The contract explicitly states that migrant domestic workers can’t leave their employer without the permission of the employer except in extreme cases of abuse, in which case the burden of proof falls on the worker rather than the employer.
“The contract is in Arabic and it’s not always translated into a language that the worker understands.”
Migrant domestic workers are commonly confined to the house in which they live and work, and are not allowed to leave without permission or escort. Aya explained why families enforce this.
“The explanation is itself very disturbing and very sexist. The view is that if the worker is allowed to come and go as she pleases then she’s going to get pregnant.
“I’ve heard from security agencies [that] if we allow them to go out and do whatever they please they will become sex workers.
“This is an explanation given by Lebanese security forces as to why domestic workers shouldn’t be able to walk around freely. That to me is incredibly disturbing.”
Every element, from holding the power in the contract to the colloquial terms for worker and sponsor, is geared towards normalising these demeaning and dangerous conditions. Aya continues:
“The local terms used to describe them are ‘girls’, ‘thabbaya’ or ‘banat’. Many of them are not girls, they’re women with families, and kids and grandkids. But they’re always referred to as girls.”
The colloquial term for an employer is a “Madame”, a name which gives a queasy indication of the dynamic between sponsor and worker.
Without any recourse in the Lebanese system, many workers turn in desperation to their embassies and consulates for protection. The response depends largely on which country they arrived from. The Philippines, for example, tend to be more forthright in defending its citizens stuck in these conditions. Other countries, however, are not so protective.
Banchi Yimer – Founder of Egna Legna
I spoke with Banchi Yimer, a woman originally from Ethiopia who founded Egna Legna Besidet, an advocacy group for women stuck in the kafala system, after working as a domestic worker under kafala for seven years. As we talk, she is surprisingly forthcoming about her experiences.
“What can I say? Kafala is going through prison without committing any crime, for two years.”
“The sponsor controls everything. Your life, what you have to eat or not. You’re not allowed to speak to anyone outside the balcony.”
“I was working for six months for free, and they just gave me to his family as a gift. I was working home to home […] I sleep on the floor, they don’t want me to sleep on the couch. I can hear them opening the fridge, opening the water, eating.”
“I changed over like five houses. One particular place I was sleeping with the kids, and at night the sponsor used to sleep there. At another place there isn’t enough food […] I don’t have any food and I don’t have clean water.
“I have stomach problems still from that because I used to starve a lot.”
“After I left from the contract and worked as a freelance, I faced harassment. People have been harassing me, touching me in the taxi. I used to cry.”
“You hear me laughing about it because it’s the past, but it was horrible.”
“If those women run from their abuser’s house, they will be reporting them stealing goods, stealing money, stealing some property or committing any crime.
“When they run out they will be treated like a criminal, not like a victim.”
“The system makes us vulnerable, and legalises slavery, so they can do whatever they want.
“When they know they can beat you up and get away with it, they do that.”
Banchi now lives in Canada, and runs her advocacy group to help women like her stuck in Lebanon. She calls them her sisters, and stresses the need for female led opposition to kafala.
“Most of the [support] service is controlled by men.
“We appreciate what they do, our brothers, but also it’s our problem. We should be able to fight, we should be able to speak for ourselves. I want to create an organisation that speaks for women and fights for women.
“If we have like us, five, six groups in the country, things are going to be different.”
“I don’t want women to suffer like I did.”
I asked Banchi, which is her real name, if she would like me to change her name for this piece. She refused, saying “what is there going to be that’s worse than this?”.
Knowing what she does now, it is difficult to imagine that anyone would choose to make this journey, especially given that kafala is now gaining a lot more media attention. The reality, unfortunately, is not so simple.
Women do not generally arrive in Lebanon seeking a sponsor, the contract is often prearranged with the family and the worker by what Aya calls “recruitment agencies”. These agencies are also responsible for sourcing young women to become kafala workers. Banchi explained:
“They told me I’m going to get paid $250 [per month], and I’m going to have a phone, I’m going to have every Sunday a day off […] That’s what I heard, and I get so excited you know?”
Whilst a big part of the problem, Banchi also believes that it is one of the ways in which kafala can be stopped. Although it is crucial to try and reform the law in Lebanon, for Banchi, a more direct solution is to fight the campaign of disinformation in her home country.
“Some of them know, but some of them didn’t know the detail of how they are going to stay there, there is two years of prison. They might not gonna get paid, they might not gonna come back alive. Not everybody is aware, so we need to work on raising awareness. Even if you don’t change the kafala system, you can change in your country.”
Other countries are already taking steps in this direction. In the Philippines for example, it is now illegal for their citizens to travel to Lebanon to become a migrant domestic worker. However, unless the myths of economic and social freedoms can be dispelled, there will sadly still be many people drawn by economic necessity to the promise of wages, accommodation, and some of the luxuries of modern life.
Lebanon itself is currently facing upheaval the likes of which it has not seen since the civil war of the 1970s and 80s. Earlier this year, the country defaulted on its sovereign debt. The Lebanese Pound, pegged to the US dollar, went into free fall. Many Lebanese people had their life savings wiped out, and banks refused to give US dollars to anyone who was not a Lebanese national. Finally, on the 4th August, a colossal explosion, caused by 2,750 tons of decaying ammonium nitrate, ripped through Beirut, leaving over 180 dead and as many as 300,000 people homeless.
For people in the kafala system, this only exacerbated what was already a desperate situation. Unable or unwilling to pay wages, many sponsors simply abandoned domestic workers outside their consulate. They are now stuck in legal limbo, unable to return home due to not having the paperwork, or the money to pay for a flight.
At one point, the Ethiopian consulate was not even answering its phone. For many Ethiopian women stuck in Beirut, this was the final straw. Banchi told me:
“When you don’t answer your phone, those women are seeing one way. What way is this? The balcony.”
“Some of them we don’t know if it is an accident or if it is suicide.
“Some people try to commit suicide and they want to do it again.”
Banchi’s work now sees her providing direct support to women stuck in this situation. This includes negotiating with sponsors, hunting down paperwork, paying for flights, and talking women down.
One woman who Banchi tells me had tried to commit suicide has now, after months of waiting, found a lifeline:
“Twelve days ago we sent her home. We provided a ticket because the sponsor are broke, they cannot provide a ticket, and she’s home now, safe.
“But if we don’t talk to her, she’s going to do it again.”
The woman in the video is branded “angel” as she saves the child. Even now, after years of abuse, migrant domestic workers are helping to rebuild Beirut. For their sake, the Beirut that rises from the rubble can and must be different.
Words by Kit Roberts
Support the Kafala victims in Lebanon: https://www.gofundme.com/f/food-and-medicine-for-kafala-victims-in-lebanon?fbclid=IwAR15GhUdCTbLjRaLbOTzJVdk53DZ86ReEY-rfHIWYcxUpGOVWPOSYKJsbwA