Op-ED: The Lebanese Revolution Must Abolish the Kafala System

Sign that reads
“those who are on your balconies, come down and find your people here” in a
protest under a balcony where a migrant domestic worker is taking care
of a Lebanese household.
© Rawane Issa

Joey Ayoub for Addis Standard

November 21/2019 – Under Lebanon’s horrific Kafala (‘sponsorship’) system, the legal status of migrant domestic workers is tied to that of their employers. In effect this means that if, out of desperation, she flees the house, she automatically becomes an illegal alien. On the streets of Lebanon, she can find herself as vulnerable, if not more so, than in the abusive household that she fled. And if caught, she could be thrown in prison. In some, but by no means rare, cases, these women end up killing themselves or getting killed.

This bleak image is the daily reality of countless migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, who are estimated to be between 250,000 and 300,000 in a country of around 5-6 million people. More recently, the arrival in Addis Abeba of seven corpses from Lebanon, documented by Zecharias Zelalem for Addis Standard, once again highlighted the dangerous nature of working conditions for migrant domestic workers in Lebanon.

The lives of women like Lediya Bekele, Woinshet Nigusseie and Mekedes Gadisa and girls like Agere Mandefrot (who was only 16 when she started working in Lebanon), four of the seven documented by Zelalem, rarely get press coverage in Lebanon. With the exception of occasional print coverage and rare TV interventions in the form of investigations, migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are commonly rendered invisible. Even Nigusseie, who died on October 31st at Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport prior to boarding to return to Ethiopia after suffering in Lebanon, received no coverage in the Lebanese press.

It may be understandable that the media coverage has focused on the ongoing uprising in Lebanon. After all, almost every issue is related to the crisis and everyone is affected by whether protesters manage to get the government to concede to their demands (accountability, early elections and an end to political sectarianism, among others). Two days prior to Nigussie’s death, for example, saw pro-Hezbollah and Amal men rampaging through downtown Beirut as well as the resignation of the Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government. This dominated the news for the days that followed.

Nevertheless, there is an inherent contradiction in this story. The same streets that migrant domestic working women fleeing abuse by their ‘kafeel’ (sponsor) run to are rebelling right now against three decades of corruption and sectarianism. This means that there has to be a wider effort to include migrant domestic workers in our movement.

The following anecdote symbolizes this contradiction fairly well: In one of the Beirut marches I took part in, we started chanting a common tune which says ‘those who are on your balconies, come down and find your people here’ (which rhymes in Arabic) to encourage people to join the protests. The issue is that quite often those who are on balconies are migrant domestic workers who are expected to stay in their Lebanese sponsors’ houses.

The absence of migrant domestic workers from the rebelling streets raises uncomfortable questions that have to be addressed by the Lebanese revolution, namely whether abolishing the  kafala system makes it to our list of priorities or not. If we don’t address them directly in these chants, and at least make reference as to why they cannot join us, we risk rendering them invisible.

According to Lebanon’s own intelligence agency, migrant domestic workers are dying at a rate of two per week, double what was reported by Human Rights Watch in 2008. This means that at the time of writing, at least eight migrant domestic working women could have died since our uprising started.

The good news is that there have been efforts, mainly by intersectional feminist activists, to include a broader set of oppressive structures, including the kafala system, in our list of structures to oppose. This would usually take the form of chanting ‘against racism, a revolution’ with racism here referring to both anti-black/asian racism against migrant domestic workers and xenophobia against Syrians and Palestinians. This is no surprise given that the vast majority of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are women.

Indeed, the fact that most migrant domestic workers are women have put them at further risk of violence inflicted by the state. In 2016, Sujana Rana, a prominent Nepalese unionist, was deported by the Lebanese government. While no reason was given, it is widely believed that Rana’s activities in favor of the Domestic Workers’ Union (DWU) that was established in 2014 were the cause.

Rana was neither the first nor the last migrant worker to be deported from Lebanon. In addition to being deported for political activities, other women have been arrested and deported for the ‘crime’ of giving birth in Lebanon (often with their Lebanon-born children).

For these and many more reasons, it is imperative that we demand the abolition of the Kafala system in Lebanon and call for the recognition of the DWU, which supports all domestic workers (Lebanese and non-Lebanese).

Editor’s Note: Joey Ayoub is a Lebanese writer and researcher currently completing a PhD at the University of Zurich.

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