As people in many other countries, there are many Lebanese who employ migrant domestic workers to do the work that they see as unfit for themselves. Lebanon is by no means unique in the Middle East, where it is estimated that there are 22 million migrant workers. The country today hosts 200,000 migrant domestic workers, most of which are women, in a country with a population of a bit over four million.
Migrant domestic workers in Lebanese society have become such a common sight that people no longer react to their presence. Employing a migrant domestic worker is not only limited to the more affluent classes of Lebanese society, also many from the middle classes employ people to work in their households. The easy access to workers and the policies smoothing the employment process have reduced them to commodities: they are easy to get, maintain and discard when no longer wanted.
In Lebanon, migrant domestic workers are not subject to the country’s labor laws. Their presence fall under the Kafala system, also known as the sponsorship system. This system means that a local employer must sponsor each migrant domestic worker coming to Lebanon. The workers’ legal status in the country is then bound by law to one employer, which is also written in their passports.
Although activists and different NGOs have worked hard on media campaigns advocating for the migrant domestic workers’ rights during the past few years, abuse of migrant domestic workers continues. It has grown so common that only a few act on its existence. Human Rights Watch reported that one domestic worker dies every week, due to either a suicide, a presumed suicide or what gets labeled as an accident.
The question on how a worker is to report eventual abuse remains. There are many cases where domestic workers are not allowed to leave the house where they work without permission; would they try, that would mean jeopardizing their legal status in Lebanon and risking detention and deportation. The constraints of the Kafala system leave the women with little or no possibility to communicate with the outside world. These are structural problems that allow the abuse and exploitation of the workers to remain hidden.
The text and photos are part of Lucas Pernin’s project The Kafala Consequence.