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Lebanon Must End ‘Kafala’ and the Rampant Abuse of Migrant Domestic Workers

A 2014 International Domestic Workers Federation demonstration in front of the U.N. demanding protection for migrant workers' rights.
A 2014 International Domestic Workers Federation demonstration in front of the U.N. demanding protection for migrant workers' rights. (Photo: IDWF/Fish)

Lebanon’s kafala system exploits migrant domestic workers and leaves them prone to physical and emotional abuse, with many turning to suicide as their only way out.

Lebanon is a country with a population of six million and has over 250,000 migrant domestic workers. The majority of these migrant workers are women that come from countries such as the Philippines, India, Nepal, and Ethiopia.

These women tend to come from the rural areas of their respective countries, which often lack economic opportunities and are poverty-stricken. To secure their livelihoods and that of their families, these women migrate to Lebanon to secure employment. Although their wages tend to be meager, they often send remittances home and are, at times, the breadwinners in their families.

Those in Lebanon looking for foreign domestic workers often approach Lebanese recruitment agencies, which already have large databases of women, with all their details recorded: country of origin, age, weight, height and religion. The recruitment agencies often coordinate with smugglers and travel agencies in their home countries, who bring women to Lebanon when requested and have them presented to their new household. Though the women are often warned of the dangers they could face working in Lebanon, many cannot resist the false promises of a better future.

The Systemic Oppression of Lebanon’s Migrant Domestic Workers

Although Lebanese families have become increasingly dependent on this international workforce, which is predominantly made up of women, the employment laws of the country have remained deliberately unregulated, enabling the exploitative sponsorship scheme known as kafala to prevail.

According to the kafala system, a migrant worker is only allowed to stay and work in-country at the behest of their sponsor, giving the sponsor disproportionate control over the worker’s wages, legal status, and movement. This leaves domestic workers vulnerable to abuse, which is endemic in Lebanon, as domestic workers often face emotional and physical abuse for small mistakes or even arbitrarily by sponsors.

Moreover, there have been many well-documented cases of sexual abuse and exploitation. It has been reported by Human Rights Watch that “migrant domestic workers were dying at a rate of one per week, with suicide and attempted escapes the leading causes of death.”

The Legal Agenda, a local NGO working to protect migrant workers in court, conducted research that stated 54% of Lebanese employees do not offer days off, with another 23% locking up their maids whenever they leave home. The sponsor also sets the wages for their foreign workers, and under Lebanese law, they are not obligated to pay them minimum wage. Though Lebanese lawmakers have passed certain rights for migrant workers, such as sick pay, very few sponsors follow them.

Consequently, migrant workers have minimal options in overcoming these institutional barriers in the Lebanese workforce, as their legality is tied directly to their employment status. If their work contract ends for any reason, they automatically become “illegal,” stripping them of any recourse they have to justice.

Combatting the Abuse of Domestic Workers

In response to the rampant abuse of domestic workers in Lebanon, who have no recourse, a Nepalese couple who had witnessed such atrocities firsthand, started an NGO to bring awareness to the plight of these workers. They started by creating a Facebook group called “This is Lebanon” in 2017, which named and shamed abusive employers publicly.

At first, their approach was dismissed by employers in Lebanon, but as their page grew in popularity, their tactic proved more successful. Co-founder Dipendra Uprety has stated, “to date we have rescued 41 migrant domestic workers from abusive situations, and we are working on 95 other cases.” This is Lebanon has had over 1,492 workers contact them over two years, with an average of 5 migrant workers reaching out daily, Uprety says they “sort out around 50 % of reported cases of abuse without needing to go public”.

However, merely outing abusive employers is not enough, as it doesn’t stop the kafala system that reinforces systematic repression. Their needs to be a fundamental shift in the perception of domestic work in Lebanon, as it is “real work,” which should be governed by fair labor laws.

Such ambitions can only be achieved by dismantling the kafala system and reforming Lebanon’s ineffective labor code, so it offers labor rights and protections to migrant domestic workers.

These rights for migrant domestic workers should be on par with other national workers, which guarantee minimum wage, sick pay, overtime pay and compensation for arbitrary dismissal.

Sanctions should also be placed on employers who abuse their domestic workers and confiscate their passports, phones and other personal items.

Moreover, the Lebanese government should go beyond merely acknowledging the rights of migrant domestic workers, and also help offer them legal resources and encourage them to report abusive employers without facing deportation. Only by creating an environment where the employee-employer relationship is humanized and made fair, can we help end the cycle of abuse towards domestic workers.

Salma Mohamed

Salma is a MENA analyst and journalist focusing on the political and security issues of the region.

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