There is a meme that was posted on Instagram on International Women’s Day depicting a fictional conversation between a migrant domestic worker and a Lebanese woman participating in the women’s day march. Between a “Yes Madame” and “Okay Madame”, the Lebanese woman texts the following: “I know it’s Sunday but I’m busy reclaiming my rights, so no off today, do the laundry, do the dishes, take out the garbage, keep an eye on the children and the food ready @7”.
The meme speaks to a great dissonance between much of Lebanese society, including those protesting since October, and those that live in Lebanon as migrant domestic workers. The underlying culprit of that dissonance has a name, the Kafala system. It is not well-known outside of Lebanon, but an estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers in the country, mostly women, know it all-too-well. It governs their lives 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It has lead to horrific abuses by those that are their ‘sponsors’.
You see, Kafala means sponsorship in Arabic, and this works the way you might guess. Migrant domestic workers, from countries such as Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Nepal, come to Lebanon under the sponsorship of a ‘kafeel’ (sponsor in Arabic) and live with a sponsoring family, often in a household of a couple and their children. There, they usually take care of all household shores, from the cleaning to the cooking to the raising of kids to even walking the sponsors’ dogs. They are often visibly identifiable by their costume.
So normalised is this state of affairs that one can still reasonably expect, despite relative gains in recent years, to hear the word ‘sirlankyyeh’, which simply means a Sri Lankan woman, to be used as synonymous with ‘maid’, leading such questions as ‘what is your Sri Lankan, an Ethiopian?’ depressingly common.
In recent years, migrant domestic workers have been organising like never before. Groups with or without the support of Lebanese and Palestinian activists have been getting increasingly vocal. One can think of the anti-racism movement or the migrant workers’ task force as two notable example. Full disclosure: I briefly worked with the latter some years ago.
You will hear stories of migrant domestic workers and what they go through in Lebanon.
You will learn about the Kafala system and how it operates in Lebanon.
You will also learn about what migrant activists and their allies in Lebanon are trying to achieve.
Part 1. “The Kafala System is ‘Civilized’ Slavery”
In this first episode, we go back to the summer of 2018 when I sat down with Sami, a Beirut-based Ethiopian activist with, Mesewat, a solidarity network that supports migrant workers in Lebanon and the Middle East, and Ali, an activist with the Anti-Racism Movement. It was recorded at one of the Migrant Community Centers in Beirut.
This two parts episode is meant to be a long introduction into Lebanon’s Kafala system through the voices of those most affected by it, migrant domestic workers. The separation between the two dates of recording also allows us to compare and contrast the situation of migration domestic workers before and after the October revolution of 2019 started. This will be made more explicit in the 2nd episode.
Part 2. “The Lebanese Revolution: A New Chapter of Kafala Misery”
- Life for Lebanon’s migrant domestic workers worsens amid crisis by Aya Majzoub (2020)
- On Engna Legna: “We do not want other women to suffer through what we have experienced”
- In-depth analysis: Seven Ethiopians die in Lebanon as new Ethiopian Consulate policy abandons citizens to their fate by Zecharias Zelalem (2019)
- My two recent pieces calling on the Lebanese revolution to include the abolition of the Kafala system in its demands, on Al Jazeera and Addis Standard (2019)
- Modest archive of Kafala-related pieces on my previous blog ‘Hummus For Thought’ between 2012 and 2018
- The ugly face of the kafala system – The Beirut Report (2018)
- Slave labour? Death rate doubles for migrant domestic workers in Lebanon by Alice Su (2017)
- Lebanon Deports Prominent Unionist, Testing Migrant Workers’ Resolve by myself and Elias Abou Jaoudeh (2016)
- An ignored but active union: Minister of Labor Sejaan Azzi has yet to allow the union of domestic workers to be registered by Marie Kostrz (2015)
- Understanding Kafala: An archaic law at cross purposes with modern development by Priyanka Motaparthy on Migrant-Rights.org
- Lebanon: Recognize Domestic Workers Union, Add Labor Law Protections for These Employees by Human Rights Watch (2015)
Egna Legna also recently interviewed Ghina from the Lebanese feminist NGO KAFA in English.