“I am a woman working as a domestic worker. I am non-Lebanese and I have no legal papers [a residence permit], if I report to the police, they will arrest me.”
This was the answer that “Mary”, an Ethiopian domestic worker, gave me when I asked her if she would consider filing a complaint against her employer for withholding the last six months of her salaries and confiscating her passport. “Mary’s” answer summarized the interlocking systems of oppression as well as the social, legal and economic discrimination that trap migrant domestic workers in a web woven by the kafala system, an inherently abusive migration sponsorship system.
Without this intersectional lens, one can neither understand “Mary’s” reality nor the reasons preventing her from turning to the police. Gender, ethnicity, color, class, and legal status are all factors that overlap to isolate “Mary” as well as many other migrant domestic workers who find themselves marginalized socially, economically and legally by the kafala system.
On the first of May, which marks International Workers’ Day, we pay a tribute to these workers who exemplify the cruelest and clearest forms of exploitation that take place when a worker is unrecognized and unprotected by the Labour Law and is governed instead by an abusive migration system. A system that can turn a victim of exploitation into an offender for being undocumented, leaving the worker with little prospect of obtaining redress. “Mary” is a case in point.
The kafala system ties the legal residency of the worker to the contractual relationship with the employer. If the employment relationship ends, even in cases of exploitation and abuse, the worker loses regular migration status. Moreover, the worker cannot change their employer without the latter’s consent. This allows the employer to coerce the worker to accept exploitative working conditions. If a migrant domestic worker refuses such conditions and decides to leave their employer without their consent, as “Mary” did when she decided to leave her employer’s home due to unpaid salaries, the worker risks losing their residency status and are consequently at risk of detention and deportation. The excessive powers granted by the kafala system to employers impede the workers’ ability to access justice and bring abusers to account. This is exactly what the kafala system guarantees to employers: impunity.
In Amnesty International’s May 2019 report, “Their House is My Prison: Exploitation of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon,” we documented consistent patterns of abuse. These included employers forcing migrant domestic workers to work extreme working hours, denying them rest days, withholding their pay or applying deductions to it, severely restricting their freedom of movement and communication, depriving them of food and proper accommodation, subjecting them to verbal and physical abuse, and denying them healthcare. We also documented some cases of forced labour and human trafficking committed by employers and recruitment agencies.
Yet, none of the women interviewed by the organization reported their employers to the authorities because they feared detention and deportation.
With the economic collapse that hit Lebanon in 2019, migrant domestic workers’ precarious situation under the kafala system went from being bad to worse. They were among the first to bear the brunt of the crisis, as scores of workers were abandoned by their employers without pay, their belongings, or passports and without any employer being held to account.
Against this shameful reality, the Lebanese authorities either deal with migrant domestic workers as an investment made by the employer that must be protected along with the interest of the recruitment agency against any possible losses, or as a security issue that the authorities must control with regulatory procedures and customary practices, even if these violate human rights. For example, when we wrote to the Lebanese General Security to ask about the legal text that they rely on to require workers to live with their employers, they described this requirement as a “precautionary regulatory measure” that protects the workers from “criminal exploitation” since “their salaries do not allow them to live independently”. By doing that, General Security is restricting the worker’s right to freely choose her place of residence, making her more isolated and dependent on her employer and at a greater risk of exploitation and other abuse.
Perhaps the most striking example of the authorities’ neglect of their duty to protect workers’ rights was when the State Shura Council, the highest administrative court in the country, delivered a sharp blow to migrant domestic worker rights by suspending the implementation of a new standard unified contract which the Ministry of Labour adopted on 8 September 2020. The standard unified contract included fundamental provisions which, if implemented, would provide safeguards against forced labour, and it would have been an important first step toward dismantling the abusive kafala system.
The kafala system ties the legal residency of the worker to the contractual relationship with the employer. If the employment relationship ends, even in cases of exploitation and abuse, the worker loses regular migration status. Moreover, the worker cannot change their employer without the latter’s consent.Mary, domestic worker
This decision followed a complaint submitted by the Syndicate of the Owners of Recruitment Agencies to the Shura Council, requesting the council to block and annul the decision of former Minister Lamia Yammine. The Shura Council ruled in favour of the recruitment agencies on the grounds that the contract involved “severe damage” to the interests of these agencies. The Council made no reference to the rights of migrant domestic workers, which Lebanon is obliged to protect under international law, but chose to protect a system that facilitates exploitation, forced labour, and human trafficking.
Since April 2019, we have engaged with three successive ministries of labour to push for the dismantling of the kafala system. We called for the amendment of the Labour Law to include domestic workers as an essential reform step aimed at protecting workers against exploitation. In June 2019, as part of a working group that included other human rights organizations, we submitted a revised unified contract, based on international standards, under a comprehensive action plan that outlines the reforms needed to dismantle the kafala system in the short and medium terms, including issuing circulars and/or ministerial decisions to ensure the proper implementation of the provisions of the standard unified contract, strengthening the inspection and complaint mechanism, improving the level of monitoring and inspection of recruitment agencies, and adopting a mechanism to ensure the payment of workers’ salaries.
However, we encountered one obstacle after the other, the latest of which was a shocking new draft of the standard unified contract circulated in February as being issued by the Ministry of Labour. The provisions of the draft contract fail to meet the basic international standards for the protection of human rights. Some of its provisions would promote the power imbalance between the worker and the employer and facilitate forced labour. In a meeting with the Minister of Labour on 28 February, he denied that the draft was issued by his ministry and pledged not to adopt any contract that would constitute a setback for migrant domestic workers’ rights.
So many promises are made, but only limited and flawed measures to address abuses are taken. Despite this failure by the authorities, migrant domestic workers continue their tireless fight for their rights. We shall remain by their side, as allies and supporters. Winning the fight to protect and fulfill the rights of the most marginalized among us is a victory for all of us as workers and as human rights defenders. It is a fight that is directly related to achieving social justice in our society and to protecting human rights instead of favouring a web of commercial interests.
“Mary” and the thousands of migrant workers struggling under the kafala system deserve justice and dignity.
 Interview with “Mary” (a pseudonym used for security reasons), Beirut, 10 March 2022
 Letter from the General Directorate of Public Security to Amnesty International, 15 February 2019
 Meeting of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch with Minister of Labor Mustafa Bayram at the Ministry of Labour, Beirut, 28 February 2022.
Lebanon Campaigner at Amnesty International
A feminist and a human rights defender
This Op-Ed was first published in Daraj in Arabic.