Podcast: Lebanon’s Kafala System

This is the associated blog post of the 2nd episode of Hummus For Thought, the Podcast‘.

Lebanon’s Kafala System, released on August 14th, 2018. In this second episode, we explore the ‘Kafala’ sponsorship system which governs the lives of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in Lebanon. To that end, Joey Ayoub went to the Migrant Community Center (MCC) in Beirut and spoke with Sami, an Ethiopian activist and one of the leaders of Mesewat, a non-governmental, non-religious, non-racial and non-profit solidarity network that supports migrant workers in Lebanon and the Middle East. He also spoke with Alli, an activist with the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM) and a community organiser and researcher working at the intersections of gender, race, and labor.

Below is the episode on SoundCloud. You can also listen to it on on PocketCasts, SoundCloud, PlayerFM and YouTube (and soon iTunes and Castbox as well.)

You can also follow the podcast’s Twitter account for updates, as well as the Twitter account for Hummus For Thought. If you wish to support Hummus For Thought, you can do so on the Patreon page.


Alli started by explaining ARM’s background. It is a Lebanese NGO, she says, that “exists to address institutional and structural racism in Lebanon”.

Alli: ARM was started around 2010 by a group of activists who made videos about migrant domestic workers not being allowed into beaches. A few years later it became a registered NGO. The MCC is our biggest project. We have three: Beirut, Jounieh and Saida. MCCs are spaces where migrant domestic workers and migrant workers and their communities can build their capacities, learn, have space to meet – because there’s so little access to space for migrants and migrant workers in Lebanon – , start their own projects, launch their own initiatives, celebrate birthdays… but really the focus is on giving people a space and a chance to build capacity and advocate for their rights.

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Click to be redirected to their website (opens in new tab)

Sami said that he joined the MCC when he and other Ethiopian activists were making a movie about migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. A member of the MMC supported them and helped them get through with the movie despite numerous challenges. The movie is still in process.

Joey then brought up ‘the big word that migrants have to deal with’, namely Kafala and asked Alli and Sami to explain what the Kafala system is.

Alli started:

Alli: The Kafala system is a set of administrative practices, not laws. There’s no laws in Lebanon that deals with migrant domestic workers. It’s a set of administrative practices that regulates how migrant workers come into the country, work in the country, exist in the country and leave the country. The way that it works is when someone from another country wants to come as a migrant worker they have to find a sponsor, almost always through an agency in their home country, and are then connected to an agency in Lebanon. They come to Lebanon under their sponsor’s name. What the system does is that it ties every single aspect of a person’s life to their sponsor and put them at their mercy. It is an unjust system in every aspect. What it means is that a worker comes in under their sponsor, their employer’s name, and that sponsor has essentially complete control over where they live, what they do… Migrant domestic workers cannot, without their sponsor’s permission, break their contract except in very narrow circumstances. Many migrants don’t have freedom of movement, they have no way to advocate for their rights including days off, decent wages, decent living conditions, the ability to leave the house, the ability to look for other work, to travel, to have children, to organize, to unionize, to get healthcare beyond the very limited healthcare that they’re provided… so it’s a very abusive system in all forms. And what happens is that people leave their legal situations because of how abusive the system is and they get stuck in this area of ‘illegality’.

Joey: because they need their sponsors to be ‘legal’.

Alli: Exactly.

Sami then described the Kafala system as like “bringing primitive slavery mixed with civilized slavery”.

He expanded:

Sami: If you are a domestic worker in Lebanon, it makes you feel like you are someone’s property. You cannot do anything without their permission, you cannot go out without their permission, you can’t call your friends or family.. you cannot do anything without their permission. Nature gives you a right, a human right, and the Kafala system prevents you from practicing that right.

Let’s say I want to go somewhere. I have a resident permit, but when I go out from the house I am afraid. You know if a policeman caught me on the street, he will ask me. Maybe I will answer but they will not listen. I have a right to go anywhere – it is a human right –  but here in Lebanon you cannot do anything by yourself. You have to have permission from your sponsor, always making me feel like I am someone’s property.

Sami considers himself among the relatively lucky ones, but “I see too many Ethiopians” because he is one of the leaders of a community group of Ethiopians in Lebanon called Mesewat which means ‘share whatever little you have’. In that group it is very common to hear of cases related to the Kafala system.

He gave the example of how many Ethiopians are made to sign a contract without knowing what they are signing on. Notoriously, many end up signing a contract available only in Arabic and/or English, with no effort made by the agencies and employers to translate it into Amharic, or even explain what’s on the contract.

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From a 2014 study endorsed by ARM. Link to the full research.

Here Alli explained that in 2009 there was the introduction of the ‘standard unified contract’.

Alli: It sounds very nice. It’s supposed to be translated into every language, outline workers’ rights, and so on. It’s almost never implemented. A worker is lucky to get a contract even in Arabic. It doesn’t give workers basic human rights and basic freedoms. It’s mostly just a worthless piece of paper.

Sami said that just having a contract at all could be an improvement to the current situation. Instead workers are ‘bought’ as though we were shopping in a supermarket.

Upon hearing this, Joey was reminded me of the separate section (video) at Lebanon’s only airport where arriving migrant domestic workers are made to wait there until their sponsors’ arrival. Sponsors then ‘claim’ ‘their’ migrant worker and then take them (usually women) to the household.

That’s why one of the main demands of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon is to be included in the Labour laws of the country. As Alli mentioned, the Kafala system is not a law. The contracts that most migrant domestic workers end up signing do not guarantee basic human rights such as maximum work hours, having a day off and so on. It is this very lack of choices that makes migrant domestic workers so vulnerable in Lebanon.

This is also why migrants as well as Lebanese workers have tried to form the Domestic Workers Union in 2015 which the government continues to reject despite it meeting all legal requirements.

Joey then remakes the point made by Alli that the only reason we hear of some cases of abuses is because they happen to go viral online, either because they were filmed or recorded.

They then took the example of Shamila, a Kenyan migrant domestic worker who, along with another Kenyan woman and worker, was assaulted by an off duty military officer in Beirut’s Burj Hammoud neighborhood. (Video – warning: graphic)

Screenshot of the video posted on ‘weyn el dawleh’ page showing a Lebanese man beating two Kenyan women in the north of Beirut on June 17 2018.

By the time we recorded, on Friday July 20th, 2018, Shamila had already been deported (on Sunday 15th). Alli tells us the story:

Alli: A mob gathered and joined the attack, so it was a mob attack. There’s a video that’s very painful to watch. She’s not the only woman by any means to be attacked in that area of Burj Hammoud. It was just filmed. I think particularly black women’s bodies are very commonly seen as targets of verbal and physical harassment. One reason why Shamila’s story – we were able to get interest in it was because it was video tapped and because both women were arrested and detained, along with just a couple of (Lebanese) people in the attack. But even though there’s an ongoing court case, Shamila was deported. So because that deportation order came out, we were able to highlight that reality in Lebanon for migrant domestic workers and migrant workers which is: if your papers are not in order, and she had an issue with her papers, with her residency and her work permit because she had left her sponsor over a lack of payment, and you’re attacked, or you’re hit by a car, or you’re stopped at a checkpoint, or you are the target of an additional layer of violence, the consequences are on you. You’re the one who’s imprisoned, you’re the one who’s deported, you’re the one who’s criminalized.

So Shamila is not at all unique. It happens every day. We just don’t see it in the media because it’s so ‘normal’.

Shamila and her friend weren’t even recognised as victims by the courts. They were all charged as though they were participants in a fight.

Sami: They weren’t even attacking anybody. They were defending themselves as you see in the video – he was holding their hair and they didn’t even act to defend themselves. Even if she’s illegal here, she’s not a criminal.

Alli said that she views Shamila’s story as showing “the violence that is everyday on the streets, and we’re not even talking about what happens behind closed doors.”

Reflecting on this incident and many others, Farah Salka, director of the Anti Racim Movement (ARM) and of the Migrant Community Center, wrote “We Are Not Racists, But” which we highly recommend.

Sami then brought up the story of Lensa Lelisa, another woman, an Ethiopian migrant domestic worker, who was abused by her sponsors and tried to escape by jumping from the 2nd floor, after which she was hospitalised as she broke both legs. He mentions that the government even imposed a gag order on the press to stop talking about Lensa’s case, which you can read on Global Voices in this article by Hassan Chamoun, a follow up of a previous article.

From the article:

Desperate to escape, she said, she jumped from the balcony of the second floor, breaking her legs.

Her video testimony, in Amharic with English subtitles, was released on social media by the Facebook page “This is Lebanon“, which focuses on exposing abuses faced by migrant domestic workers in the country. It was filmed with the help of Lensa’s aunt Ganesh, who visited her at the hospital.

It was then revealed that her employers run a haute couture fashion company called Eleanore Couture. Outraged, dozens of Lebanese and non-Lebanese protested in front of the company’s offices in Jdeideh, north of Beirut, and many more took part in an online #IAmLensa campaign to raise awareness.

When Lensa was discharged, her employers took her back to their house, despite the allegations and the subsequent outcry by many Lebanese and non-Lebanese groups.

But the story took an even more troubling turn when on 2 April, the TV program “Al Nashra” on Lebanese channel Al Jadeed hosted one of Lensa’s employers (Crystel), her lawyer, and Lensa herself, “in an attempt to reveal the truth behind what happened to Lensa, within ten minutes”, to quote the video released by “This is Lebanon”.

The host spoke English with Lensa, and Arabic — a language that Lensa manifestly barely understands — with the other two women. With the help of volunteer translators, the 12-minute episode was released on “This is Lebanon” with English and Amharic subtitles.

Human Rights Watch was told by two Ethiopian women who visited Lensa at the hospital that she did not tell investigators the truth for fear of retaliation.

In the original video, Lensa recorded herself saying:

[…] From the very beginning they were abusing me […] They tortured me and I couldn’t do anything to save myself. They beat me everyday with an electric cable and wrapped my hair around their hands and dragged me around the room. They smashed my head into the walls. […] There were four of them abusing us. […] They took turns abusing us. […] He was pushing his fingers into my eyes. […] I said to myself, ‘How long can I carry on?’ […] There was another Ethiopian girl with me and the same things were happening to her.

At the time of writing, Lensa is still at her abusers’ house.

These are the notes for the first 20 minutes of our 50 minutes-long discussion. Thank you for listening to the whole thing and sharing with your friends and contacts.

Further Reading/Useful Links


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