SERVICES – Lebanon

Migrant domestic workers and the struggle for visibility

Rania el Rajji

Lebanon has long been a host country for waves of refugees displaced from other countries in the region, such as Palestine and Syria: today it has the largest population of refugees per capita in the world. For many years, however, it has also drawn large numbers of migrants from various parts of Africa and Asia. This workforce, mostly female, includes an estimated 250,000 domestic workers whose living and working conditions have long been regulated by a system known as kafala (‘sponsorship’ in Arabic). 

The kafala system is notoriously oppressive and essentially serves the privileges of the sponsor, resulting in a wide range of human rights restrictions for migrant workers, who enter into a situation in some ways akin to bondage with their employer. The extreme power imbalances between migrant workers and their sponsor – the latter can, for example, dictate the nature of their work and terminate their legal residency at any time – means that non-payment of wages and other abuses are common. 

In Lebanon, the kafala system has survived various efforts to abolish or significantly reform it, whether on the part of civil society organizations, human rights groups or local activists, including domestic workers themselves. While some measures have been put in place to provide migrant domestic workers with days off or allow them to leave their employers, workers have nevertheless continued to endure human rights violations and exploitation. There are endless reports of sexual violence and abuse, as well as other forms of violence directed at female migrant workers specifically. There have also been numerous deaths, including suicides, that are never investigated: according to figures from the national intelligence agency, on average two migrant workers are dying every week. 

The plight of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, especially the racist treatment that they face, has led to numerous civil society initiatives. Engagement with migrant domestic workers can be traced back to the 1990s, first through religious structures including churches, leading to an exponential growth in services addressing the various needs of migrant domestic workers, from legal assistance to psycho-social support. These assorted efforts eventually led to collective mobilization, including by migrants themselves, who became steadily less invisible through demonstrations and rallies outside their embassies and consulates. 

According to the national intelligence agency, on average two migrant workers in Lebanon die each week.

Article 7 of the Lebanese Labour Code specifically excludes domestic workers, among other groups of workers such as agricultural workers, from its protection. However, following years of engagement with migrant workers and other stakeholders, the National Federation of Workers’ and Employees’ Trade Unions in Lebanon (FENASOL), together with the International Labour Organization, supported the establishment of a trade union for domestic workers in the country. On 25 January 2015, a founding congress of the domestic workers’ union took place, bringing together 300 domestic and migrant workers. While the union remains unrecognized by the relevant government ministry, Article 92 of the Lebanese Labour Code allows migrant workers to join unions and associations, even if their rights are curtailed as they cannot elect or be elected as representatives. This has allowed the FENASOL to support migrant workers who can organize themselves under its umbrella. 

Though they remain marginalized and face an entrenched network of corruption, nepotism and vested interests, the transformation of migrant workers into a mobilized and visible force has helped highlight their resilience in the face of systematic exploitation and abuse. For some, however, activism has come at a heavy price: in December 2016, two Nepalese domestic workers, members of the union, were arrested by the General Security in Beirut. One of them, Sujana Rana, was immediately deported, despite her legal status and residence papers reportedly being in order. Reports indicated that Rana was questioned during her arrest by security officials about her activism and involvement in issues pertaining to the rights of migrants in Lebanon. 

Since October 2019, the banking crisis and the collapse of the Lebanese pound have brought economic devastation in their wake. The ensuing restrictions on cash withdrawals imposed by banks have had a domino effect on migrant domestic workers, who were previously paid by their employers in US dollars. The situation was made worse by the disastrous blast in Beirut’s port on 4 August 2020, with many migrants losing their homes and incomes as a result. There have since been many calls by migrant workers for assisted repatriation, with a 2021 survey of some 1,000 migrants by the International Organization for Migration, for instance, showing that nearly half of those interviewed wished to return home. Migrant workers have once more mobilized, organizing demonstrations outside their respective embassies and consulates, and demanding to be sent home. Covid-19 has only exacerbated the impacts of the country’s economic crisis, with a domino effect on migrant workers, especially those freelancers who have been deprived of work as a result of the pandemic. Reports have indicated heightened risks of abuses, including early terminations of contracts, and even more difficult working and living conditions for domestic workers residing with families. 

Recognition remains elusive for migrant domestic workers, despite many having lived in the country for decades, often informally, and even though some have married and had children in Lebanon. Nevertheless, they still find themselves excluded from the protections of Lebanese labour law. Confronted by the disaster that hit the country, they have nevertheless continued to advocate for their rights and agency – an essential step in bringing their long-standing invisibility to an end.

Photo: A migrant worker from Sierra Leone stranded in Lebanon calls her family. Credit: Aline Deschamps