'End neo-slavery': Lebanon maid abandonment sparks outrage

'End neo-slavery': Lebanon maid abandonment sparks outrage
Both the Black Lives Matter movement and Lebanon's economic crisis have given the push to end the 'abusive and racist' kafala system a new sense of urgency.
4 min read
Human rights activists have called for the abolition of the kafala system [Getty]
After preparing dozens of rice packages for out-of-work domestic staff, 30-year-old Tirsit breaks down in tears recounting life as a foreign housekeeper in crisis-hit Lebanon.

"The (recruitment) agencies sell us," said the 30-year-old Ethiopian, a large sack heaped with bags of rice by her side.

"If I come to work for (a woman) and I don't like it, or she hits me, or there is no food, if I want to change households or leave, I can't," she explained.

"She says: 'I bought you. Pay me back $2,000 then go wherever you want'."

Around 250,000 migrants - usually women - work as housekeepers, nannies and carers in Lebanese homes, a large proportion Ethiopian and some for as little as $150 a month.

None are protected by the labour law.

Instead, they work under a sponsorship system called kafala that has repeatedly been condemned by human rights groups as abusive and racist.

As the Black Lives Matter movement trends worldwide, activists in Lebanon are saying abolishing kafala is long overdue.

"Something really needs to change," said Tirsit, after seeing persistent mistreatment of fellow workers during her 12 years in Lebanon.

Under kafala, an employer pays around $2,000 to $5,000 to a recruitment agency to find a helper, with prices varying according to nationality, then sponsors the worker to stay legally in the country.

The live-in employee cannot resign without their permission, or she becomes undocumented. Nothing prohibits an employer from confiscating the worker's passport.

This leaves the worker entirely at the mercy of their employer.


Activists have long called for an end to kafala in the oil-rich Gulf, but a raging economic crisis in Lebanon has given the issue new urgency.

With tight capital controls and the value of the Lebanese pound plummeting on the black market, employers are struggling to find dollars to pay their foreign staff, some no longer paying them at all.

In recent weeks, more than 100 Ethiopian women have arrived outside their consulate, activists say, most after employers kicked them out without pay in the middle of a pandemic that has closed the airport.

Ignored by consular staff, several have had to sleep rough on the pavement before they could find shelter.

Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres says six had to be hospitalised for severe psychiatric distress, some after trauma including physical or sexual violence.

"End kafala. Repatriate," read a sign briefly hoisted outside the consulate earlier this month.

Online, a petition describing the sponsorship system as "neo-slavery" has gathered more than 30,000 signatures since June 1.

Human rights groups have documented a wide range of ill-treatment under kafala, including being confined to the home and refused any time off. 

Many workers have also died. Human Rights Watch in 2008 found more than one domestic worker died each week in Lebanon, mostly in suicides or "falling from high buildings, often while trying to escape".

On Thursday, an Ethiopian woman was found hanging in a home in east Lebanon, the state-owned National News Agency said.

'She is a human being'

Amnesty International researcher Diala Haidar said Lebanon must abolish kafala, bring domestic staff under the safeguards of its labour law and give them the right to unionise.

The labour ministry and the International Labour Organisation have been working to improve the standard contract.

The latest draft would add an important provision recognising "the right of workers... to terminate their employment at will, and the right to change employer without the consent of their current employer", Haidar said.

But it has not yet been approved and, if it were, "it is not enough to adopt a new contract if there are no inspection and enforcement mechanisms," she told AFP, as abandonments in recent weeks show.

Many of the women have been dumped without their passport, making it difficult to track down their employers and hold them accountable.

A security source said employers were also filing complaints alleging their employee had stolen from them, "to get out of having to pay the Ethiopian domestic worker her monthly wages and try to escape all other due payments".

Ethiopian activist Tsigereda Brihanu, 25, said she dreamt of kafala ending one day, but until then urged employers to show some respect.

Even "if you don't have money, don't throw her outside in the street," said the coordinator with the Egna Legna group now helping to bring food to out-of-work domestic workers.

"She is not garbage. She is a human being like you."

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