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  • Vidya Kakra

The Plight of Domestic Migrant Workers amidst Lebanon’s Compounding Crises: A plea to dismantle the

The surge of globalization across the world has led to an escalation in the demand for domestic workers owing to worldwide development affecting the economic, social and political sectors. This demand has driven millions of domestic workers to migrate in search of work outside of their own economically depressed nations, thereby increasing migration. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) World Migration Report 2020 estimates a global population of 272 million international migrants, with about two-thirds of them being labour migrants..

The key factors due to which these workers search for employment outside their own country are financial motivation, poverty and lack of employment opportunities in their home country. Due to this, workers' movements to wealthier economies such as the Middle East and Gulf nations have predominantly increased since the 1970s, owing to the thriving oil industry. Over 250,000 Migrant Domestic Workers (MDWs) are reported to reside in Lebanon, of which the majority of workers are women belonging to neighbouring Arab nations, South-East Asia, and more recently, Africa. Labour migration in Lebanon has contributed significantly to its economic growth by offering an abundance of employment opportunities, notably in construction and domestic work. This has also proven to be a significant benefit for migratory workers, who remit large sums of money home to their family and home countries.

While globalisation has aided these workers' migration, it has also frequently placed them in legally and socially vulnerable and employer-controlled situations. The Kafala System, prevalent in Middle East nations, including Lebanon, is one such practice that not only creates circumstances for flagrant human rights violations but also comprehensively establishes a new group of easily exploitable workers.

The Kafala (Sponsorship) System

The term 'Kafala' is taken from the Islamic doctrine of legal guardianship and means 'to ensure' or 'to look after' in Arabic. This system was initially established with the objective that the state would grant sponsorship permits to the sponsor (Kafeel), who is usually the employer, to recruit immigrant workers with the intention that the sponsor ensured the safety and wellbeing of the migrant worker. However, with the advent of time and commercialisation, this objective of the Kafala system shifted to provide cheap labour during a period of rapid economic expansion in Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) nations - Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Lebanon. Today, Kafala system has become a mechanism for recruiting migrant workers by creating a foundation for employer-migrant worker relationship through a labour contract and also serves as a tool for managing and controlling labour migration. By tying the entry visa of the migrant workers to an individual employer and making termination of employment and shifting jobs impossible without the employer’s approval, the Kafala system confers excessive powers in the hands of employers, leading the workers to be completely dependent on their Kafeels and lose control over their own life.

Domestic migrant workers are the most disadvantaged under a Kafala agreement or contract. One of the reasons is that cohabiting with the employer enhances their level of reliance by affecting their daily subsistence and it exposes domestic workers to exploitation, aggressiveness, and isolation, as well as physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. They are subjected to racial discrimination because they work in jobs that the Lebanese community sees as substandard. Furthermore, migrant domestic workers are least protected among migrants, not only because it is far more difficult to verify what happens "behind closed doors," but also because domestic work is not protected by the country's labour regulations.

Lebanon’s International Obligation

While domestic laws of Lebanon do not protect domestic migrant workers from exploitation, it must be noted that Lebanon is bound by fundamental principles of International Human Rights Laws as well as International Labour Standards, particularly those conventions that it has signed and ratified. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), 1948 is the basis for most universally recognised human rights such as the right to life, equality, non-discrimination, right to work, freedom of expression and freedom of movement. Some abusive employers force domestic workers to work against their will and prevent them from returning to their home countries. This is incompatible with Article 13 of the UDHR, which provides for the right to free movement and the right to return to one's own country. Similarly, acts of racial discrimination such as racist speech, stereotyping, and stigmatisation, particularly against refugees and migrant workers is incompatible with Article 2 of the UDHR, which provides for the right of non-discrimination.

The provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1996 (ICCPR) acknowledges each individual's inherent dignity and commits to promoting conditions within states that allow the enjoyment of civil and political rights. Lebanon's kafala system has been described as modern-day slavery by many, owing to its slave-like arrangement that binds the migrant to the employer. This makes it inconsistent with Article 8 of the ICCPR which stipulates abolition of slavery and forced labour. Likewise, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1996 (ICESCR) governs the right to work, right to labour in decent circumstances, right to social security and social insurance, and right to a decent quality of living, all of which are tied to the welfare of foreign workers. Article 6 establishes right to labour, making it not only legal but also the sole method to make a livelihood, whereas Article 7 establishes the right to fair and beneficial working circumstances. The difficulty with the kafala system in the context of these articles is that they constrain the sponsored worker’s movement and employment choice on the kafeel’s legal permission and to labour under harsh, unfair, and abusive working circumstances.

Other international human rights conventions that deal with migrants, notably migrant domestic workers who are women, are also routinely violated by Kafala. These are the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979) and the Convention against Racial Discrimination (1965). Lebanon has signed and ratified all of these conventions.

Kafala has also received several criticisms for violating various internationally recognised labour standards, which are systems and laws set by the ILO. Forced Labour Convention, 1930, Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949, Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951, Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957, Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958, Minimum Age Convention, 1973 and Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 are the names of a few of the many Labour Conventions that Lebonan has signed and ratified and thus. is obligated to fulfil.

Lebanon’s Compounding Crises

The Lebanese population as a whole, along with refugees and migrant workers, has suffered greatly as a result of the economic crisis. The impact has manifested in job loss, inability to meet basic requirements, and underpaid or drastic fall in the value of salaries owing to currency devaluation. The poverty of Lebanese people has also led to a reluctance to hire domestic servants. As a result, migrants have been unable to send money home to support their families. The economic crisis also exacerbated racial prejudice and harmed Lebanese society's perception of migrants working and receiving humanitarian relief. Moreover, because migrant domestic workers lack access to healthcare, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated their living conditions.

Furthermore, due to the risk of disease transmission, migrants who work in many families are having difficulty obtaining jobs and supporting themselves. As a result, illegal migrant domestic workers have been evicted and forced to live on the streets in front of their embassies, requesting assistance in leaving Lebanon. This has become more prevalent since they are unable to afford a ticket to go back home or pay high costs imposed by Lebanese authorities when a migrant worker gets into an irregular position.

Standard Unified Contract

The Standard Unified Contract (SUC) took effect in September 2020, however it did not survive long. The Syndicate of the Owners of Recruitment Agencies in Lebanon (SORAL) filed an appeal before the Shura Council in October against the new SUC's modifications, arguing that they would be in conflict with current labour laws. SORAL's charges against the new contract were successful, thus the revisions were not implemented on the grounds that the new contract "may inflict tremendous harm to the labour recruiting business." As a result, SUC 2009 is still in use. Despite the fact that the new SUC did not provide for a substantial change in the system or procedures for enforcing the regulations, ​it was met with vehement hostility from the collectives who benefit from the Kafala system. Due to this, the Lebonan Court rejected the new SUC to replace the Kafala system.


With one crisis after another erupting in Lebanon, there is no doubt that the plight of domestic migrant workers has worsened. They are extremely concerned about the country's instability and limited nature of the kafala sponsorship system. NGOs have been working to eradicate kafala and in doing so interact with government agencies. However, with every step towards progress, such as SUC, being thwarted by powerful lawmakers and other interested parties, any beneficial change appear to be incredibly delayed, leaving domestic migrant labourers skeptical about Lebanon's future.

The consequences of the previous year's unprecedented problems underline the necessity for swift action, beginning with revisions to the kafala sponsorship system. More improvement in Lebanon may be conceivable as a result of the region's modest but steady transition. Recognizing the international community's demands as well as progressive action in neighbouring states, Lebanon can do more to create a mutually beneficial system for impoverished foreign communities who are deprived of institutional care and are willing to treat them as hardworking individuals that they are.

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