17 January 2022: After escaping abusive working conditions, 30 Kenyan women slept in the hallway and stairwell of their consulate in Beirut, Lebanon, for most of January. Photograph by Tessa Fox
The kafala system allows residents to bring workers into Lebanon, where they are often abused and overworked with no recourse to protection under labor laws. African women are particularly vulnerable to mistreatment.
This article was originally published in New Frame.
Music is blaring from a speaker that flashes primary colours in unison with the beat. Around 10 women are outside, dancing and conversing. To passers-by, this probably looks like a block party. It is not. These are Kenyan women who recently escaped the abusive households in which they worked in Lebanon.
The group that is intermittently blocking the road to draw attention to their cause is among the 30 women who have been sleeping at the Kenyan consulate in Beirut for weeks, demanding to return home to their families. They came to Lebanon as domestic workers under the country’s kafala or sponsorship system, which allows citizens and companies to hire migrant workers – particularly in the construction and domestic sectors.
Around 250,000 migrants from Africa and Southeast Asia work under the kafala system, which excludes many migrant workers from the protections guaranteed by Lebanon’s labour laws. These workers are open to exploitation. Many are not afforded legal limits on working hours or time off. Migrants’ residency and legal statuses are tied to their employers and they are not allowed to leave without their consent.
For years, international and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have documented the systematic abuse migrant domestic workers face in Lebanon under this system. These include forced confinement, unpaid wages and overwork, along with verbal, physical and sexual abuse.
While many women are celebrating their freedom outside, Catherine Macharia, a mother of two from Nairobi, is trying to find a quiet place on the staircase to lay out a blanket to sleep on. She is the image of exhaustion. It does not help that it is freezing in the building, with a chilling winter breeze blowing in.
Macharia arrived in Lebanon in February 2021 and had her passport taken from her – standard for incoming migrant domestic workers. She spent nearly four months working at various houses until she was told to sign a contract by her agent, written in Arabic and with no time for her to get it translated.
She then found herself in a car with her new boss, whom she respectfully calls Madam, as do all migrant domestic workers. “This madam started shouting at me from day one,” said Macharia. “These people are not welcoming. I greeted the [husband], salam o alaikum (may peace be with you), and he said, ‘Don’t ever greet me, I don’t speak to Black people.’”
Macharia would wake up early to clean the house. “I didn’t want to waste any time, I needed money for my children.” Often, the family would prepare meals only for themselves. After they had eaten, they would have her scrape their plates for leftovers. At times, Macharia would go for days without food when the family went to their second house. They would make her throw out all the food from the fridge before they left. She would return to salvage it from the bin after they had left.
A lucrative system
The kafala system in Lebanon generates about $100 million a year. More than half of this amount goes to recruitment agencies. According to research conducted by Triangle, a think-tank in Beirut, the Lebanese Directorate of General Security collected $36.5 million in 2019, with $6.1 million going to the labour ministry. The system benefits many of those who should be holding recruitment agencies and employers responsible, so they turn a blind eye to the rampant abuse.
According to the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM) – an organisation dedicated to achieving racial, labour, migrant and gender justice in Lebanon – employers pay recruitment agencies $2,000 to $3,000 to bring a migrant domestic worker to Lebanon.
“Part of … that amount is meant to be saved to fund the ticket back home when the contract ends, [but in reality] the agent refuses to give the money back,” said ARM advocacy and communication officer Farah Baba.
The only way to challenge recruitment agencies is to submit a complaint against unregistered agents to the Ministry of Labour, which is what organisations such as the ARM do. “The syndicate of recruitment agencies in Lebanon is a big lobby, and this lobby and the owners of the agencies are very politically connected and powerful,” Baba said.
‘I just wanted to die’
Macharia never received money directly from her employers, making her unable to enrol her children in school. When she signed the contract, she was told she would be paid $250 a month. But the lack of pay became distressing when her father fell ill with pneumonia and had to be put on oxygen in a Kenyan hospital.
When Macharia was able to use WhatsApp, she found desperate messages from her sister saying that the family needed money to pay for doctors. But her employer refused to send her salary home.
Instead, she was told to have a video sent of her father in hospital before they would send her salary. “Look, this man is very strong. Don’t worry about him, he won’t die,” her employer responded when Macharia presented the video.
Another message came soon after from her sister saying that their father had died. When the family could not pay his medical bills, the hospital took him off oxygen therapy, according to Macharia. After this, she fell apart and begged for two days off work to mourn her father. But her employer refused.
Made to work as normal, Macharia fell into a daze and walked into the middle of the road as her employer drove off one morning. “I just wanted to die. I wanted someone to come and knock me over with a car and kill me.”
A jogger eventually pulled Macharia out of the road and took her to the local police station, which transferred her to a shelter for migrant domestic workers run by NGO Caritas.
According to the ARM, the Kenyan vice-consul in Lebanon generally sends Kenyan domestic workers to Caritas if they leave their employers. The consulate tells the women they will stay there for a maximum of two weeks while their laissez-passer travel documents, diplomatic documents issued by the United Nations, are processed.
“It’s a way to imprison the women so it doesn’t make it out to the public or media outlets,” Baba said. Some migrant women who are sent to Caritas stay for as long as a year, because the Kenyan consulate stops replying to their requests while they are there. They never hear back … unless they stage a protest or sit-in.”
Macharia said that when she went to Caritas, she joined 30 women from Kenya who were already there. The organisation took her phone from her and allowed her only one number to call. She gave the number of her agent in Kenya, hoping he would communicate with her family.
She ended up staying at Caritas for four and a half months as she had filed a court case against her employer to try and get her salary paid and passport returned. In the end, she could not handle waiting there any more and signed herself out on 6 January to go to the Kenyan consulate.
Even after staying at Caritas, women like Macharia often have to stay longer in Lebanon, pending the court cases filed against them by their employers. Baba said the employer almost always goes to the police first as the women are generally too scared to file a report as their residency is tied to their employer.
“I want to emphasise … they are coming voluntarily … We are not encouraging anyone to come to our shelters,” said Caritas head of migrants Hessen Sayah defensively over the telephone. “Once the person is coming to the shelter, they are signing a consent form that they want to receive all the services and that [they want] to be protected. The shelter is not a jail.”
Many migrant domestic workers have complained of mistreatment while at Caritas. They say their cellphones get confiscated, they are not given enough blankets and food, and are forced to shower in cold water.
Still waiting to go home
“They don’t want you to leave. It’s like being in a prison. You can’t talk to your family, you can’t talk to your friends. You only get two or four minutes on the phone, and if you call and your parents aren’t online, then you can only leave a message,” said Georginah Gikaria, who stayed at Caritas for three months.
In response to the accusations about not being able to make phone calls, Sayah said the organisation follows international regulations. Each person is able to call outside for up to one hour a week, in order for time to be equally divided among the women. Those who are sheltering at Caritas are not able to use their own phones for their own safety, according to Caritas.
“We have some experience of perpetrators sending messages to the ladies to threaten them, so [because of this] and to protect the victims, we set these rules and regulations,” Sayah said.
After sleeping on the floor of the consulate for two weeks, the Kenyan women were moved to an apartment rented by the Kuwait embassy. All of them are now able to relax, including Macharia, who is visibly at ease. She feels “way happier because they can cook and go to the toilet”.
All of the women contracted the coronavirus shortly before they moved. For some who already had travel documents and tickets from the UN International Organization for Migration, this meant their trip home was delayed.
The kafala system that kept them in captivity and continues to imprison many more can only be realistically dismantled by amending the laws for entry and work by international workers in Lebanon. Baba said migrant domestic workers should be included in the same categories as UN workers and journalists in the country’s labour laws. The legal requirement to tie the residency of some migrant workers to their Lebanese employer should also be broken.
Recruitment agencies would no longer need to exist. “But obviously, because there is so much profit generated from the kafala system, it’s unlikely that would happen anytime soon,” Baba said.
Tessa Fox is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker focusing on war & conflict, humanitarian affairs and human rights in the Middle East. tessafox.com, @Tessa_Fox