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Migrant Domestic Workers and the Lebanese Crisis: Disproportionate Impacts, Limited Escape Pathways and Silver Linings

The crisis that hit Lebanon in late 2019, crippling many sectors of the country’s societies, has had disproportionate impacts on marginalized communities.

For over three years, intersecting oppressions have magnified already existing inequalities. Those who were already struggling with socioeconomic troubles, as well as job security saw their problems increase exponentially. 

Such is the case of migrant domestic workers (MDWs), all of whom live and work under the notorious conditions of the Kafala system, Lebanon’s sponsorship-based system that controls and regulates not just their work, but their entire lives in the country. The currency deterioration, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the overall crisis presented them with unprecedented challenges.

Changing Labor Dynamics – Before and After the Crisis

While labor rights violations existed way before the crisis owing to the nature of the Kafala system which allows employers neo-slavery powers of control over workers such as confiscating passports, delaying or halting pay for months, physical and mental abuse, a 24/7 working cycle, and countless other infringements, inequalities increased with the advent of the crisis with the workers having less and less opportunities.

“After the crisis […] a lot of them – especially the irregular ones that were working as freelancers – started getting less and less jobs,” said Farah Baba, a political activist. “And obviously, since it’s irregular this means it’s illegal, so they can’t demand better pay from the employers”.

Baba adds that many of the migrant domestic workers were living in crowded apartments for cheaper rents, being subjected to hate speech and false narratives such as being paid in dollars, – which was far from true – and being abandoned by their employers with no sources of job or financial security.

Covid-19: Between Entrapment and Vaccine Discrimination

Research has shown how the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic exasperated existing inequalities, especially gendered discrimination with the increase in rates of domestic violence and people being trapped with their abusers. Migrant domestic workers suffered from these symptoms to a very severe extent.

“You can consider that they were in lockdown before Covid-19 under the conditions of Kafala which are similar to slavery, spending most of their time in the residence of the sponsor,” explained Kareem Nofal, communication specialist at Lebanon’s Anti-Racism Movement (ARM).

Baba and Nofal both highlight the level of discrimination that migrant workers were subjected to as part of official regulations related to the pandemic, the most notable of which concerns the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.

ARM’s report – within their Racism Monitor initiative – identifies migrant workers’ systematized exclusion from Covid-19 vaccination campaigns. It notes that given the “irregular” status of migrant workers and the lack of identification documents, many were denied vaccine access despite registering on the relevant platforms and receiving messages for their appointments. Even in these circumstances, politically motivated and misleading narratives of MDWs receiving vaccines before Lebanese people were being circulated. 

It is important to note that a high portion of MDWs and refugees work on the front lines of necessary positions such as cleaning, nursing, taking care of children and the elderly and so forth, which in normal circumstances should qualify them to be priority recipients of Covid-19 vaccination. It was only when organizations such as United Nations and the International Organization for Migration intervened, highlighting the disproportionate exclusion of migrant workers from the vaccination process, and put pressure the ensure the workers’ vaccination.

On an informal level, Covid-19-related discrimination was also rampant. Nofal recalls cases encountered where MDWs would enter rooms where no one would be wearing a mask, and they’d still be asked to wear one. 

“There is this idea that the virus came from outside, and domestic workers are foreigners”, Nofal explained. 

According to him, this leads to a faulty logic that combines racist othering with scientific absurdities. Such incidents are well recorded on ARM’s social media pages, including testimonies from Agnes, who reported having to go through a series of requirements such as showering multiple times a day and maintain distance from her employers and Nana, who reported being forbidden to touch many of the house’s belongings.

Absence of Representativeness

What made matters worse for migrant domestic workers is the practice of organizations that were meant to help them, namely country consulates. Irregular migrant workers would normally pay money to the consulates to settle their papers to travel. 

Baba explains that in certain cases, such as with the Cameroonian or Kenyan consulate, the entities did not provide assistance “to retrieve […] unpaid wages from their employers”, nor “to actually travel”. Ensuing protests, sit-ins and campaigns were made in defiance of such violations, with workers claiming to wait “months to leave, having faced delays and obfuscation from […] the consulate,” according to Middle East Eye.

To begin with, it is important to note that many consulates include consuls with honorary status. In other words, this means that the Kenyan consulate, for example, would have a Lebanese honorary consul acting as a representative for Kenyan workers’ rights. 

In addition, Nofal explains that migrant communities were being directly lied to. After asserting to complaining workers that they are against the Kafala system, a vice-council would then go on television to express their support for Kafala with intentions only to “reform” it. Nofal adds that due to the workers’ precarious legal status, consulates often took advantage of the situation and demanded money in return for services. 

Other violations received good media coverage, including verbal and physical transgressions by the consulate of Kenya in Lebanon. 

As stated repeatedly by human rights organizations and political organizers in Lebanon and around the world, the structural nature of the issue of representativeness means that much depends on the whims of consulates. Despite some cases where entities were responsive with workers and paying for their repatriation, such as the Filipino embassy, the model remains highly dysfunctional and allows violations to go by unpunished.

The high rate of violations occurring at consulate level is high to the degree that even workers who did manage to go back to their home country still demand the resignation of the consul in a quest for accountability.

Recruitment Agencies 

Recruitment agencies play a central role in the state of precariousness that migrant domestic workers endure in Lebanon. In addition to demanding exorbitant amounts of money for their services when compared to the wages earned by MDWs, Nofal explains that many recruitment agencies use threats to force MDWs to stay in the country and block repatriation attempts.

The lack of opportunities and the urgency of finding escape pathways meant that many migrant domestic workers were scammed, explains Baba. Analytically, the scams are best located as part of a wider network of shady industries involving both formal and informal local, national and transnational entities including foreign recruiters, Lebanese recruitment agencies, brokers, human traffickers, Lebanese employers, insurance firms, Lebanese ministries and the General Security, and many more.

Silver Linings?

Researchers and human rights advocates highlighted some possible positive breakthroughs and silver linings that came as a result of the latest sociopolitical state of affairs. 

To begin with, because of the currency crisis, many Lebanese employers started preferring freelance domestic work as opposed to live-in domestic work. Baba says that in a certain way, “this […] weakened the structure of Kafala” due to the abandonment of live-in domestic work demand, and consequently lessened cases of MDWs being trapped with their employers on a 24/7 basis. 

In addition, Nofal adds that the increase in demand for freelance work allowed many workers to get contracts and negotiate without the mediation of recruitment agencies. This allows greater margins for MDWs to organize their own time, work by the hour, negotiate a deal that works better for both sides and thus equalizing employer-worker power dynamics in a certain sense, while most of all avoiding the meddling and exploitative practices of recruitment agencies. Freelance work, however, remains inconsistent to a considerable degree, so it is often unstable for many workers and might not provide a consistent and reliable income.

Another development that weakened the structure of Kafala – ironically – is the weakened capacities of the Lebanese General Security, who no longer have the material or human capacities to crack down, prosecute, detain, and monitor MDWs’ work, especially with protests taking place sporadically throughout the last few years. 

Finally, a positive development rests in the increased media coverage of migrant domestic workers’ conditions – mainly international coverage – and this increasingly includes discourses on the structural nature of the matter, and not only sporadic cases of mistreatment, thus highlighting the root cause of the issues encountered.

Looking Forward: Politics and Discourses

In the face of politically affiliated media platforms and politicians scapegoating refugees and migrant workers for the much of the country’s woes, more is needed on the side of media platforms and progressive political forces to highlight the root causes of the crisis, and point fingers towards the responsible figures, organizations, and, most importantly, the structure.

Not many political figures are respondent to case-based advocacy or actions related to Kafala overall. Many platforms, notes Nofal, such as Akhbar al-saha, Beirut Today, Megaphone and/or Daraj, have been very vocal against Kafala

Moving forward, opposition progressive political parties, progressive news platforms, and regular citizens need to focus their attention on highlighting the political nature of the crisis, the unproductive model of economic structure, and the elite-focused socioeconomic arrangements accentuating livelihood difficulties for the most marginalized. The latter have offered only palliative and often nepotistic or clientelist responses and prevented the implementation of sustainable solutions for such a protracted and worsening socioeconomic situation.

The need for people-centered political organization, backed by a counter-hegemonic discourse supported by media platforms and actors against scapegoating and addressing sustainable and transformative needs is at urgent stages, and it is on those capable of organizing such movements to lead this transformation.