The term Kafala means ‘Sponsorship’ in Arabic. The Kafala system is a sponsorship system for migrant workers in Lebanon, as well as several other Arab countries, which governs migrant workers’ immigration, employment, residency and personal status in the country.

The responsibility for all matters relating to the MDWs falls under the purview of the sponsors, who are also the employers of the MDWs. The sponsors/employers have unchecked power over the MDWs’ lives in regards to their legal status, employment, health care, accommodation and private lives. This essentially gives impunity to employers to confiscate their passports, overwork them, deny their wages, deprive them of food and reasonable sleeping conditions and inflict physical and sexual abuse. In addition, the Kafala system does not allow for workers to change jobs or leave the country without the employers’ consent. 

In short, the Kafala system is an exploitative system that gives employers tremendous and often-abused power over migrant women who work, sleep and eat in the homes of these same employers.

In many cases, the Kafala system enables or promotes the practice of one if not most of the previously mentioned international legal concepts, including human trafficking, modern-day slavery, debt bondage and domestic servitude. 

It is clear that the Kafala system is not justifiable under international human rights law and the governments of Lebanon and other Arab countries applying it as an immigration system for cheap labour should be held responsible. The international community should encourage these governments to abolish the Kafala system completely and replace it with a fair and just immigration and labour system based on international human rights law and international labour standards.

Labour migration is defined as the movement of persons from one state to another, or within their own country of residence, for the purpose of employment. Employment is one of the primary drivers of contemporary migration. It can involve paid employment or self-employment, and it can occur on a temporary or longer-term basis. As many as 169 million international migrants were either employed or seeking employment in a country of destination, accounting for 62 per cent of international migrants worldwide.

Source: International Organisation for Migration

In theory, the migration of workers from countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia to Lebanon falls under the definition of Labour Migration. However, due to the exclusion of migrant workers from  Lebanese Labour Law and the Kafala’s system being based on restrictive private sponsorship by employers, its practice doesn’t fulfil the international legal standards of protection of migrant workers. The movement towards the abolition of the Kafala system doesn’t imply the prevention of labour migration but rather intends to provide government regulations and oversight according to labour and migration standards of international law. As long as the system continues to exist under its current set-up, it should be considered as state-sponsored labour exploitation enabling modern-day slavery and human trafficking.

Human trafficking is defined in the UN’s Palermo Protocol on Trafficking, as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of people through force, fraud, coercion or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit. Men, women and children of all ages and from all backgrounds can become victims of this crime, which occurs in every region of the world. 
Traffickers often use violence or fraudulent employment agencies and fake promises of education and job opportunities to trick and coerce their victims.

People don’t have to be transported across borders for trafficking to take place. Trafficking is defined by the movement of a person, and this can happen within a single country or even within a single community.

Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

Lebanon’s Kafala system, and particularly its network of recruitment agencies, both in Lebanon and in sending countries, have repeatedly used methods of deception and coercion to traffick women into the country.  Promises of high salaries, good working conditions and benefits have led MDWs to agree to work in Lebanon. However, civil society organisations and community organisations have documented many cases of migrant workers being falsely promised jobs in completely different sectors and positions, such as healthcare, education and private businesses. In many countries, recruitment agencies present the women with fake work contracts, with deceiving provisions, which have no legal standing against the contract they sign upon arrival in Lebanon.

According to estimates, more than 25% of people subjected to modern-day slavery are minors. Children are predominantly forced into domestic servitude, sex trafficking and dangerous as well as harmful manual labour. 

Supply needs and industry demand for cheap, unskilled labour are increasing the numbers of children being forced into modern-day slavery. Many of the sectors enabling forced child labour include work requiring physical attributes, such as small stature and agility.

Poverty pushes children into accepting work including their parents asking them to work to supplement the family income. These conditions and circumstances are reinforced by systemic, structural issues such as lack of access to education, inadequate employment opportunities, corruption and social stratification.

Source: End Slavery Now

Although the Kafala system requires MDWs to be over 18 years old, there have been numerous cases of underaged Migrant Workers arriving in Lebanon, therefore being cases of forced child labour/child slavery and child trafficking.

Oftentimes recruitment agencies in sending countries forge legal documents for underaged women to ensure their migration to Lebanon under the Kafala system.

Domestic servitude is the exploitative and controlling practice of ‘employing’ live-in domestic workers. It is a form of forced labour but with distinct patterns and challenges due to the specific conditions of living in the employer’s household and being invisible to external control or protection. Domestic workers are more vulnerable to various forms of abuse and deprivation of freedoms. 

The majority of domestic workers are women, who are at an increased risk of harassment, and abuse including physical and sexual violence. The working conditions in domestic servitude are often characterised by excessive work hours, lack of privacy, limited freedom of movement and low wages or even wage theft.

Source: End Slavery Now

The majority of migrant workers in Lebanon are domestic workers with the latest estimate by the IOM assuming that 42% of them are live-in MDWs residing and working in their employers’ households. Their lives are completely controlled by their employers, including their freedom of movement, increasing their risks of finding themselves in domestic servitude without any access to legal support and services. 

In Lebanon’s Kafala system, countless women have experienced human rights abuses including verbal and physical abuse and Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, while simultaneously being forced to do unpaid domestic work. This has particularly worsened with the Lebanese financial crisis, where many employers justify the shortage of US Dollars as a reason to withhold the MDWs’ salaries.

On International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Reclaim Our Rights Collective shared an Open Letter addressed to the Lebanese media. They express their concern over the perpetuation of racial discrimination by Lebanese news outlets. MWA joins the calls of the ROR collective and recommends that journalists working for Lebanese media stop disseminating content that stigmatises and discriminates against Migrant Workers and adhere to international standards of media ethics.

Migrant Workers’ Action in support of the Reclaim Our Rights Collective celebrates International Women’s Day with the release of ROR’s Manifesto. The Reclaim Our Rights (ROR) Collective is a coalition created and led by Women Migrant Domestic Workers, community leaders, and activists who advocate and campaign for the abolition of the Kafala system and guaranteeing their rights and freedoms as migrant (domestic) workers in Lebanon.

Migrant Workers’ Action has submitted an Input to the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and Girls after a call for submissions by civil society to discuss sexual and gender-based violence in the sex work industry. The Kafala system is enabling sex trafficking and, with it, SGBV against MDWs in Lebanon. Download our briefing to learn more about the issue and read our recommendations to stakeholders and decision-makers.

MWA developed a short brief focusing on the role of the IOM Lebanon Office following several concerns expressed by partner organisations. The brief summarises the challenges and concerns MWA has found through its work with migrant domestic workers, their communities, and CSOs. It aims to shed light on gaps within IOM’s system and work that lead to confusion, as experienced by MDWs in Lebanon. The brief is intended to advise IOM in its work by providing recommendations on current challenges.

On the occasion of International Day For the Abolition of Slavery, MWA is launching its report on the plight of Kenyan Migrant Domestic Workers on their migration journey to Lebanon. The report is the first of MWA’s In-Focus research series committed to providing an in-depth understanding of localised contexts and key drivers of migration in sending countries, leading MDWs to travel to Lebanon, as well as their experiences under the Kafala system in Lebanon.