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.

Sex trafficking is a form of forced labour consisting of exploiting a trafficked person for sexual services. Sex trafficking falling under the forced labour definition is characterised by the threat of punishment and for which the person has not offered themselves voluntarily. The UN’s Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (the Palermo Protocol) includes three elements in its definition: the act, the means and the object. Sex trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons who under threat, force, coercion, fraud, deception or abuse of power are sexually exploited for the financial gain of another.

Source: End Slavery Now

Sex work in Lebanon is criminalised under its penal law, which has led to sex trafficking rings taking advantage of undocumented and destitute Migrant Domestic Workers, forcing them into involuntary sex work. 

According to a report by LAU and Egna Legna Besidet, 68% of MDWs in Lebanon have experienced one or several forms of sexual harassment by their employers, their agents or by strangers in public. 

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.

Bonded labour, also known as debt bondage, occurs when people agree to unpaid labour as a security or amortisation against a loan or debt they either assumed themselves or on behalf of someone else. In theory, it is presented as an employment agreement, however, based on unpaid work to repay a debt, which oftentimes is not achievable and with work being under dangerous or extreme conditions.

The difficulty of settling the debts and the potential incurrence of additional debts often lead to a perpetuation of the exploitative situation.

Source: End Slavery Now

The Kafala system’s illegal and unethical recruitment practices include agencies in sending countries recruiting Migrant Domestic Workers with the requirement of upfront recruitment fees, which leads to many MDWs taking up loans with the agencies themselves, pushing them into the trap of debt bondage. 

In some cases the MDWs covered the expenses of their legal/travel documents, flights and administrative fees, unaware that their employers themselves cover some of these fees.

Forced labour is considered any kind of work performed involuntarily and under the menace of punishment. It refers to situations of individuals being coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or more subtle measures such as manipulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.

Source: International Labour Organisation

In Lebanon, Migrant Domestic Workers trapped under the Kafala system are not covered under the protection of the Lebanese Labour Law. The majority of MDWs work under extreme circumstances including long hours and without any adequate rest or safe work conditions. MDWs who have addressed these issues with their employers have reported suffering from physical violence or threats of legal action such as cancellation of residency papers if they do not continue working. During the past three years, it has been observed that with the financial crisis in Lebanon, more employers have delayed or failed to pay the workers their owed salaries.

Modern slavery as a concept or crime is not defined in international law. It is used as an umbrella term that includes various legal concepts. At its core, it refers to situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power.

Whether tricked, coerced, or forced, a person subjected to modern-day slavery loses their freedom. This includes but is not limited to human trafficking, forced labour and debt bondage.

Source: Anti-Slavery International

The Kafala system fuels modern-day slavery. There have been numerous reports and testimonies of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon being forced into working for households under exploitative conditions. Many Migrant Domestic Workers have been unable to leave their abusive workplace due to threats or involuntary imprisonment. Countless testimonies have confirmed that recruitment agencies in their country of origin have used deception and fraudulent practices to lure women into signing work contracts to travel to Lebanon unaware of the real circumstances of their employment and living arrangements.

On the occasion of this year’s International Workers’ Day, members of Reclaim Our Rights are sharing their thoughts and appreciation of what Labour Day means to them and how they celebrate it as community leaders, workers’ rights advocates, and survivors of the abusive Kafala system. 


For me, this is my day. Labour Day honours workers and their contribution to society. So this day means a lot to me. Before, it did not have any meaning in my life. However, having worked as a migrant worker, I find this day very important. It shows how far I have come and the struggles I see migrants going through. This is the one day to honour the heroes, and my heroes here [in Lebanon] are the migrants and community leaders who show the truth that the Kafala system is flawed. Despite all the hardships they have been through and still experience, they still stand firm and smile. They still wake up the following day to continue fighting against the injustice under the Kafala system. They are the workers who have been through a lot and are still standing and willing to fight for others. I celebrate them on this day. They are my heroes today and every day after. This is the day I honour them. This is the day in my own quiet time when I say a silent prayer to all the workers all over the world, but especially to those who are trapped under the Kafala system in Lebanon. 


For me, Workers’ Day is about me. It is my day, and I want to reward and clap to myself for all the hard work I do every day for my family, my friends, the family I’m working for, and most especially for my community. It is important to give credit to ourselves for working so hard.


Labour Day is a day to celebrate and reflect on the struggle and the amazing work that we are doing. But we also use this day to acknowledge our suffering. We celebrate this day with joy but also to remember everything that we have been through as migrant domestic workers. Today brings out the best in us because we are able to express ourselves and share our stories with ourselves and the public. We can voice our concerns, the things that we face and the things we want to change. So it is a special day for us, and we celebrate it in a way that reflects on our achievements as migrant workers and the things we want to achieve in the future as community leaders. 


International Workers’ Day is Labour Day.  Labour Day is the day when we remember the contributions and struggles of workers all over the world. It is a day to honour the achievements of the labour movement. Labour Day is the day to recognise the dignity of workers. Labour Day is also to advocate for fair wages. It is a day to advocate for safe working conditions and social justice. It is a day to remember the ongoing fight for equality and the importance of standing in solidarity with other workers. This day is also to remember domestic workers are workers who should be respected and protected under the same labour laws as all workers.