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.

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. 

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.

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. 

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 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.

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.

Something changed in me my last few months in Lebanon before returning home. It has been almost three years since I returned to Sierra Leone. I arrived a different person, I have taken my fate into my own hands, I am within my own culture, I am organising among my community, I founded DoWAN*, I am fighting and I am rising up against the injustices I faced under the Kafala System in Lebanon.  

I have shared my story many times, over and over. But there is something missing from the conversation when we talk about human trafficking. Why are women in the position that they are being trafficked to countries like Lebanon? What situation is so bad that we are risking our lives to then live through the injustices of the Kafala system? It is because people are hungry! The severe effects of the climate crisis, droughts, dying crops and food shortages are starving our communities. Seventy percent of the population in Sierra Leone go without their daily bread. The Government falls short in providing any basic provisions and we are trapped in socio-economic instability.

The climate crisis is indirectly causing our daughters, mothers and sisters to leave their loved ones behind and falling victim to human trafficking. Our community often sees poverty as the main reason to leave our country and the main cause of hardships. But poverty is a symptom of the climate crisis. Powerful systems of oppression are causing a multitude of detrimental social, economic, health, food insecurity and other impacts on communities who have contributed the least to the climate crisis.

When we arrive in Lebanon we become victims of abuse, exploitation and marginalisation. Even while living inside of the employers/sponsors’ homes, we as Migrant Domestic Workers are the first people to suffer from the consequences of the climate crisis and the extreme weather caused by it. We are the most vulnerable part of Lebanese society suffering from the weather and climate in a country that isn’t ours.

In Lebanon we are pushed into living conditions, where we are exposed to extreme heat during the summer months, or to extreme cold and dampness during the winter months. Our ‘rooms’… I never slept in a room in Lebanon. My sleeping place was the kitchen in the village and in the living room in the city and are not equipped with appliances providing comfort such as heaters or ACs. We can count ourselves lucky to be given mattresses.

The climate crisis and government corruption impacting the Lebanese who are suffering from electricity and water shortages is unjust. This has a greater impact on migrants particularly Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanese homes who are prohibited from drinking clean water, denied battery lamps, and denied a safe ventilated place to sleep. We are expected not to complain or ask for improvement of our conditions that come from the extreme weather conditions, we are considered as ungrateful and greedy. Where none of the employers/sponsors would accept the discomfort of the extreme heat or lack of electricity and clean water, we are expected to do so in silence. 

Our advocacy and work as community organizers and as survivors of the Kafala system and human trafficking is always reduced to abuse and we are tokenized as victims in the general discussion surrounding labor migration to the Middle East. 

We are more than just victims or survivors, we are experts based on our lived experience. We have the knowledge of our local context and community in our home countries as well as the reality of living as Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon.

The research and discussion around the consequences of the climate crisis and its impact leading to migration and human trafficking need to be more inclusive.  Current and former Migrant Domestic Workers must be actively involved, implementing and engaged in the discussion.

There are still countless women migrating to Lebanon, some of them aware of what awaits them but many also unaware of what is going to happen to their rights and freedoms once they step out of the aeroplane. This is why there is a need to continue fighting. Looking for a solution to our main problems, the climate crisis, poverty and hunger that led us to Lebanon is the best way out of the Kafala. Despite corruption and policies that are restraining our women we see it vital in taking collective affirmative action to build a socio-economic alternative through our ‘Seeding Solidarity’ project to prevent other women from becoming trapped in the Kafala system.

It is in this context of human trafficking and the global threat of climate collapse and food insecurity that we connect to our land and farming practices through agricultural activism and justice.

The real power is within our activism and our work. There is a world of possibilities and solutions. Climate and social justice are rooted in recognising that to tackle modern day slavery and human trafficking we must address the climate crisis to create real change and a more equitable future.

* DoWAN – Domestic Workers Advocacy Network (and Dowan as in Sisterhood in Krio) was established in 2020 as a community-led effort for returnees in their fight against the Kafala system. 

To Muslims, Ramadan is considered the holiest month of the year. One of the ways in which we expand our spirituality during this period is by reflecting on our privileges, the purpose of which is to strengthen our relationship with God and improve our compassion for others. For many people in our community, we think of compassion as something that solely involves donating money to those who live far away from us, and I believe many of us overlook the importance of practicing compassion everyday starting with those who live in our households. This obviously does not reflect the behaviour of all Muslims or all Arabs in any way, but unfortunately, such attitudes are common in countries that employ migrant workers through the Kafala system.

            I grew up as a privileged Kuwaiti girl surrounded by migrant domestic workers, and unfortunately, I was not raised to show compassion towards them. During Ramadan, my parents would preach about the importance of being grateful for what we have because some other people do not have our privileges, but they did not consider the fact that they violated this ethos while they mistreated and abused the domestic workers who migrated to our country and worked beyond the point of exhaustion to make our lives easier. The only reason many of us even have a meal when we break our fast at sunset is because of the labour of migrant domestic workers, and this labour is a product of deliberate systemic exploitation by the Kafala system.  It seems to me that it is hypocritical to preach the importance of compassion and achieving God-consciousness during Ramadan while we continue to uphold modern slavery, deny migrant workers fair compensation for their labour, and even refuse to treat them as equal human beings who deserve the same rights and dignity that we believe we are entitled to.

There seems to be an assumed superiority over migrant workers in communities that use the Kafala system, which is evident in the fact that we force migrant workers to work in unfair conditions even though we would not accept those working conditions for ourselves. If we – as individuals who benefit from the Kafala system and employ migrant workers through that system – do not accept others to treat us this way, why do we continue to act as though it is okay to mistreat migrant workers in this way?

When our compassion towards others is limited to those who are removed from our lives, we are admitting that we are only interested in caring about or helping others so long as that does not interfere with our privileges. In countries that employ migrant workers through the Kafala system, many nationals who benefit from the Kafala system maintain the belief that employers deserve “ownership” over the lives of migrant workers. As individuals who benefit from the Kafala system, we complain about fasting from dawn to sunset without being mindful of the exhaustion of the domestic workers who live in our households and have to work harder during Ramadan to prepare elaborate meals and serve our extended family members during gatherings, without granting them breaks or any accommodations to their needs. In Kuwait, nationals even complain about racism and Islamophobia from Westerners, while we continue to refuse to allow domestic workers to even eat at the same table as us, regardless of the fact that some domestic workers are Muslim and fasting themselves. These may seem like minor things that we have normalised as a cornerstone of our lifestyle and our culture, but to migrant workers these instances of dehumanisation are a constant reminder that we perceive them to be inferior to us.

While we can freely practice our religion and fast during this holy month, and ahead of Eid celebrations, I invite us to reflect on the fact that we continue to unjustly deprive migrant workers of their religious freedom. Recently in Kuwait, a shop was reported to the Ministry of Commerce for merely having a banner promoting deals for Easter. In many households, including my own, domestic workers and drivers were punished, and in some cases even abused, for asking to go to Church. Of course, the Kafala system permits such deprivations of religious freedom and it shameful to imagine how many migrant workers feel excluded and degraded by our communities as a result of this system.

It should not be controversial to state that migrant workers deserve human rights and dignity, and especially during this holy month, we should reflect on the ways in which we continue to uphold a hierarchy of rights depending on a person’s nationality and practice challenging these systems of oppression to support our migrant worker siblings.