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COVID-19 Conversations: Women migrant workers in Lebanon abused and abandoned by the Kafala system

A series of photos of women staring into the camera

The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing and exacerbating gender inequalities around the world. We are sharing insights from an Equality Now expert about how women’s and girls’ lives are being affected by the pandemic and what can be done to address the challenges. 

This week, we talk to Dima Dabbous, Equality Now’s MENA Director, about the plight of Lebanon’s women migrant workers who are trapped by the country’s abusive Kafala system.

Please give a brief explanation of the Kafala system, practiced in Lebanon and some other Middle Eastern countries.

The Kafala system is an exploitative sponsorship scheme which incorporates archaic feudal laws and regulations, legally binding a foreign worker’s immigration status to their employer, making them entirely dependent for their residency and livelihood.

Foreign workers are excluded from Lebanon’s Labor Law protections and must obtain permission from their employer if they want to change jobs or exit the country. Up to 90% of employers confiscate the passport of their migrant employees, with the acquiescence of the local authorities and against international law. Workers who leave their employment without “permission” lose their legal residency and can be fined, imprisoned, and deported.

This power imbalance and lack of safeguarding for workers’ rights such as minimum wage, overtime pay, and limits on working hours, has led to widespread violations including forced labor, sexual and gender-based violence, and restrictions on movement.

Why has the situation for women migrant workers in Lebanon deteriorated in recent months?

On August 4th, the port area of Lebanon’s capital Beirut was devastated by two huge explosions that left over 200 dead and 6,000 injured. The blasts destroyed and damaged buildings up to 10 kilometers away, making 300,000 people homeless. This catastrophe comes at a time when Lebanon is already reeling from a deep economic and political crisis marred by hyperinflation, an unemployment rate of around 22%, spiraling poverty, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

All this has further compounded the suffering of Lebanon’s women migrant workers, who have been especially affected by the coronavirus health crisis alongside the economic and political turmoil.

Working conditions have worsened during the pandemic. COVID-19 lockdown measures have confined domestic workers at home with their employer. Many have been forced to work longer hours, often with little or no pay, and reports of emotional, sexual, and physical abuse are rife. Thousands have lost their jobs and been thrown onto the streets.

There are estimated to be over 250,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, the majority of them are women from Africa and Southeast Asia. Many came to earn money to send back as remittances to their families but the dire economic situation means they are now trapped in poverty, homeless, destitute, and unable to work legally or afford the cost of travel back to their homeland.

What should be done to assist Lebanon’s women migrant workers?

Following months of political protest, the Lebanese government resigned on August 10th but is remaining in a caretaker capacity until a new cabinet is formed. For years, campaigners have been calling for the Kafala system to be dismantled and in recent months, Lebanese government officials have been discussing the introduction of new labor protections for migrant worker rights. These reforms are more urgent than ever and must be prioritized by whoever governs Lebanon.

Labor contracts for foreign workers must meet international human rights and labor standards, including granting workers the right to earn the national minimum wage, change employers, and resign and terminate their employment contract at will. Women should also be allowed to choose their place of residence and not be forced to live in the private home of their employer, where abuse commonly occurs behind closed doors.

In addition, effective mechanisms and enforcement are required to monitor working conditions, protect workers from mistreatment, and hold to account employers who breach contractual obligations or abuse employees.

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