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The Kafala System

sunny 32 °C

The familiar noise of car horns and the babble of Arabic chatter drifted up to the balcony as I sat with my coffee. It signaled 'business as usual' on the congested streets in Ras An Nabaa. This was reassuring, given the bellowing clouds of black smoke rising from the mountain of rubber tyres being thrown onto blazing bonfires the previous day. I welcomed the arrival of my French flatmate Arielle, who joined me with a pot of tea. She reckoned it would be safe to explore the city, albeit with caution. Being an Arabic student living in Beirut, I trusted her advice, gleamed from local networks.

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==Waking up on the balcony==

Glancing over to the flats opposite, a young Asian women dressed in a white work uniform stepped onto the balcony. Getting down on her hands and knees, she began scrubbing the surface of the lengthy veranda with active vigour. As she did so, a frowning Lebanese women towered over her, cross armed, scrutinising the frantic cleaning. Aghast and confused, I turned to Arielle who casually told me live-in maids were common in Lebanon, seen as 'property' and treated like dirt. It became clear that the 'normalcy' on the streets of Beirut, was underpinned by a darker side that began to unfold. The kafala system, an inherently abusive sponsorship arrangement, makes migrant domestic workers vulnerable to a gateway into slavery and human trafficking.

They call it the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, a frequency bias. You know the way you notice something new, at least it is new to you and suddenly you are aware of it all over the place? In reality, there is no increase in occurrence, it is just that you have started to notice it. No prizes for guessing what I began to notice everywhere. On reaching to close the bedroom shutters to get dressed, a middle-aged Black women was hard at work directly opposite. Looking drawn and exhausted, she wore a shabby nightshirt, along with a yellow scarf sitting askew on the side of her head. Heavy blankets were shaken over the balcony, given their weight, she had perfected the knack of throwing them high in the air, to land perfectly on the elevated clothesline.

Given the close proximity of living spaces, when our eyes met, I flashed over a friendly smile. The look of alarm etched on the woman's face in return, took me aback. In a flash, her back was turned, and she hastily unwound the wide canopy, when the blank screen dropped, she was out of sight. My heart sank at the possibility that fear was behind her failure to return a friendly gesture. Perhaps, being warned not to communicate with others. Staying in what was a relatively low-income neighbourhood of Beirut, I found it surprising that domestic workers were hired here at all. However, they are excluded from Lebanese Employment Law, including the National Living Wage ($450 per month). Instead they are governed by the kafala system when salaries vary significantly or not paid at all.

Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon (and across the Middle East) are trapped in a web woven by the kafala system. At any one time, there are over 250,000 women in Lebanon, mainly from the poorer African and South East Asian countries. They expect to complete their contract period, before returning home to the families, who sorely depended on their dollars wired from abroad, for survival. The legal residency of the worker is tied to the contractual relationship with the sponsor, leaving workers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, with little prospect of redress. The necessary written consent from sponsors, to change jobs or return home early; is rarely granted. The systematic and harrowing abuse of migrant workers is endemic within the available reports. Women suffer regular beatings and are assaulted for minor errors, imprisoned in small rooms, banned from leaving the home and passports are routinely confiscated. More extreme reports tell of sexual abuse and exploitation, often culminating in torture and murder.

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==Ethiopian women waiting to be picked up by their sponsor - although the Ethiopian government has placed a ban on working in Lebanon, traffickers find a way==

It was time to head out. Navigating my way through the narrow streets towards Downtown Beirut, the distinctive scent of mint and lavender filled the air, an outdoor market must be near. Markets always provide a unique opportunity to experience a new culture and soak up the vibrant atmosphere, while sampling local street food and being amazed at the eclectic mix of goods on offer. Wading deep into the sprawling market, locals crowded around stalls displaying mountains of colourful fruit and veg, in all shapes and sizes. Women shoved or elbowed their way to the front, shouting over each other, grappling to catch the vendors attention. In the thick of the bedlam, a bedraggled Asian women trailed behind her sponsor. With her tiny frame and wide eyes, she appeared more like a 13 or 14-year-old child.

She looked out of place (much like me), with her long hair blowing in the breeze, swathed in a sea of veiled Muslim women. Patiently waiting while her sponsor painstakingly held and gently squeezed one tomato after another, studying the red flesh, until satisfied with her lot. If like myself you pick up a bag of oranges, quickly scan for any rotten ones, then throw them in your basket; the care and attention Lebanese women took when selecting fresh produce, never failed to amaze me.

Without any cue or eye contact, the maid instinctively lifted the bag of carefully selected fruit, adding to her already heavy burden. Armed to the teeth with interest and curiosity, I enjoy learning about people's lives wherever I travel. Being especially keen to speak to a domestic worker, any attempt seemed futile, being rarely alone or within reach. Or as I thought earlier; even a smile could be dangerous! Ras An Nabaa is by no means a tourist hotspot and English not widely spoken. It crossed my mind that perhaps these conditions, whilst oppressive for workers, were welcomed by sponsors. Adding further armour to the already tight restrictions that stopped domestic migrant workers from reaching out, with no passing tourists.

Arielle believed 'the Lebanese were racist'. Whilst taken aback at such a sweeping statement, it became clear from the reports, that much of the discrimination experienced by migrant domestic workers, is in fact underpinned by racism. Anecdotal evidence suggests nationality and skin colour is an important detriment of salary. Many choose to employ Bangladeshi women as they are the least expensive to recruit and work for the lowest salary. Followed closely by Indonesians and Ethiopians, routinely paid less than $200 a month; for a 7-day week with no set work hours. Women from the Philippines are reported to be the highest earners said to receive $300+ a month.

I never made it far out of Ras An Nabaa that day. I stumbled upon a modest little restaurant and chatted for hours to Beria, who ran the place for her dad. She was as desperate to use her excellent English skills, as I was to hear them! The muted TV screen was flashing 'breaking news' style headlines. From behind the screen, men displayed facial expressions that signaled anger, together with fists being punched in the air. Glancing over at Beria for some clue, she threw back her head and giggled 'everything is fine'! I was not convinced!

A boy with badly stained front teeth, appeared carrying a small wooden crate piled high with plump, shiny aubergines. The 15-year-old Ahmed, a Syrian refugee, had the greenest eyes and sported an Elvis-esque quiff. Beria gave him a job, 'so he could eat and get a small allowance for cigarettes and transport'. She quite often provided some food for his 6 siblings, orphans living together in the Shatila refugee camp, on the outskirts of Beirut. The racism towards Syrians in Lebanon meant they were rarely offered jobs, being a Christian, she wanted to help. It seemed racism affected a lot of people here in Lebanon, as in many other countries.

I headed home after a scrumptious dinner of kofta, with a side of mutabbla, (garlic mixed with baked aubergines) wrapped in flatbread, straight from the oven to my plate. It was early evening, as usual the streets were pretty sparse of women. Having little need to go outside except to shop, they were behind closed doors, along with their maids.
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Further information

  • The most recent domestic migrant worker to die was a 23-year-old from Ghana. Her body was found on March 14th this year in a car park under the home of her employers. Less than 24 hours earlier, she was sending messages to an activist group for domestic workers under the kafala system, about the abuse she was suffering at the hands of her Lebanese employers.
  • Authorities in Lebanon estimate at least two migrant domestic workers die every week from 'unnatural causes'. Faced with their hellish conditions with no chance of appeal to any authority and no hope of escape – a number of these 'unnatural causes' include suicides. Yet how many suicides are failed escape attempts or actual murders disguised as suicides will remain unknown with the countries authorities reluctant to pursue formal investigations.
  • If interested there is a Facebook page This is Lebanon that do some great work, confronting employers and helping women to escape their abusers. The activist group report that women already deprived of human rights and freedom, are now at a greater risk of being abused as Lebanon remains under lock-down, to battle Covid-19. Women are also risk not being paid or paid less since the countries supply of dollars has disappeared.

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[/centre]==Demonstration in Downtown Beirut in 2019==

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Posted by katieshevlin62 05:52 Archived in Lebanon

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Comments

Your well-written story really makes me sad.... It's a cruel world....

by Vic_IV

Thanks Vic yes very sad situation

by katieshevlin62

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