Migrant workers rallied in Beirut on Sunday, demanding an end to the current sponsorship system in Lebanon.
Migrant workers rallied in Beirut on Sunday, demanding an end to the current sponsorship system in Lebanon.

Credit: Sabah Haider.

BEIRUT, Lebanon (WOMENSENEWS)–Late Sunday morning here, as thousands of young men swam in the Mediterranean Sea and sunbathed on the rocks, the sound of chanting voices drifted down from the cliff-side road above.

Hundreds of local activists and migrant workers from across Asia and Africa were walking along the corniche, carrying placards that said “No More Suicides” and “Give Us The Right To Live.”

It was April 28, the day that Lebanese workers and advocates chose to celebrate International Workers’ Day, which officially falls on May 1.

The protesters marched along the seaside towards the city’s Sanayeh Park, where they had lunch and groups from various migrant worker communities performed cultural dances.

Lebanon is well known for the internal ethnic divisions of its multicultural population, but this crowd was focused on the common, harsh face the country turns outward to foreign workers through the Kefala sponsorship system, which gives employers almost unchecked control; free from labor laws.

Migrant workers in Lebanon mostly come from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Philippines, Nepal and Ethiopia, among many other Asian and African countries.

If they are women they are mainly employed as domestic workers; if male they join the ranks of the city’s sanitation workers and laborers.

Female migrant workers in the country, and over the years many who face abuse have committed suicide. Human Rights Watch estimates that an average of one migrant domestic worker dies in Lebanon every week, mostly from suicide or while attempting to escape abusive employers.

The protest march is part of a fast-growing advocacy effort to raise public awareness of the problems inherent in the Kefala system–both for employers and workers–and to abolish it.

Reformers say they want workers to have the protections of the country’s labor law, which means they would earn the right to receive their salaries, to have a day off, to have a maximum number of work hours, to have the right to leave the home and not be locked in, to be able to hold on to their own passports and to quit their jobs if they want to.

None of these rights currently exist for the country’s migrant workers.

Galvanizing Moment

A galvanizing moment for the cause of ending the Kefala system came in 2012, when an amateur videographer used his mobile phone to capture an Ethiopian domestic worker lying on the sidewalk in pain outside the Ethiopian embassy. The worker was then attacked by Lebanese men and dragged by her hair and shoved into a car. The footage was leaked on the Internet and went viral, with the Lebanese media also picking up the story. She committed suicide a few days later.

“The Kefala system is similar to modern-day slavery in our opinion,” said Maya Ammar, communications officer at KAFA, a nongovernmental group organizing the demonstration, whose name means “enough violence and exploitation in Lebanon and the Middle East.”

The group–established in 2005 and pulling together rights activists who have been active in Lebanon for decades–has a mission of ending gender-based violence and exploitation of women and children through advocating for legal reform and change of policies and practices, influencing public opinion and empowering women and children.

KAFA worked with a number of other local advocacy groups to hold the event for the second year last weekend.

“Fi Shi Ghalat,” Arabic for “There’s something wrong,” is a media campaign the organizing groups of the April 28 demonstration launched two months ago, to raise awareness.

“This is the second year we’re doing this event on Workers’ Day because domestic work is work, and here it’s not recognized as real work by society, by the system and by the law,” said Ammar. “We want Workers’ Day to be inclusive, to represent their demand to end the Kefala system and for them to be included under the labor law.”

‘Right Now We Are Suffering’

Mohammed Bashan is president of a Bangladeshi migrant worker community association in Lebanon. “We all want the governments to sponsor us, and we want our governments, our labor ministries in Bangladesh and Lebanon, to negotiate and respect our terms and make sure we are paid, that we can keep our IDs and we have proper insurance and contracts. Right now we are suffering,” he said.

The Kefala system was established in Lebanon over five decades ago, and it ties a migrant domestic worker’s residence permit to one specific sponsor or employer in the country.

In practice, however, migrant domestic workers are excluded from the labor law, making them vulnerable to exploitation and compromising their rights, according to a . Migrant workers and their advocates consider it a system for denying dignity, freedom and basic working conditions.

“We come here to work, but are not given the rights to live here,” said Mado Dioman, a domestic worker who came to Lebanon from the Ivory Coast three years ago and attended the weekend rally.

The Gulf Arab state of Bahrain abolished its Kefala system in 2009.

KAFA’s Ammar said that abolishing the Kefala system in Lebanon would help employers as well, an idea her group is trying to publicize. “The relationship should be of an employer and an employee protected under labor law that ensures a minimum wage and better insurance and working hours for the workers. Abolishing the Kefala system would enable both parties to end their relationship without a penalty,” she said.

Protecting an Investment

Ammar said the Kefala system is also hard on employers because it requires them to spend a lot of money for the necessary permits to sponsor the employee and then forces them to become the sole legal guardian of their employee. This pressure can be a trigger for abusive behavior in what is ultimately a master-servant relationship.

“They invest a lot of money into sponsoring their workers and are legally responsible for them. With all legal and financial responsibility on them, they fear they need to protect their investment and that ends up being control. The attitude needs to change, and the rest will follow,” she said.

Ayesha Kanale, also from the Ivory Coast, has worked as a domestic worker for a Lebanese family in Beirut for the past eight years. While she says she’s more or less happy in her role, she is quick to add that she can’t be fully content in her job under the current circumstances.

“The main issue for migrant workers in Lebanon, for me, is that if I have a problem with my Madame, or with anyone in Lebanon, there is nowhere that I can go and complain. There is no one that I can go to,” she said at the rally.

Lakshmi Bandara is a smiling Sri Lankan woman who has worked as a maid in Beirut for the same family for 26 years. She said she is likely the exception here.

“I’m very happy with my family here, but there are many women here who are not happy,” she said at the weekend demonstration. “And that’s why I am here today. To celebrate our culture and ask for our freedom.”


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