Al Rawiya

The Elephant in the Room: Confronting Lebanon’s Relationship with Migrant Workers

Author’s note: Growing up in a family that has immigrated teaches you wonderful things about the world from a very young age. I’d like to share a memory from my childhood. 

When I was a young boy, maybe 8 or 9, my mother would often take me with her to her workplace. Her supervisor at work was a Sri Lankan man.
I was a Lebanese boy in Canada, and knew very little about Sri Lankans. The only other people from Sri Lanka I had met were the maids who worked for my grandparents, and I’d seen a few others, from afar, working in homes I had visited while in Lebanon.

I am not ashamed to admit that, at first, I had trouble understanding my mother’s relationship to her supervisor. It didn’t fit what I had come to believe was the relationship between Lebanese people and Sri Lankan people. This is because my childhood had been steeped in a way of categorizing society according to ethnicity. Growing up Lebanese, religious, and exposed to racially-loaded conversations my entire life, I had been understanding and ordering the world and the people in it according to skin color, religion, and accents when speaking other languages than maternal ones.

This is just one of the deeply troubling and dangerous ways of viewing the world which I owe to my growing up Lebanese, and which I have spent all of my life unlearning.

Lebanese exploitation of migrant workers amounts to little more than modern day slavery and enables our society to shirk its responsibilities.

The dependency on migrant labor is among the most rotten of eggs on Lebanon’s face.


Migrant workers raise Lebanon’s kids, care for its elderly citizens, clean its streets, fuel and wash its cars, do its laundry, fetch its groceries, develop its construction sites, handle its sewage and make its garbage disappear. These are critical everyday tasks which, virtually anywhere else in the world, are unashamedly performed by the citizens of that country.


In Lebanon, migrant domestic workers, gardeners, and building concierges are everyday actors in a family’s life. But far from receiving the attention and care afforded to a family friend, they often remain marginalized and imprisoned by a system of unrealistic expectations where their bargaining power as a worker is essentially nonexistent.

Credits: In 2008, Hellina migrated from Ethiopia to work in Beirut, Lebanon. At the time that this picture was taken, she had been working for her current employer for five years. Portrait of domestic worker Hellina Desta” by UN Women/Joe Saade is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Migrant workers account for about 6 percent of all people living on Lebanese soil, but the percentage they represent in the workforce is much higher. The United Nations has found that the Arab States, which include Lebanon, account for the largest share of migrant workers as a proportion of all workers, at about 41 percent.


This is due to these countries implementing something called the Kafala sponsorship system. Formed in the 1950s, this system allows for utmost employer control over migrant workers in their employ. Each individual sponsor is responsible for their workers’ visa and legal status, and many employers even take physical custody of their employees’ passports. This allows the employers to dictate the terms of employment. It also allows them to control workers’ movements and potentially abuse them with little chance of facing legal repercussions.


In Lebanon, domestic workers are expected to execute their assigned tasks to perfection and without question. Non-compliance can easily be punished by withheld pay, termination of employment, or worse, verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. Workers will perform their assignments for an average 100-hour work week, and the notion of overtime pay is virtually nonexistent.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has consistently called the Kafala system ‘’barbaric’’, and has campaigned for it to be ‘’abolished and an alternate policy implemented, or if it is to be retained should […] reflect a rights-based approach to labour migration’’.


Who are Lebanon’s Kafala workers?


In October of 2020, the Lebanese office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated the number of migrant workers in the country at about 400,000.


These numbers have plummeted, driven by economic hardship which has resulted in the termination of employment for large numbers of migrant workers.


By the end of March of this year, the International Labor Organization claimed that “152,289 regular migrant workers were still working in Lebanon, many coming from some of the world’s most impoverished countries. Domestic workers, mainly women from Ethiopia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Ghana and Kenya, topped the list with 119,081.”


Remuneration levels can be completely different according to a worker’s nationality, with language skills and education level being determinant factors. Filipina domestic workers could expect to receive a higher remuneration than Sri Lankan and Ethiopian nationals, for example.

Credits: A large number of migrant laborers in Lebanon work as construction workers, often under inadequate and unsafe work conditions. Note the absence of hard helmets, safety harnesses, steel-toed boots, and gloves. Migrant laborers transport wooden beams on a construction site” by ILO/APEX is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Outside of domestic work, migrant workers from Bangladesh were estimated at 19,541 and those from Egypt at 9,671, with men mostly working as porters, cleaners, concierges and gas station attendants. According to the ILO, the number of illegal migrant workers is estimated to be around 80,000.


One can wonder, why does Lebanon rely so heavily on migrant workers?


A 2007 study found that domestic work is the single most important category of employment among women migrants to Lebanon. The study showed that the increase of women in the labor force and the changing conceptions of women’s responsibilities ‘’have resulted in a shift in household responsibilities to hired domestic workers’’. 


The now-defunct UN-established Global Migration Group had claimed that migrant labor is often a demographically-motivated issue, with workers being brought in from abroad as a response to ageing populations.


Looking at Lebanon’s demographics, this is a rare plausible explanation for the country’s extreme reliance on foreign labor.

The median age in Lebanon is currently about 29.6 years old, on par with the global average. However, it’s on the rise. Except for a dip in 2015, the average age of a Lebanese resident is getting steadily higher. Projections show that the average age in the country will be 35 in 2030, and almost 43 years old in 2050.

Credits: On March 8th, 2020, domestic workers participated in the Women’s March that took place in Beirut. Their slogans and banners focused on the abolishment of the Kafala/sponsorship system. “IWD – abolishment of the Kafala/sponsorship system” by IDWF is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

And yet Lebanese addiction to foreign labor must be understood according to less rational and sensible explanations. Many Lebanese people simply believe themselves to be above everyday tasks such as taking care of their own families and household. 


As the owner of a Lebanese cleaning service told Foreign Policy earlier this spring, Lebanese people’s refusal to be employed in certain jobs boils down to a deep-seated cultural stigma against domestic work. This is due to classist and racist implications about who performs this type of labor: “the main reason is not the salary […] we [Lebanese] always had foreign cleaners and helpers”, said the owner of the cleaning service.


How have the compounding crises affected migrant workers?


As Lebanon’s economic and political crises intensified in 2020, a disturbing trend emerged where employers of Kafala domestic workers began abandoning their employees en masse.


Hundreds of families chose to no longer pay live-in domestic workers their contractually agreed monthly wages, often as low as $200 or lower still, forcing them out of their homes and into  joblessness and homelessness. 


Then, the port explosion of August 4th deeply affected Beiruti families, along with the migrant workers who worked for them, who lost their jobs, homes, and livelihoods. The situation for many has since continued to deteriorate. 


The IOM has presented survey-based data which shows that after the August 4th blast, 7 percent of foreign nationals claimed to be without shelter. 


Consider that 7 percent of 400,000 workers are 28,000 unhoused people seeking shelter in public spaces or overcrowded rooms, as a pandemic continues to tear through all of the residents of Lebanon, regardless of which country issued their passport.


In late March of this year, United Press International (UPI) reported that the evacuation of migrant workers had accelerated at the end of 2020, with Ethiopia and Sri Lanka sending planes to repatriate their nationals, “mostly housekeepers, many of whom had been abandoned by their employers’’.


Today, Lebanon appears to have lost much of its attractiveness to foreign workers.

According to figures provided by Beirut-based consultancy firm Information International, the Lebanese General Security issued 9,780 work permits in 2020 compared to 57,957 the previous year, a decrease of 83 percent. The number of workers from Ghana dropped by 93.9 percent, the Philippines by 86.3 percent, Bangladesh by 85.3 percent and Egypt by 79.2 percent.


Is Kafala modern-day slavery?


Money talks, so let’s look at the numbers. The extreme poverty line is defined by the World Bank as earning $1.90 or less per day, or about $60 per month. According to the New Humanitarian, migrant domestic workers in Lebanon working 18-hour days can typically expect to earn between $100 and $200 monthly, roughly what most North Americans make in a single 8-hour workday.


The UK charity Anti-Slavery International states that debt bondage, or bonded labor, is ‘’the world’s most widespread form of slavery’’ currently found in the world. 


Under Kafala, workers who are trapped in poverty enter into disadvantageous agreements in which they borrow money to travel or settle abroad, and are forced to work to pay off the debt, losing control over both their employment conditions and the debt’’.

Credits: Lebanese agriculture relies extensively on a migrant Syrian labour force. “Syrian migrant workers prepare a field for planting” by ILO/APEX is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

According to an analysis published a few months ago by the Harvard International Review, some worker recruitment agencies operating under the Kafala system “require that workers pay fees and incur debt in order to travel abroad for work’’. The analysis goes on to note that many migrant workers will spend their career working to pay off debt acquired as a result of traveling to the host country. According to the author, “that indebtedness leaves them in irreversible bondage to an owner, a power dynamic that resembles that of slavery.’’


The article goes on to note that a 2015 study on the recruitment process of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon from Nepal and Bangladesh found that as many as 84 percent of workers surveyed “would not have traveled away from home if they were informed about the truth of their situation’’.


In late October of 2020, a Lebanese court stopped a new contract system for migrant workers from being implemented. While this could have represented a step in the right direction which may have paved the way for the abolition of the Kafala system, the Shura Council instead ruled in favor of Domestic Worker Recruitment, an association of recruitment agencies.


Where do we go from here?


As the Lebanese kleptocratic class continues to fail virtually every living person on the country’s territory, it has unsurprisingly fallen to the NGO sector to step in and ensure the safety of migrant workers, or to help them raise funds and clear legal obstacles for workers to be able to return home.


In fact, Lebanon’s ironically classless political class are using the deteriorating Lebanese economy as an excuse to sweep the Kafala crisis under the carpet, even though as recently as a few weeks ago, Freedom United addressed an open letter to Lebanon’s Ministry of Labor petitioning for the end of the Kafala employment system.


As the Business & Human Rights Resource Center reported in February of this year, Lebanon’s migrant workers were left out of the government’s coronavirus vaccination plan, with the government essentially leaving the planning and execution of this crucial public health measure to the Labor Ministry and UN agencies.


NGOs like Beirut-based Anti-Racist Movement (ARM) have taken it upon themselves to educate migrant workers on their rights to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and how they can achieve this crucial step which allows them to protect themselves and their community.

Credits: Advocacy for the rights of migrant workers is not new in Lebanon. This photograph was taken at a Migrant Worker Task Force meeting at Zico House in Beirut in 2012, following the death of Alem, an Ethiopian migrant worker. Justice for Alem” by Hibr is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

And yet while work is scarce and life seems to hang in limbo as the coronavirus pandemic runs its course, migrant workers with little control over their own lives are very literally exposed to a world of risk. In April, the mutilated body of a migrant Ethiopian worker was discovered abandoned in a plastic bag in Beirut. Results of the investigation into the circumstances of their death have not yet been made public.


There is hope for a better, more equitable approach to employing migrant workers, and Lebanese attitudes towards Kafala labor are changing. Social media campaigns calling for the abolition of this system are being led by organisations such as GirlUp Lebanon, This Is Lebanon 961, Beirut Today and Hope for Helpers.


Migrant workers can and should continue to work in Lebanon, but the oppressive Kafala system which takes autonomy and options away from workers must be left in the past, where it belongs. 

Being allowed to refuse abusive, unsafe, or unfairly remunerated work is a fundamental civil right that any worker anywhere in the world should enjoy. 


The deeply troubling status quo of Kafala labor has been unmasked, and it must be resolved if a social revolution is to accompany a political one.


I would end with this idea: a society that won’t even take out its own trash, fold its own laundry, or care for its own family members might just have gotten too comfortable with passing the buck on taking responsibility for itself.

Nicolas is a multiplatform journalist and content producer. He speaks French, English, Spanish and Arabic, and has reported in Canada, the United States, and Lebanon. In his work, he strives to give a voice to the voiceless, promote sustainable ideas and practices, and leave offline and online spaces better than he found them. Nicolas is currently based in Toronto, but often in Lebanon, and elsewhere.



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