The Kafala System – A Gateway into Slavery & Human Trafficking
The Kafala System – A Gateway into Slavery & Human Trafficking
Author: Katie Shevlin
The familiar sound of blasting car horns and the babble of Arabic chatter drifted up to the balcony where I sat with my coffee. It signalled ‘business as usual’ on the congested streets of Beirut.
It was reassuring. The day before, I’d been driven through suffocating clouds of black smoke. Rising from heaps of burning rubber tyres, thrown onto blazing bonfires by angry crowds of men. I welcomed the arrival of my French flatmate Arielle, who joined me with a pot of tea. She reckoned it would be safe enough to explore the city – albeit with caution. Being an Arabic student living in the city, I trusted her advice gleaned from local networks.
Glancing over to the flats opposite, a young Asian woman 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 woman towered over her cross armed, scrutinising the frantic cleaning.
Aghast and confused, I turned to Arielle, who casually explained live-in maids were common in Lebanon. Seen as ‘property’ and ‘treated like dirt’. So, although things seemed pretty normal on the streets of Beirut, a darker side began to unfold. The kafala system, an inherently abusive sponsorship arrangement, leaves 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 see everywhere.
On reaching to close the bedroom shutters to get dressed, a middle-aged Black women was hard at work on the balcony directly opposite. Looking drawn and exhausted, she wore a shabby nightshirt and a yellow scarf sitting askew on the side of her head. Heavy blankets were shaken over the balcony and given their weight, she’d 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. And when the blank screen dropped, she was out of sight.
My heart sank at the possibility that perhaps fear was behind her failure to return a friendly gesture. Perhaps, she was 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 there at all. However, they’re excluded from Lebanese Employment Law, including the National Living Wage ($450 per month). Instead they’re governed by the oppressive kafala system – when salaries vary significantly or not paid at all.
Ethiopian women waiting for their sponsor at Beirut Airport – even though the Ethiopian government has banned women for working in Lebanon.
Image: courtesy of the author.
Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon 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 before returning home to the families. The families who sorely depended on the dollars wired from abroad for their 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 written consent from sponsors, essential to change jobs or return home early, is rarely granted. The systematic and harrowing abuse of migrant workers is endemic in the reports available. Women suffer regular beatings and are assaulted for minor errors, imprisoned in small rooms,starved, deprived of sleep, banned from leaving the house and passports are routinely confiscated.
More extreme reports tell of sexual abuse and exploitation. Often resulting in torture and murder. According to the activist group ‘This is Lebanon’ two migrant domestic workers die in Lebanon every week. Either murdered, suicide or a murder disguised as suicide. Others fall/pushed from balconies – some while trying to escape.
Image: courtesy of the author.
It was time to head out. The narrow chaotic streets led me the way to downtown Beirut. The distinctive scent of mint and lavender filled the air and I thought an outdoor market could be near. I love markets, they always provide a unique opportunity to experience a new culture and soak up the vibrant atmosphere. While sampling street food and being amazed at the mixture of goods on offer.
Wading deeper into the sprawling market, locals crowded around stalls displaying everything from underwear to parts for bicycles. People 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 forlorn Asian woman trailed behind her employer. With her tiny frame and wide eyes, she looked more like a 13 or 14-year-old child.
Like me, she looked out of place. Wrapped like a parcel in the middle of a crowd of Muslim women. Their heads covered in an array of eye-catching veils and scarves. Whilst her long black hair blew freely in the breeze. She was waiting patiently, while her sponsor painstakingly held and gently squeezed one tomato after another.
Studying the red flesh until she was satisfied – then continued the search for more. If you’re like myself, you’ll pick up a bag of oranges, quickly scan for any rotten ones and then throw them in your basket. So, the scrutiny and care some women take when selecting fresh fruit and veg never fails to amaze me, when I travel around the world.
Without any cue or eye contact, the maid instinctively lifted the bag of carefully selected fruit and added to her already heavy burden. Armed to the teeth with interest and curiosity, I enjoy learning about people’s lives when I travel. Although I was eager to speak to a domestic worker any attempt seemed futile. The women, rarely alone or out of reach.
Or as I’d considered earlier, could a smile even be dangerous? Ras An Nabaa was by no means a tourist hotspot and English not widely spoken. It crossed my mind that perhaps these circumstances, whilst oppressive for workers, may actually be welcomed by employers. It added another layer of armour, to the already strict conditions that stopped domestic workers from seeking help. There were no passing tourists.
Arielle believed ‘the Lebanese were racist’. Whilst taken aback by her rather sweeping statement, it became clear from the reports that much of the prejudice towards these workers is underpinned by racism. Anecdotal evidence suggests that nationality and skin colour were important detriments of salary.
Many choose to employ Bangladeshi women. They are the least expensive to recruit and work for the lowest salary. Followed closely by Indonesians and Ethiopians. Who are routinely paid less than $200 a month – for a 7-day week, with no set work hours. Women from the Philippines are said to be the highest earners at $300+ a month. Whilst some women are treated well by employers and considered to be part of the family; many others are mistreated.
I never made it far out of Ras An Nabaa that day. I came across a small, modest, restaurant and chatted to Beria who ran the place for her father. She was as desperate to use her polished English skills as I was to hear them. The muted TV screen was flashing ‘breaking news’ style headlines. Behind the screen, men, their faces distorted with anger, were punching their fists into the air. Glancing over at Beria for some clue, she threw back her head and laughed “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 with Afghan green eyes, sported an Elvis-esque quiff. Beria had given him a job, “so he can eat and get a small allowance for cigarettes and transport”.
She often provided food for his 6 siblings, orphans living in the Shatila refugee camp, on the outskirts of the city. The racism experienced by Syrians in Lebanon, meant they were rarely offered jobs and struggled to survive. Being a Christian, Beria had wanted to help. It seemed like racism seeped into the lives of many people in Lebanon. Just like in many other countries.
I headed home after a scrumptious dinner of kofta served with a side of mutabbla, (garlic mixed with baked aubergines). I wrapped it all up in warm flatbread – straight from the oven to my plate. It was early evening and as usual the streets were pretty sparse of women. Having little need to go outside except to go shopping, they were behind closed doors – along with their maids.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katie Shevlin’s passions in life include travel, writing, research, photography and contributing to the fight to eradicate violence against women. Having travelled to over 60 countries, she has been able to blend her interests, to raise awareness of women’s oppression, and its manifestations, in countries around the world. Attempting to speak to women to learn about their lived experience is crucial, especially in the developing world, since quite often it is the first time anyone has shown an interest in her life and opinions.
Find Out More
If you are interested in learning more about the campaign to end the kafala system, Katie recommends following ‘This is Lebanon’ on Facebook/Twitter. A group of activist women, many previously employed as migrant domestic workers, they offer women support to escape their abusers. Also assisting them practically, by confronting employers to battle for individual workers human rights. Having travelled widely, I have written other accounts of violence against women, mainly in Asian countries. Please contact Katie for further information or to let me know you are interested in this topic:
If you would like to read more of Katie’s blogs about women around the world and solo female travel
Comments are closed