Why Lebanon Can’t Kick Its Addiction to Indentured Labor

The country is almost bankrupt, but it still forks out on migrant workers under the heavily criticized kafala system.

Migrant domestic workers carry placards during a protest to abolish the kafala system in Beirut on May 5, 2019.
Migrant domestic workers carry placards during a protest to abolish the kafala system in Beirut on May 5, 2019. Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images

BEIRUT—Marwan Hamadeh, a 27-year-old Lebanese man, has a secret life. Five days a week, he cleans offices around Beirut. “From my family, nobody knows,” said Hamadeh (who has asked to use a pseudonym) in March. “The idea wouldn’t sit well with them.”

It was out of desperation that Hamadeh turned to cleaning. Once a mobile phone repairman, Hamadeh lost his job in Lebanon’s jaw-dropping economic crisis, which erupted in October 2019 and has since slashed the Lebanese lira’s value by 90 percent. Last August, laden with debt and financially responsible for his parents, Hamadeh needed to find other work. His predicament is common among Lebanese; his response is anything but.

Of the 40-strong staff at the cleaning company he works for, Velvet Services, Hamadeh is the only Lebanese among mostly Bangladeshis. “Honestly, I know [Lebanese] people who really need work, but none of them work as cleaners,” Hamadeh said. “I know that they wouldn’t do this kind of work.”

Nivine Zarzour, Hamadeh’s boss, has tried to hire more Lebanese, whom she can pay with lira instead of increasingly scarce—and expensive—U.S. dollars. But she has failed to attract Lebanese recruits, which she traces to a deep-seated cultural stigma. “The main reason is not the salary,” Zarzour said. “We [Lebanese] always had foreign cleaners and helpers.”

For decades, Lebanon has relied on migrant workers—recruited from such countries as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and the Philippines—to clean houses, operate gas pumps, and stock supermarket shelves. The largest sector for migrant labor is live-in domestic work, which accounted for 80 percent of migrant labor permits issued last year, according to statistics obtained from the Ministry of Labor.

Demand for foreign workers has propped up Lebanon’s notorious kafala system, which activists decry as exposing workers to modern-day indentured servitude. Originating in the Gulf, kafala ties a migrant worker’s residency in Lebanon to their employer, or kafeel (sponsor). Kafala workers rarely enjoy basic guarantees of rest days, set working hours, or freedom to switch jobs.

Without a doubt, Lebanon’s economic crisis has shaken the kafala system. Records from the Ministry of Labor indicate that new migrant worker arrivals dropped by 75 percent from 2019 to 2020. Employers are increasingly unable to pay staff, and foreign workers are now less inclined to gamble on Lebanon. As demand plummets, the number of local recruitment agencies has shrunk from around 600 to 250 companies, according to industry sources.

Yet all signs indicate that kafala will reemerge, battered but unbroken, from Lebanon’s financial implosion. Like Hamadeh, some Lebanese might take on shift work in taboo fields like cleaning to make ends meet. But for the most part, it is still only foreigners who appear willing to work in many such positions.

Over 29 years, the seasoned labor recruiter Hisham El-Bourji has arranged live-in domestic employment for thousands of migrant workers. When asked in March if a Lebanese person had ever applied to his agency, he answered without hesitation: “Never.”

“If a Lebanese girl did apply, most Lebanese households would refuse to accept her anyway. [It] is a cultural thing,” he explained. In Bourji’s experience, Lebanese families commonly prefer domestic workers who neither speak Arabic natively nor have competing family obligations in Lebanon. Together, these factors ensure greater privacy for employers and that maids have fewer distractions from work, Bourji reasoned.

It was not always like this. Before the war, wealthy households frequently recruited Lebanese live-in maids or looked to nearby Arab areas such as Egypt, the Palestinian territories, and Syria.

Following the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), the country’s economy improved rapidly. Many Lebanese employers could now outsource unskilled labor to migrants from further afield—a luxury that, until then, was reserved largely for those in the wealthier Gulf states. Filipina and Sri Lankan maids were in especially high demand for domestic work, often making up for the Lebanese government’s threadbare child and elderly care services.

The kafala system operated effectively, albeit unfairly, during Lebanon’s postwar economic boom. Migrant workers could earn money and send remittances in U.S. dollars to their home countries. Their Lebanese employers benefited from paying lower salaries to workers who they believed would work harder, and for longer, than Lebanese nationals.

Beyond the individual employers, a lucrative value chain has emerged around bringing migrant workers to Lebanon. For domestic workers, local recruitment agencies secure a maid’s passage from her home country in exchange for handsome recruitment fees, which totaled around $57.5 million in 2019. General Security and the Ministry of Labor also take multimillion-dollar cuts from administrative fees for labor and residency permits every year.

The kafala gravy train crashed spectacularly in October 2019, when the depth of Lebanon’s economic woes came to light. Local banks, lurching toward insolvency, could no longer meet their debt obligations, and the value of the Lebanese lira began to nosedive. Employers started frantically laying off migrant workers; some callously abandoned maids at the doorsteps of their embassies.

In turn, Lebanon has lost its luster for many migrant workers, particularly after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the disastrous Beirut port explosion. Sobuj Khan Emon, who worked for six years in a Beirut supermarket, returned to his native Bangladesh last year. “Even before the explosion, we couldn’t find dollars,” he said. “We stayed hoping that everything would come back like before, but it didn’t.”

Recruitment agencies have closed en masse, with barely any employers still willing to pay their recruitment fees. “I have never seen a crisis like this,” observed Bourji, who is also president of the Syndicate of the Owners of Recruitment Agencies in Lebanon (SORAL). “This industry is breathing its last breath.”

Even in such challenging economic times, Lebanon’s kafala industry proves stubbornly resistant to reform. Last year, local and international activists seemed to have gained serious traction in their long-running campaign to start dismantling the system. Then-Labor Minister Lamia Yammine proposed a standard unified contract for migrant domestic workers, which would enshrine certain basic labor rights, such as a guaranteed day off.

In October 2020, Bourji’s organization, SORAL, successfully challenged the standard unified contract in Lebanon’s highest administrative court. Bourji would prefer a less interventionist approach, relying on individual employers to ensure labor rights.

“I am with the day off, but we don’t need a unified contract for this,” he argued. In Bourji’s eyes, general labor laws should not apply to live-in domestic work, given that maids live inside their employers’ homes—and could not support themselves financially if they did not.

Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, takes a dimmer view of the recruitment agencies’ opposition to increased regulation. “They want to be able to control the means of exploitation,” she said.

Amid the economic crisis, the agencies that remain are fighting to stay open. Some have allegedly branched out into new services, such as reassigning former kafala workers to new employers. For instance, a recruitment agency might arrange for a former live-in domestic worker to enlist with a Lebanese cleaning company as a freelancer.

In other cases, agencies have stuck to their traditional line of work: bringing workers from overseas. The promise of salaries paid in U.S. dollars, no matter how fragile, still attracted thousands of new maids last year to a rapidly disintegrating Lebanon.

“Women are still coming because they do not know the true situation,” said Aname Gnanguenon, community advocacy coordinator at the Migrant Community Center. “In countries like Sri Lanka and Cameroon, for example, nobody in the media is talking about Lebanon’s problems.”

According to Gnanguenon, some new recruits see the flight of Lebanon’s migrant worker population as an opportunity to fill the jobs left behind. “Recruitment agencies may approach workers saying: This is your chance,” Gnanguenon said.

Recruitment agencies cannot shoulder all the blame for kafala’s longevity in Lebanon. The government continues to shield the system from fundamental reform, partly because it helps to plug gaping holes in the country’s deficient social services. Tens of thousands of kafala workers look after Lebanese children and elderly people, while thousands more clean the country’s heavily littered streets.

Despite their massive presence, migrant workers have found little strength in numbers. The government has failed to guarantee safe workplaces for live-in domestic workers, while also shooting down their efforts to unionize. In 2015, the Ministry of Labor dismissed the attempted creation of a domestic workers’ union as illegal. Tellingly, the government has no objection to Bourji’s syndicate for recruiters, SORAL.

For now, Lebanon seems destined to continue tasking kafala workers with essential jobs—most of which needy locals could surely do, and did until half a century ago. “The work is not hard,” said Hamadeh, the indebted Lebanese cleaner. “The only hard thing is the social stigma.”

David Wood is a journalist and economic researcher.

Jacob Boswall is a journalist and economic researcher. Twitter: @Boswall_Jacob

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