Lebanon's Kafala System Traps Ethiopian Migrant Workers

Debt BondageDomestic SlaveryHuman TraffickingLaw & Policy

Betty (not her real name) landed in Beirut on her 22nd birthday. Travelling from Ethiopia, she came to Lebanon with the hope of having a well-paying job, but soon found herself a victim of modern slavery, facing sexual, verbal, and physical abuse from her employer.

Betty is just one of 100,000 Ethiopian migrant workers in the country, the largest migrant workforce besides 47,000 Bangladeshis and 19,000 Filipinos. Like many of these migrant workers, Betty’s problem stemmed from the kafala system — a sponsorship scheme that ties migrant workers’ employment and visa to one employer.

Betty may have escaped her abusive employer, but because her old employer never signed a release paper, she’s now undocumented, afraid that she could be sent to prison. “It’s like you own a slave. No matter where you go, you are somebody’s property unless that person sets them free,” she said.

Thomson Reuters Foundation explains:

Under the kafala system an employer sometimes holds the worker’s passport, residency and work permits even though the Ministry of Labor states migrants have the right to keep their passport and all legal papers.

“The employer holds everything relating to their freedom,” said Farah Salka, executive director of local non-government group Anti-Racism Movement. There is no way to negotiate under this system of slavery. You can’t upset the person who is your sponsor because they are the only the legal tie for you in Lebanon.”

“The system doesn’t allow a person to escape an abusive situation without falling into irregularity,” said Ghada Jabbour, head of the anti-trafficking unit at Kafa, a local NGO working with migrants and against gender-based violence.

The kafala system is prominent across many Middle Eastern states, though pressure from sending governments and rights organizations has prompted some like Bahrain, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia to begin reforming their kafala systems.

Georges Ayda, general director of the Ministry of Labor in Lebanon argues that the kafala system is necessary to protect both employers and employees. “We strive for improvement – but we will not be going down the road of abolishing kafala. If you take away kafala there will be no guarantee that the employee will respect the contract,” he Ayda.

Still, Ayda said the ministry was looking into cleaning companies becoming sponsors for migrant domestic workers, potentially allowing them to live separate from their employers and have flexible working hours.

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