When I exited the plane in Beirut last night, I noticed an Ethiopia Airlines plane parked next to ours and thought little of it. But as we walked through the skywalk and then into a long corridor, this sight confronted all arriving passengers:
Hundreds of young Ethiopian women waiting to be picked up by their “sponsors.”
This is the face of the kafala or sponsorship system.
In Lebanon and in several countries across the Middle East, the kafala system means women seeking jobs as domestic workers are treated not as individuals but as merchandise.
The young women’s lives are literally signed over to a person who has paid for their trip and contract fees and then takes legal guardianship over them. Basically governments in the region have relegated state control over migrant workers to their employers, who will be fully responsible for all their activities while in the country. So instead of treating the workers as any other tourists, students (or white folks in general) who visit or work in an Arab country–and are held personally responsible for their own actions– these women migrants are “adopted” by families or businesses who assume legal guardianship.
As one can imagine, this system leads to grave abuse and some have likened it to a form of modern day slavery. There are regular stories about sexually or physically abused girls and suicides are common. With no interference from the government, some families choose to lock domestic workers up at home in order avoid being held responsible for their activities outside the home. And yes in many cases, the women choose to flee to work illegally or independently, which is naturally a better deal for them and provides more money to send home to their families.
On the other hand, the workers desperately need jobs and many live in decent homes and become part of their adopted families. Many even come back to Lebanon after their contract ends and often sign new contracts to work for other employers or stay with the same family for years at a time.
But human rights cannot rely on the goodness of random individuals. The workers should be treated as human beings under the law, as normal adults and not adopted children. They should have the right to break contracts, change employers, be provided a safe working environment and have the option to leave at time. While some governments offer these rights on paper, little is done to enforce them and many women may find themselves trapped in the system.
Bahrain has recently taken steps to reform its kafala system, providing workers more freedoms, but gaps still exist in ensuring workers’ rights. It is high time that Lebanon also follow this trend of reform and give the worker’s basic human rights and also ensure they are being met by adequate policing and inspections. Having these workers line up on the floor is reminiscent of images of worker’s piled into slave ships. They are not chained up and have willing come in search of paid work. But they are still being treated as merchandise, tossed anywhere, not even offered a chair to sit in.
Lebanese should know better. They have faced a history of discrimination in foreign countries, along with other Arabs and Muslims. Just on our flight over from Frankfurt, we Lebanese were forced to stand or sit on the floor until our gate opened. This was unlike every other flight I witnessed, where passengers could sit comfortably until the gate was opened. But the Lebanese passengers had to be screened additionally and sealed off from the rest of the passengers in the terminal, as if they were somehow diseased and needed to be quarantined.
Having experienced abuse as foreign travelers and workers ourselves, we should be setting an example for how migrants should be treated, not repeating the same abuses and even much worse ones.
You can read more about the archaic kafala system here at migrant-rights.org and the efforts underway in some places to reform it.