If there’s one thing I’ve learned from living in the Arab world my entire life, it’s that being part of the same marginalized “category” will not protect someone from prejudice by people in the same category but different “section.” For example, being non-white doesn’t make one immune to discrimination from other non-white people. This is why there’s been an emphasis on the problem of anti-blackness specifically in recent years, instead of the more general term of racism: black people often face a specific type of discrimination from other non-white people. Arabs are, unfortunately, no exception to this.
The issue of anti-blackness is one that is worldwide, but I’ve chosen to limit the discussion in this particular article to Lebanon for two reasons. First, it’s simply what I’m most familiar with, considering I’ve been living here since I was around twelve years old. Second, most online discourse I see revolving around anti-blackness is mainly from the West, specifically America. That conversation is extremely significant as well, but it’s also important to shed some light on the dynamics of anti-blackness in non-Western countries. This is my contribution to that discussion.
Arabs make up 95% of Lebanon’s population, the vast majority. This isn’t surprising, considering Lebanon is an Arab country. However, this could potentially be a contributing factor to Lebanese people’s prejudiced attitudes towards non-Arabs. This is further enhanced by the fact that most of the jobs in Lebanon that are considered to be “beneath us,” such as garbage men, janitors, and domestic workers, are performed by people from Asian and African countries. Ethiopians in particular make up a large number of domestic workers in Lebanon.
The treatment of migrant workers in Lebanon
To preface, not all employers of migrant workers in Lebanon are guilty of abuse and mistreatment of their employees, obviously. This article, however, is about the ones who are.
When I say prejudice and discrimination towards migrant workers who are simply trying to survive and/or provide for their families in their home countries, I don’t only mean dirty looks and passing insults (which, of course, are issues in and of themselves). Unfortunately, many migrant workers face outright abuse of all forms–emotional, physical, and sexual–at the hands of their employers, and are treated as subhuman simply because of where they come from. Many even die, whether by suicide, escape attempts from high floors, or succumbing to their abuse.
The tragic death of Faustina Tay is only one such case out of too many. (Even one case is one too many, really.) Prior to her death, Faustina had been beaten multiple times by her employers. She gave dozens of accounts of her experiences to her brother and an activist group she was in communications with. In one message, she even expressed a fear of being killed by her employers.
How do employers get away with this? Why are there so many workers like Faustina in Lebanon? Besides the lack of empathy towards migrant workers due to racism, a major reason is the sponsorship system in Lebanon and other Arab countries called the kafala system.
The kafala system
The kafala system is described as “the relationship between foreign workers and their local sponsor, or kafeel, which is usually their employer. It is found in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—as well as Jordan and Lebanon.”
In a nutshell, this system gives the worker’s sponsor, who is usually their employer, total control over almost every aspect of the employee. Rather than the labor ministries, it’s the interior ministries that have authority over this system, meaning the employees are not protected by labor laws and are much more likely to be taken advantage of by their employers.
Workers under this system cannot end their employment, change jobs, or leave the country without their employer’s permission. They also cannot leave the workplace–the employer’s home in domestic workers’ cases–without permission, or they could face being detained or even deported as a result, even if the reason behind their leaving is a case of abuse. It’s not uncommon for employers to seize the worker’s passport to make sure they have nowhere to go in case they attempt to escape the workplace.
The kafala system is essentially the revocation of migrant workers’ human rights. There would be no need to confiscate passports and other personal belongings if there was no risk of employees running away, and there would be no risk of employees running away if they were treated as they should be: with respect and decency. Instead, many Lebanese and Arabs opt to enact modern day slavery upon these workers.
Many migrant workers and those who stand with them have called for an abolishment of the kafala system and an adoption of a new contract that protects migrant workers’ rights. According to The961, an independent Lebanese media outlet, a human rights working group “proposed an updated version of the current standard unified contract; one that conforms with international human rights and labor standards.”
Furthermore, they continue, “in June , the contract was reviewed by current Labor Minister Lamia Yammine, who showed commitment to adopt a modified contract in the coming weeks based on the working group’s submission.”
No news has been heard since then. However, if you’ve read through this and decided you want to help the fight to spread awareness and abolish kafala, This Is Lebanon is a non-profit activist organization that aims to help migrant workers dismantle the kafala system and obtain the funds to return to their homes. Their page features information on the abuse workers face, updates on kafala, links to donate and volunteer, and more. Even if you can’t donate or volunteer right now, educating yourself and sharing to educate others helps tremendously!
All workers deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. All workers deserve to have their human rights protected. I hope I live to see the day where kafala is gone and that goal is made a reality.