African workers in Lebanon are stuck and unpaid by an exploitative labor system worsened by Covid

An African migrant domestic worker in Beirut, Lebanon heads to the airport to travel back to her country Oct. 5, 2020.
An African migrant domestic worker in Beirut, Lebanon heads to the airport to travel back to her country Oct. 5, 2020.
Image: REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
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The future for Yemi, a Nigerian former student, was laid out in a contract written in Arabic which she signed in an office in Lagos in June 2019 to enable a recruitment agency bring her to work in Lebanon.

She couldn’t understand anything in the contract but decided to take a leap of faith and leave Nigeria for a domestic job looking after a family in Lebanon. Yemi, who is 30, was leaving behind a sick mother had few funds to help her after struggling to find a decent paid job in Nigeria.

But once in Lebanon, she kept on being forced to change employment after a short while—as many as three times. The first family she worked for physically assaulted her, she says. There were regular beatings. In the next job one member of the family tried to sexually abuse her so she escaped. Instead of protecting her, the recruitment agency reassigned her to a third family.

Now, she works for a family that treats her better. However, the agency keeps her salaries because families she worked for paid directly to the agency, and she has to continue to work until the end of the contract to support her mother back home.

“I haven’t asked for help because I don’t have any contacts here. Every day is the same for me. I don’t have a room for me, so I sleep on a mattress on the floor of the veranda where it is the laundry. I can’t go out. I didn’t report the sexual assault to the police, but I have the picture of the man who tried to abuse me,” she says.

An African migrant domestic worker pushes her luggage at a Beirut hotel as she prepares to travel back to her country. Oct. 5, 2020. .
An African migrant domestic worker pushes her luggage at a Beirut hotel as she prepares to travel back to her country. Oct. 5, 2020. .
Image: REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Yemi, who asked not to have her full name published to avoid backlash from the agency and families she worked for, is one of the thousands of African worker migrants trapped into a migrant employment sponsorship system, known as Kafala, which legally ties the migrant to their employers. Migrant workers don’t have the same labor rights as Lebanese citizens, and the power relationship between employers and employees is extremely lopsided. Such a vulnerability exposes African migrant workers to exploitation and abuses.

Peace, another Nigerian woman who arrived in Lebanon last year, told Quartz Africa she has been exploited without being paid in full. She also says she has been beaten by the family she works for and thrown out on to street. “I’ve tried almost everything to get back my money. I’m so tired of this slavery, I have never been in a situation like this. I feel Lebanon is hell to some of the black folks,” she says.

There are at least 250,000 migrant workers in Lebanon. However, NGOs think there are many more as a large number of undocumented worker migrants left their employers without consent and lost their residency status.

Almost all worker migrants are women who work in private households. They come from African countries including Kenya, and Nigeria, with the vast majority from Ethiopia. There are also some workers from Asian countries including the Philippines and Bangladesh.

Lebanese families typically use  local recruitment agencies to hire Africans to work in their homes. There are 569 authorized recruitment agencies in Lebanon, according to the Ministry of Labor.

Even after being placed recruitment agencies remain the intermediary between employers and the migrant employees. Workers sign a contract, often written only in Arabic, in their countries before flying to Lebanon. Once there, they can not leave the airport without their new employers.

Crucially, the agency fees and the salary of the worker vary depending on the nationality of the domestic workers, but the average wages are between just $200 to $400 per month.

A health worker sprays sanitizer on an African migrant worker before she gets tested for Covid-19 in Beirut suburbs, Lebanon Oct. 5, 2020.
A health worker sprays sanitizer on an African migrant worker before she gets tested for Covid-19 in Beirut suburbs, Lebanon Oct. 5, 2020.
Image: REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Worker migrants can’t leave or change employers without their consent. This places them at risk of exploitation and abuse. If they leave, immigration authorities can detain and deport them, even in a situation of abuse.

The weakness of the legal protection of African worker migrants leaves many trapped in a spiral of exploitation and abuse. Most of them live in the same place where they work. Furthermore, some are subjected to long working hours, no days off, and delays with salaries.

Both Yemi and Peace asked for help from This is Lebanon, an NGO that posts videos of worker migrants on Facebook where they expose the abuses received by their employers to try to get their salaries back.

“We encouraged worker migrants to stay in the house while we negotiated with the employers to pay salaries, but this has become less and less possible due to the economic crisis, and there are many employers that refuse to pay salaries even if they are exposed on Facebook,” says Patricia Pradhan (a pseudonym), a member of this NGO.

Kafala system

The Kafala system or sponsorship system is not limited only to Lebanon. The Gulf countries and Jordan adopted the Kafala system in the 1950s to regulate the labor force of migrant workers during rapid economic growth in the Middle East.

Before the Lebanese civil war started in 1975, many domestic workers were Arabs employed within Lebanese families, but they fled as the war broke out. This gap of domestic labor force met the lack of working opportunities in many African countries, which started to attract female workers to move to Lebanon as the economy grew after the end of the war in 1990. Most of these African migrants were unemployed before moving to Lebanon with relatively little higher education leading them to find unskilled jobs, according to data from the International Labour Organization.

But after Lebanon ran into economic troubles in 2019 due to a large-scale debt it devalued the Lebanese pound by 80%, and the poverty rate jumped to 55% in at start of this year, according to UN body, ESCWA. The economic crisis led employers to delay or withhold salaries and especially worsened the living conditions of African worker migrants with few rights.

Ethiopian migrants wait to be served outside the Ethiopian embassy in Beirut, Lebanon July 16, 2020.
Ethiopian migrants wait to be served outside the Ethiopian embassy in Beirut, Lebanon July 16, 2020.
Image: REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

The working conditions of African worker migrants have even worsened since the economic crisis hit Lebanon in 2019. “All the current situation in Lebanon is deteriorating for foreign domestic workers. They lost their job, they want to go home, but they are stuck here because they can’t afford to go back to their countries,” says Ghina Al Andary, a social worker for KAFA (enough) Violence & Exploitation.

Since the global coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the local economic crisis, KAFA has witnessed increasing violations of labor rights, such as long working hours, confiscating identity documents, unpaid salaries, and sexual abuses.

The exploitation of the Kafala system has also been reflected in a high number of suicides during the years. “Foreign domestic workers are dying at the rate of almost one a week from unnatural causes. The leading causes are suicide or injuries from jumping from the balcony,” says Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Following the economic crisis, the coronavirus pandemic, and the blast at Beirut’s port on Aug. 4, many African worker migrants lost their job and want to go home. But with no salaries paid, they are stuck in Lebanon.

Some migrant workers live stranded near their embassies and ask to return home. But the expensive airfare costs, the little embassy support, and sometimes even allegations of physical violence by some embassy officials, left worker migrants in limbo.

“A lot of employers see them as second-class citizens rather than individuals, so definitely racism plays in a way that society looks at these worker migrants as less than humans sometimes,” says Aya Majzoub.

The Lebanese government has done little to ease the working condition of worker migrants. However, the caretaker of the Ministry of Labor Lamia Yammine Douaihy announced the proposal of a new contract for foreign domestic workers in early September.

This includes new provisions that try to balance the power between employers and employees. It specifies what are the tasks of workers. It gives workers the right to leave without employer approval. It defines the standard of the minimum wage, benefit of vacation, and defined working hours. However, it contains some loopholes that employers may use to work around their obligations toward worker migrants, according to KAFA.

Aya Majzoub noted that this new contract doesn’t give the right to form and join unions. However, there are many positive points in the contract because. It gives the same rights of workers under the labor law, although migrants are excluded from such a law at the moment.

“Our position is that this new contract is not enough to end the exploitation of the Kafala system. We want to give foreign domestic workers the same rights of other Lebanese workers, but this will require a long process,” says Ghina Al Andary.

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