By Jasmin Lilian Diab
The call to action to improve the working and overall human rights conditions of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon is as old as time – but those black lives don’t matter now do they? The Lebanese government has pledged to ensure that migrant workers’ rights are protected for decades now, but to no tangible avail. Short- and long-term measures to ensure decent work for migrant workers across the Lebanon as well as to reform the abusive Kafala system which ties the legal residency of domestic workers to the contract they have with their employer have been organized by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in collaboration with Lebanon’s Ministry of Labor for decades now as well. Yet, it is absolutely fascinating how we as Lebanese are at the forefront of pointing out injustice beyond our borders, when we forget #BlackLivesMatter each and every day.
The current Kafala system in place denies very specific groups of migrant workers the basic human right to freedom of movement. The employer controls the mobility of the worker under the sponsorship system, by withholding their passport and legal control over their ability to change employment and exit from the country legally. Lebanese people seem to have normalized the mistreatment of black people within their borders until a black American man (unarmed) by the name of George Floyd was brutally murdered beneath the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020. Lebanese logic remains fascinating. Doesn’t it?
And while big names, media platforms, celebrities and human rights activists across the globe are currently standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the fight against racism, Lebanese people are hardly at the sidelines of the online campaigns calling for the abolishment of racist behavior, policies, and socio-economic injustices. It is time for the Arab region, the Lebanese, as well as every individual across the globe, to acknowledge that racism is not only an American issue. Anti-black racism in the MENA region is cemented in the form of archaic, racist laws which enforce modern-day slavery each and every day. This is unacceptable. This is the truth.
The MENA region, states have failed to implement and enforce anti-discriminatory policies and legal frameworks to protect migrant workers for decades now. This has led governments to turn a blind eye to the outright abuses that workers suffer in their places of work at the hand of their employers. In Lebanon more specifically, the Kafala sponsorship system controls the 250,000 domestic workers living within its borders, forbidding them from leaving their homes of employment without losing their legal immigration status and legal standing in the country in general. In fact, activists have further insisted that this is the only way they can enter the country to begin with.
A recent Amnesty International report on the Lebanese case depicts that many of Lebanon’s migrant workers have reported that the value of their salaries has decreased by around a third because of the recent currency crash and that their current employment conditions also make it increasingly difficult for them to request that their employers to pay them in USD rather than in Lebanese Pounds.
The truth of the matter is that these people are stuck. The situation is particularly precarious for domestic workers as Kafala lays the foundation and the legal framework for human rights violations to take place. In 2019, a reform action plan was proposed to Lebanon’s then-Minister of Labor in the Hariri Government, but the project was aborted due to the Minister’s resignation following Lebanon’s most recent revolution which began in October, 2019.
Much like police brutality in the United States, the Kafala system is responsible for killing countless black people in Lebanon and the region – and for suicides and deaths from attempted escapes each and every day. On March 14, 23-year-old Ghanian Faustina Tay was found dead under her employer’s home in the Beirut’s suburbs, but that did not spark up a social media campaign across the country as big as the one George Floyd’s death sparked. What makes matters worse is that this is not even an isolated incident in Lebanon. On average, two domestic workers die every week, and mostly to suicide.
Grassroots organizations across Lebanon are tasked with the heavy burden of assisting this group of migrant workers, as well as discouraging women of color from the countries in question from moving to Lebanon at all. And although multiple organizations work heavily on educating these women about their rights and providing them with essential survival skills, these individuals’ access to these organizations is further restricted due to their employment conditions. This not only makes for a vicious cycle of abuse, but also aids in covering up one of the largest scandals of slavery in modern-day history.
And although a multitude of people treat the domestic workers that work in their homes with the utmost respect, and ensure their rights and freedoms are intact, this is sadly not the overwhelming reality in Lebanon. If young people from the region are comfortable enough to lend their voices to the injustices committed against people of color in the United States, then lending their voices to domestic workers and calling out any form of racism at home must go hand in hand. And after decades of Feminist and social uprisings across the country, civil society needs to lend its voice to one of the country’s most neglected group of migrant workers, even if political will stands in the way.
 International Labor Organization (n.d.), Reform the Kafala Sponsorship System, Retrieved at: https://www.ilo.org/dyn/migpractice/docs/132/PB2.pdf
 Amnesty International (2018), MENA governments must end discriminatory crackdowns and abuse of migrants, Retrieved at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/12/mena-governments-must-end-discriminatory-crackdowns-and-abuse-of-migrants/
 International Labor Organization (2019), ILO and Lebanon Ministry of Labour to host national dialogue on reforming Kafala, Retrieved at: https://www.ilo.org/beirut/media-centre/news/WCMS_737986/lang–en/index.htm
 Azhari, T. (2020), The desperate final days of a domestic worker in Lebanon, Aljazeera, Retrieved at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/200323183606796.html
 Middle East Monitor (2020), Domestic worker commits suicide in Lebanon after years of abuse, Retrieved at: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200325-domestic-worker-commits-suicide-in-lebanon-after-years-of-abuse/
Jasmin Lilian Diab, ABD, MENA Regional Focal Point on Migration, United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth