Central to the vulnerability of MDWs to abuse and exploitation in Lebanon is the Kafala system. The Kafala system is a legal framework that “governs the entry, residence and work of domestic migrant workers in Lebanon”. Otherwise known as the sponsorship system, this framework entails “a collection of laws, decrees, ministerial decisions, regulations and customary practices”. One such law is order 319 that regulates the status of foreign nationals in Lebanon. Article 6 of this law stipulates that before entering the country, foreign nationals wishing to pursue work in Lebanon have to obtain an entry visa along with authorisation to work from the Ministry of Labour which in turn requires sponsorship from a prospective employer. After arrival, their employer is responsible for issuing and renewing the worker’s work and residence permits. This means that a worker’s immigration status is always tied to a single employer for the duration of their contract. Under the Kafala system, responsibility over the worker is relegated from the state to the employer meaning that without their permission, the employee cannot change jobs, leave the place of work or the country severely curtailing their freedom of movement and labour. This is also evident in the customary practice by General Security where the worker cannot leave the airport without being accompanied by their employer as well as having their passport confiscated and handed to the employer.
In some cases, MDWs have reported that they had to stay in the airport for hours and even days without adequate food and accommodation while waiting for their employer to pick them up. Further to the sponsorship system which empowers employers with an enormous amount of power over the living and working conditions of MDWs, article 7 of the Lebanese Labour code excludes all domestic workers including MDWs. The exclusion of MDWs results in depriving these workers of the most basic rights enshrined in the Labour Law and others imposed by international labour conventions, such as the minimum wage, set working hours, paid annual leave, health and safety regulations, recourse to arbitration councils, etc. The kafala system and these legal exclusions means that the receiving governments can continue to rely on cheap foreign labour, instead of providing adequate welfare services, while failing to engage with migrant workers as fully embedded relational subjects of rights.
If we were to take the view that the law is “a patchwork of politically motivated choices selected on their ability to maintain status quo of power relations” then the Kafala governance and the legal exclusions of MDWs are a reflection of how gender is still used to dominate, oppress and discriminate against women and even more so racialised and classed women.