Lebanese are among those countries who in high numbers employ migrant workers to do work people see as unfit for themselves. The domestic workers, coming to Lebanon from countries like Ethiopia, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Philippines, form a substantial community of migrants in today’s Lebanese society.
They are by no means unique in the Middle East, which has an estimated 22 million migrant workers. Lebanon is today host to 200,000 migrant domestic workers, most of which are women, in a country with a population of a bit over four million.
Migrant domestic workers in Lebanese society have become so common that people no longer react to their presence. Employing a migrant domestic worker is not only limited to the more affluent classes of Lebanese society; many from the middle classes also employ people to work in their households. The easy access to workers and the policies smoothing the employment process have reduced the system to one that seems to trade in commodities: easy to get, maintain – and discard when no longer wanted.
In Lebanon, migrant domestic workers are not subject to the country’s labor laws. Their presence falls under the Kafala system, also known as the sponsorship system. This means that a local employer must sponsor each migrant domestic worker coming to Lebanon. The workers’ legal status in the country – in reality, everything that has to do with how they can live their lives – is then bound by law to one employer, which is also written in their passports.
Although activists and different NGOs have worked hard on media campaigns advocating for the migrant domestic workers’ rights during the past few years, abuse of migrant domestic workers continues. It has grown so common that only a few act on its existence. Human Rights Watch reported that one domestic worker dies every week, due to either a suicide, a presumed suicide or what gets labeled as an accident.
The question of how a worker can report eventual abuse remains. There are many cases where domestic workers are not allowed to leave the house where they work without permission; would they try, that would mean jeopardising their legal status in Lebanon and risking detention and deportation. The constraints of the Kafala system leave women with little or no possibility to communicate with the outside world. These are structural problems that allow the abuse and exploitation of the workers to remain hidden.
These photos and the introductory text are part of The Kafala Consequence, a photo project by Swedish photographer Lucas Pernin.