Kafala Reform a Liberal Veneer: Migrant Workers and the Struggle for Liberation

Migrant workers at RAMCO, a private engineering and construction company subcontracted by the Lebanese government to manage waste in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, released a statement detailing the horrific trials of Enayet Ullah. They recount that on April 8, the Bangladeshi worker experienced symptoms of mental illness and, as a result, was imprisoned underground, tortured and abused by his supervisor and security personnel. Three days later, security employees dragged him up to the canteen and attempted to choke him, nearly sending him to his death, if it weren’t for his compatriots and allied Indian workers who heard his cries and came to his rescue.

RAMCO defended these acts of subjection using the financial collapse as a pretext, citing the inability to cover his medical expenses, but vowing to pay for his return ticket so he could recover at home. By April 26, the waste management company had clearly reneged on its promise, as Enayet Ullah, struggling more than ever, was still in Lebanon. The next day, they went on strike in solidarity with him, against the unbearable workload imposed by RAMCO down to 40 from the customary 300 workers to man 100 garbage trucks and to demand payment in dollars, not Lebanese pounds, as stipulated in the contract. On May 12, workers blocked roads surrounding RAMCO facilities, and prevented garbage trucks from leaving the premises. Armed forces were sent to violently crush this unprecedented strike, but ultimately the company had no choice but to negotiate with the Bangladeshi embassy to avoid yet another “garbage crisis.”

Racialized violence, that is, violence legitimized and/or motivated by race, is not a local exception but is constitutive of liberal democracies. Having spent formative years in the Bay Area doing graduate research, I got to witness it firsthand and study how it is mired in the imperial political economy since the founding of the US settler colony. Throughout the twentieth century, for instance, the US state and white militias enacted violence and forms of legal exclusions to discipline and govern migrant Latinx, Chinese, and Filipino/a migrant farming and construction workers on whom the state of California has depended for its accelerated growth. During slavery, racial violence was an everyday practice that was also assigned to slave patrols, predecessors of the police. They emerged in the late seventeenth century, armed with whips and guns, to discipline, capture, and punish fleeing slaves.

English | September 7, 2021



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