Domestic work represents the possibility of a better life for low-income women, especially as any additional income from these roles may help women support themselves and their families. However, these workers are subject to the kafala system, whereby a domestic worker’s legal status in the country is tied to their employer. This system places domestic workers at risk of labour trafficking, physical, mental, and sexual abuse. Migrant domestic workers are often excluded from labour legislation in host countries, which leaves them at the mercy of their employers until their contract is up. According to the ILO, the “informal, unregulated and isolated nature of [this] work” makes domestic workers vulnerable to abuse and often leaves them stranded in foreign countries with little help and no escape.
The abuse inflicted on domestic workers can range from withheld wages and limited food to verbal, sexual, and physical abuse. According to Balongo, a Kenyan woman that worked in the Middle East, “to ensure I didn’t get out of the house, my employer would lock the doors whenever they left,” Balongo’s account highlights the extent of servitude to which domestic workers are subjected. Lebanon is one of the Gulf countries where some of the worst treatment of migrant workers, akin to modern-day slavery, has been observed. In 2008, Human Rights Watch found that around one domestic worker a week died in Lebanon of unnatural causes such as suicides or falls from tall buildings, namely during escapes. A decade later, a video emerged of the brutal assault of two Kenyan women by two men and a woman on the streets of Beirut. The victims, Rosa and Shamila, were arrested and threatened with deportation while their attackers went free, as happens most often.