Understanding Race and Migrant Domestic Labor in Lebanon

Lebanon is currently suffering its most severe economic crisis since the Lebanese civil war of 1975–1990. After decades of theft, greed and incompetence among the country’s financial and political elite, as well as international actors, the currency lost over 80 percent of its value in a single year. Approximately half of the population is facing poverty. The crisis has also drawn global attention to the plight of the country’s many African and Asian female migrant domestic workers, who numbered upward of 300,000 prior to the collapse of the currency and nationwide protests in October 2019 this in a country of just over 4 million citizens.

Since the end of the civil war, Lebanon has become a key Middle Eastern destination in the global network of migrant domestic labor. Young women from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Kenya and Nepal, among others, have traveled to the country with promises of well-paid jobs only to find themselves working in conditions widely denounced as “modern-day slavery.” Recently, as Lebanese families’ purchasing power has radically declined amid the economic catastrophe, many domestic workers have been kicked out of homes where they have worked for years and left on the streets to fend for themselves, often under false promises of being sent home and without the wages they were due. In response, dozens of migrant women and their Lebanese allies have rallied together to provide food, shelter and medical assistance as well as to pressure embassies to assist in repatriation. Over 1,000 individuals have been sent home thanks to these efforts, but activists continue to document the heightened vulnerabilities of women at risk of eviction, lacking access to basic necessities and excluded from Lebanon’s national vaccination plan.

Migrant labor in most of the Gulf countries, Jordan and Lebanon is governed by the kafala or sponsorship system, which binds foreign workers to a sponsor-citizen or proxy (such as a business) in the country where they wish to work for a contractual period. The high levels of abuse associated with the kafala system are facilitated by this dependency wherein workers cannot enter or exit a country at will, nor freely transition between one place of employment to the next and passports are frequently illegally withheld by the sponsors. Images of South Asian male construction workers in places like Dubai have dominated global coverage of this abuse, with thousands working long days under the desert sun to build the luxury cityscapes of the Gulf while housed in labor camps notorious for their horrid conditions. But the experiences of female domestic workers also feature regularly in regional headlines. Spectacular instances of torture at the hands of family sponsors have made countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait case studies in the dangers of the transnational domestic service sector.

English | July 13, 2021



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