COVID and Kafala: Lebanon’s Growing Crisis

Continuing his examination of migration in the COVID world, Edwin Tran examines how the pandemic has exposed risks in Lebanon and the wider region’s Kafala immigration system, and how this has resulted in extremely precarious positions for migrant workers amongst the collapse of the Lebanese Lira, which has rendered their meagre earnings almost worthless.

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In the United States, the death of George Floyd galvanised populations to take to the streets, reminding the American community that the issues of race and injustice are still endemic today. In the wake of the protests, a myriad of pieces have highlighted the continual struggles minority groups and other disenfranchised communities face on a regular basis. Demonstrations across the world have attempted to highlight their own issues of racism and police brutality. From France to Canada to Japan, there is a broad recognition of oppressive institutions and systems that continue to linger in the modern era.

This piece does not seek to make sweeping conclusions about this global phenomenon. The movements are ongoing, the struggles are still forward facing, and each individual event is characterised by its own set of local contexts and histories. Instead, this article seeks to examine a singular part of the ongoing developments. In much of the world, oppressive institutions like slavery remain an issue. Thousands of individuals are trafficked annually, with many ending up as hard labourers and sex workers. In a similar vein, migrant workers in many countries face harsh conditions, severe abuses, and tenuous legal statuses. In countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon, millions of African and South Asian migrants have played significant roles as low-waged labourers. 

Known as the Kafala System, this institution has enabled countries like the United Arab Emirates to present themselves as pristine nations, with clean streets and beautiful malls. However, these polished surfaces are maintained by squalor living conditions and rampant employee abuse. It is said that for every block in Dubai, there are at least a dozen migrant workers in charge of its maintenance. Lulled by promises of relatively high wages (when compared from their home countries), these migrant workers make the journey mostly by necessity. Remittances play a key part in the economic security of many South Asian and East African countries. According to the World Bank, Bengali workers sent nearly $15 billion back to Bangladesh last year, making it the second highest source of income for the country. With many families in these countries living below the poverty line, the opportunity for better economic circumstances is one few could refuse.

In Lebanon, the Kafala System has mostly employed migrants as caretakers and domestic workers. As of 2020, there are around 250,000 domestic labourers in the country. Many of these individuals come from Ethiopia, Kenya, and the Philippines. The usage of the Kafala System means that these workers are not protected under traditional labour laws. Even more striking is the fact that under this system, a migrant worker’s legal status is derived from their employer. This immediately sets the situation ripe for abuse, as a stark power differential emerges between employer and employee.

Many migrant workers recount instances of hard labour, beatings, and squalor living conditions. One woman revealed that her employers underpaid her wages, forced her to live on a single air mattress, and received a single meal each day. A Philippine woman named Halima described a hellish atmosphere, where her employer constantly threatened acts of violence and death. Stories like these are common, and for years many Lebanese have harshly criticised the inhumane nature of this employment system. During the October 2019 uprisings, activists like Joey Ayoub spoke against the Kafala System, urging fellow protesters to include Kafala reform in addition to their other demands. While the Lebanese parliament has mentioned the possibility of Kafala reform, little has actually transpired.

With the emergence of COVID-19, additional pressures have been placed on Kafala workers, with many employers forcing their labourers to enter large crowds and populated centres to collect groceries, medicines, and other goods. At the same time, the global pandemic and resulting lockdown led to an exacerbation of the Lebanese economic situation. The Lebanese lira saw rampant inflation, savings were wiped overnight, and many members of the middle class saw their standards of living collapse. On top of the challenges imposed by COVID-19, many employers were now simply unable to afford their migrant workers.

In early June, several Ethiopian workers were abandoned just outside of the Ethiopian consulate. Videos from Beirut showed morose scenes of women with thin blankets sleeping on the streets. As the economic situation continued to decline, more and more women were seen camping outside of the consulate. According to al-Arabiya, more than a hundred women were left abandoned, with one worker explaining that her employers were: “Dumping us like trash.” While the Lebanese Labour Ministry eventually found hotel accommodations for these women, long term solutions have yet to be discussed or implemented. Even more concerning is the lack of responses from the countries in which these workers originate from. Many Ethiopian workers and activists have criticised the Ethiopian government for doing little. Instead of repatriating its citizens, some reports revealed that Ethiopian Airlines tripled the cost of its air tickets leaving Lebanon shortly after these incidents occurred.

On the other side, for workers that are still employed, the rampant inflation of the Lebanese lira has meant that salaries that were once considered meagre are now considered meaningless. The declining economic situation will only reduce the amount workers can send as remittances and the amount they will have for regular living. The single incentive that has pulled workers into Lebanon is decreasingly disappearing. Despite this, many employers are now using threats, violence, and force to keep their workers. Furthermore, lockdowns from the COVID-19 pandemic have more than likely resulted in more abusive behaviour. In March, for instance, a woman named Faustina Tay was killed by her employer. She had sent pleas to NGOs and to the wider community for any kind of assistance, but little could be done.

NGOs such as Egna Legna and This Is Lebanon have attempted to combat this by providing assistance such as food and employment workshops for those displaced by the declining economic situation, but the future outlook seems bleak. Many Lebanese politicians have offered little political will in changing the situation, choosing instead to unleash police forces on protesters as the situation continues to descend further. In addition, leading politicians like Gebran Bassil have already shown inclinations toward nativist and xenophobic policies. Groups such as Syrian and Palestinian refugees face conditions that are only marginally better than those living under the Kafala System, and little has been done on those fronts. As the Lebanese lira continues to devalue, it’s clear that the situation will only deteriorate further before improving.

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Edwin Tran is an analyst focused on the Levant, following time spent living and researching in the region. He specialises in hybrid organisations and their historical contexts in order to understand their popularity and political successes within civil society.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encyclopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo: Freimut Bahlo