Faustina Tay was found dead in a car park near her employer's home in Beirut in the early hours of 14 March. Tay was a 23-year-old Ghanaian migrant domestic worker in Lebanon who was allegedly abused by her employers. According to an Al Jazeera report, only 24 hours before Tay's body was discovered, she was sending desperate messages to an activist group that helps kafala workers stuck in the homes of abusive employers in Lebanon. Nevertheless, despite the wealth of evidence obtained by Al Jazeera, including 40 minutes worth of messages documenting the abuse, the Lebanese police are set to investigate her death as a suicide.
Tay's story is by no means unique, but part of a concerted effort by authorities to sweep the deaths of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon under the kafala system under the carpet. According to the country's intelligence agency, two domestic workers die each week, while a Human Rights Watch report in 2010 found that Lebanon's judiciary consistently fails to hold employers accountable, and security agencies do not "adequately investigate claims of violence or abuse." Instead, most of these deaths are caused by falls from high buildings during botched escape attempts but are ruled as suicides.
In reality, Faustina Tay is the latest victim of the kafala system, an outdated migration sponsorship scheme which ties the legal status of workers to their employment. Amnesty International has termed the system "inherently abusive," because if the employer choses to terminate the contract, even in cases of abuse, the visa sponsorship is immediately revoked, turning migrant workers into illegal aliens, and leaving them at risk of arrest and/or deportation.
To supplement their control, employers will often hold the passports of migrant workers, though the practice is officially forbidden. Withholding travel documentation allows employers to coerce domestic workers, who see no other option, into accepting exploitative working conditions. Amnesty International has documented several cases where migrant domestic workers in Lebanon were barred from eating; were refused time off or made to work overtime; were locked indoors while their employers went on holiday or in some cases for the duration of their employment; and were forced to sleep in living rooms, kitchens and bathrooms.
In one case a recruitment agency told Sri Lankan Rani that they could find her a good job in Beirut. When she arrived, however, Rani was contracted to different employers every day and left to sleep on the floor with nothing but water and some biscuits, according to a report by Middle East Eye. Cases such as Rani's rarely make it into the mainstream media in Lebanon, with few outlets willing to openly raise concerns over the shortcomings of the kafala system.
The case of Lensa Lelisa in 2018 changed that. In February that year, 21-year-old Ethiopian Lensa Lelisa alleged that her employer, a well-known fashion company owner Eleanore Ajami who she had been employed by for seven months, had been abusing her. In a desperate attempt to escape, she jumped from the balcony of the second floor, breaking both of her legs, one hip and fracturing her jaw.
From her hospital bed, Lelisa recorded videos documenting the abuse, telling stories of electrocution, and alleging that she had regularly been dragged by her hair across the table. The video went viral via the This is Lebanon site – a website run by former kafala workers which names and shames abusive Lebanese employers – but Lelisa later appeared on a television show, alongside her employer, and recanted the allegations of abuse. Following the television appearance Lelisa returned to her employer's home and has not been seen or heard of since, according to a report by The Nib.
Despite the fact that since 2018 the plight of kafala workers has been better reported, the government has done little to change the system. In mid-2019, then Labour Minister Camille Abousleiman formed a ministerial and NGO task force to discuss reforms, after saying of the system that "it is a shame that we are behaving in such an inhumane way." Despite Abousleiman's statements, which are a far cry from the narrative espoused by previous ministers, the focus remains on reform, rather than abolition.
To truly reform the abusive system, migrant domestic workers must be given the right to terminate employment without retribution and be allowed to remain in the country legally for a period of time following the contract end, a move which amounts to abolition. So, in reality, reform and abolition are not so far apart. Reforms to the kafala system must grant domestic workers legal status which respects basic human rights; the capacity to freely campaign for reforms; and the ability to get justice for abuse and illegal practices, such as withholding travel documentation and salaries, perpetrated by employers. These changes amount to abolition.
Lebanon must overhaul the attitude which views domestic help, particularly from Filipino migrants, as à la mode. The government must recognise the activism and grassroots organisations which have sprung up in recent years raising awareness for the inhumanity of kafala and acknowledge the validity of their work. The current failure to recognise grassroots activism as valid only lends credence to the necessity of abolition.
Lebanon spawned the first Domestic Workers Union, established in 2016, in the Arab world, and in a country so hooked on a desire for modernity, this step is a win. Time is up for the kafala system and the country must use the social upheaval caused by protests which started in October to abolish the archaic system.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.