Kafala system leads to migrant domestic workers being treated like animals
Photographer Aline Deschamps recently met and photographed women who were tricked into traveling to Beirut for skilled professions and then forced through the kafala system into exploitative domestic work. Due to this ancient sponsorship system the women often experienced continuous verbal and physical humiliation from their employers with little to no recourse for them to escape the abuse. Her photographs aim to shed light on their psychology during both the dark and light aspects of their survivor stories.
Kafala system a tool of exploitation
The kafala system is a centuries old sponsorship system used to control migrant workers still used in Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
“Basically, your life depends on one individual. Maybe you’ll have a good employer who will pay
you and won’t take away your day off, and won’t take away your passport, or maybe you’ll have
someone who does it. And agents suggest they do that. ‘She’s not behaving well? just lock her
up, take the passport’. It’s systematic.”
Because the sponsor is responsible for the worker’s visa/ legal status, salary and working conditions, exploitation and abuse run rampant. Sponsors take away employees’ passports, confiscate their phones, and regularly subject them to abuse with little or no fear of any repercussions.
Bait and switch, then forced into slavery
Deschamp describes how after being recruited in their home country for roles like teaching or nursing, when the women arrived in Lebanon they are forced into domestic servitude. Having gone into debt to make the journey, the kafala system left them with few options for redress or escape.
“They were forced into someone’s house to wash dishes, do chores, and sleep on the balcony,
often without receiving any remuneration for months. If they demanded to be moved to another
employer or to be repatriated, they were threatened, beaten, raped.”
The kafala system and its exploitation of migrant workers is built on the same implicit
justification for slavery used by Europe and the United States in their own recent history. Seeing
someone as less than human allows people to justify the abuse, exploitation and slavery of
others, both then and now.
Like slavery, kafala system needs to be abolished
Deschamp says her photographs capture aspects of the survivors' “shock of being trafficked, their longing for home, the comfort of new friendships, the strength of fighting back and the effort of repairing relationships that were interrupted”. They also speak to the cruelty and deception inherent in the kafala system, which like the legal slave trade, needs to be seen not as a legitimate migrant worker program but as an institutionalized form of modern slavery and be abolished.