Women make up an estimated 76 per cent of all migrant workers and 99 per cent of migrant domestic workers who come to Lebanon for employment (MoL 2019). Despite coming to the country as workers, they are exempted from labour protections according to article 7 of the labour law (ILO 2020b), and locked into a system that has been likened to ‘modern day slavery’ through a sponsorship modality called kafala.
Issues concerning women migrant workers have never been gender neutral. Although many migrant workers in Lebanon fall victim to exploitation, women migrant domestic workers face specific injustices as women. Within the context of Lebanon’s patriarchal society, where social norms dictate that women are responsible for the caretaking, cooking, and cleaning, households hire migrant domestic workers to support women’s labour in the so-called ‘private’, domestic sphere. Under the oppressive kafala system, many women migrant domestic workers live within the same household as their employer, where they have no labour law or family law protections. They live with their daily movement and communication surveilled, and bodies controlled, in addition to facing heightened risks and exposure to labour violations, such as the denial of rest days, long hours and withholding of payments, as well as harassment and sexual and gender based violence with impunity towards their perpetrators. As this take place in the home, many in Lebanon see it as a ‘private issue’, beyond the interference of the state and other social structures. It grants employers almost total control over the lives of these women, and ensures a dependency by women migrant domestic workers on their employers (Amnesty International, 2019).
The Lebanese government holds primary responsibility for addressing these abuses and providing effective remedy to victims in accordance with its international obligations. In their calls for justice, women migrant domestic workers have played important roles in labour rights advocacy and have provided community-based support for men and women migrant workers, all while enduring the extreme impacts of racialized gender inequity, discrimination, and labour violations. Women migrant domestic workers have been on the forefront of labour actions, building alliances among each other and with national allies within Lebanon’s women’s rights movement. These women migrant worker led groups have fought hard to call for accountability and to find solutions amid the gravest of violations against their communities despite limited means and without enough support from national and international stakeholders.
This paper illuminates the gender dimensions of women migrant domestic workers’ lived experiences in Lebanon under the kafala system. It examines the circumstances of women migrant domestic workers who live with their employer (live-in workers) and those who do not (live-out workers). It is hoped that this deepened gendered understanding will contribute to efforts to dismantle Lebanon’s kafala system. To quote Amnesty International, “the kafala system is incompatible with domestic laws that safeguard freedoms and human dignity, protect workers’ rights and criminalize forced labour and human trafficking. It also directly contradicts Lebanon’s international obligations” (Amnesty International 2019). It is also hoped that this paper will improve the approaches taken to address migrant workers rights in Lebanon and will advance the inclusion of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon’s women’s rights and feminist movement.
The development and publication of this paper is taking place against the backdrop of deep crisis in Lebanon, with employment trends in the care sector shifting and the number of migrant workers decreasing. The economic crisis in the country is manifesting itself through currency depreciation, increasing costs for basic items, wage cuts and job losses, which are equally impacting women migrant domestic workers. During this period, substantial numbers of women migrant domestic workers continue to be subject to risks of exploitation and abuse.
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