As in many other countries, the Lebanese employ migrant domestic workers to do the work that is seen as unfit for their own citizens. Lebanon is by no means unique in the Middle East, where it is estimated that there are 22 million migrant workers. Lebanon today hosts 200,000 migrant domestic workers, all women, in a country with a population of four million.
Migrant domestic workers in Lebanese society have become such a common sight that people no longer react to their presence. Employing a migrant domestic worker is not only limited to the more affluent classes of Lebanese society, also the lower middle classes employ maids. They have become symbols of status, like a car or a house. The easy access to workers and the policies smoothing the employment process have reduced them to commodities: they are easy to get, maintain and discard when no longer wanted.
Migrant domestic workers are not subject to the Labor Law. Their presence fall under what is called the Kafaala system, also known as the sponsorship system. The Kafaala system means that an employer must sponsor the migrant domestic worker coming to Lebanon. The workers’ legal status in the country is bound by law to one employer, which is also written into their passports.
Although during the last few years activists and NGOs have worked hard on media campaigns advocating for the migrant domestic workers’ rights, the abuse of migrant domestic workers is so common that but a few act on its existence. Every week, the death of a migrant domestic worker is reported either due to a suicide, a presumed suicide or what is labeled as an accident. An extreme case of a Sri Lankan woman being forced to drink orange juice with nails, merited just a note in the newspapers.
How the worker is to report an eventual abuse remains in question. She is not allowed to leave the house without permission. If she were to do that she would be jeopardizing her legal status in the country, even if she had just cause, running the risk of detention and deportation. The constraints of the Kafaala system leave the women with little or no possibility to communicate with the outside world. These are structural problems that allow the abuse and exploitation of the workers to remain hidden.