The Kafala system is supposed to support people in domestic or construction employment – but it is often exploited and misused.
It was half way through my chat with Sarah when it really hit hard.
As she was describing her year of abuse – physical, mental, sexual – it was so clear: the young black woman sitting opposite me was a slave.
We all know the history. But the thing is, it’s not just history. Slavery is still with us. It is all around us.
It takes different forms and it exists at different levels of society. Some experiences are more extreme than others but all stem from the same roots – prejudice, entitlement, racism.
This is the story of a woman from Ghana living in Lebanon.
It’s a story about a system called Kafala. And it’s a story of an escape to freedom.
For us, it begins outside an apartment block in a Lebanese town south of Beirut.
But for the young woman we were waiting for, the story begins just over a year ago.
Sarah landed in Lebanon on a flight from Ghana on 22 April 2019. She was anxious but excited.
Back home, her job was to thread beads to decorate shoes and jewellery.
She’d come to Lebanon to make more money so she could turn her business into something better.
Like many people across Africa, and Asia too, she was to be part of the Kafala system.
The word is Arabic for “sponsorship”. The system is legal and common across the Middle East, providing middle class and rich families with domestic workers.
But it is a scheme rotten to its core. The workers have no rights under local laws. Their passports are held by agents who assign them to families. Their visas are valid only if they stick to their employment.
The opportunities for abuses of the system and of the people within it are huge.
Sarah would tell us about her hell over this past year. But first she would need to escape. And we were to watch the escape as it happened.
We were waiting discreetly in a parked car for a taxi to pull out from a driveway.
“Look out for a white taxi,” our contact at the charity This Is Lebanon told us.
The charity is one of a few trying to help those caught up in the Kafala system.
We were only waiting in our car for a few minutes when the white cab pulled out.
Minutes before, inside her “madame’s” house, Sarah had hidden her suitcase – which she packed the night before – inside a black bin liner.
“I am taking the rubbish out” she had told her employer – her “madame”.
“Clean the kitchen when you return,” the madame replied.
Sarah walked out of the house, black bag in her hand. She got into the taxi and slipped away.
It was an innocuous moment but her break for freedom.
Spotting her in the back of the cab, we followed. She knew we’d be following. The charity had of course received her consent in WhatsApp messages with her as they planned the escape in the days before.
The journey to the safe house in the Beirut suburbs took about an hour.
I greeted her briefly outside.
How was she, I asked. “Healthy. Good.” she said, with a smile.
Upstairs, in a small room where she will now live in hiding from her employer and her agent, Sarah told us her story.
“I came to Lebanon to work and get money for my own business.
“Because I was doing my own business in Ghana… you have to get money to put inside. I do beads for shoes, necklaces, other designs.”
“So you came here because you thought you’d make more money here than in Ghana?” I asked her.
“Yes, so I could continue my business. But I came for nothing.”
“I work [in] a lot of houses. The first day, when I came there, they [first family] received me good, with the husband they were good to me. Only [after] one week, they change… if you do any mistake she will use her shoes to beat you. There the lashings was too much.
“They hit you with shoes?” I asked.
“Yes – you will not sleep. If she is coming to wake you up she will use her shoes to wake me up. So I decided to run. I ran from the house.”
She explained that her agent then assigned her another family. Remember, the agent holds her passport and is responsible for her wages.
“The agent owns me,” she said.
“So I went to another different family. There [was] sexual harassment. It’s too much. So I decided to leave that. I told the woman I can’t work with her, I want to leave.”
She then explained the abuse in more detail. Referring to the brother of her employer, she said: “I was in the bathroom scrubbing. He came [in] naked. He didn’t wear anything…”
“He hold knife and doing like this…” She drew her hand across her neck.
“…and he said ‘do you know this?’ I said ‘knife’. So he put it on my neck and told me ‘if you tell my sister, I will kill you. Here is a cemetery, I will kill you in the night and throw you there. No one will know that it’s me’.
“So I was quiet and listened to him. He told me ‘from today, every day I have to suck your breasts. I have to do this. I have to do this’.
“That day I cried. I cry. I don’t have anybody to talk to.
“Today when I am suffering here there is no parent. There is no anybody to encourage you.
“I don’t even want to remember because what this guy did to me, it was very painful. It was very painful.”
By this stage in our conversation her recollections of numerous different employers were numbing.
“I am a Muslim so I went to do ablutions – pray. So I was praying and she came and start beating me telling me ‘here is not Mecca!’
“I told her ‘You can beat me but I will continue praying’. So I was praying and she was beating me.”
She described how she would routinely be locked in the house to ensure she did the housework.
“If she is going she will lock me in the house. She will close the door with keys everywhere. Then she will leave me in the house. She will ask you to do ironing.”
Sarah has received a total of $620 (£495) during her 15 months in Lebanon. She should have received $200 (£160) a month.
“They take us as a slaves. I know maybe by now some people are still arranging themselves to come. They shouldn’t come because this journey is do and die. It’s very, very serious case. They shouldn’t come. This is not good thing to do,” she said.
This is not an isolated case. Far from it.
There are a quarter of a million domestic migrant workers in Lebanon, all under the Kafala system.
For the past few months, Lebanon has been hit by multiple existential challenges – a crumbling economy, a banking crisis, the coronavirus pandemic and chronic government inefficiency.
Combined, they have exposed the Kafala system and the plight of migrants in the country.
And this goes beyond domestic workers. Outside African embassies across Beirut, migrant workers are waiting for their nation’s help.
At the Sudanese embassy we found scores of men; labourers who have literally been dumped by their employers who cannot afford to pay them.
“The Kafala system is modern day slavery. There is no two ways about it,” Aya Majzoub from Human Rights Watch says.
“Unfortunately most people here still don’t understand the inherent racism of the Kafala system. They think the abuse they see day in and day out is the result of a few bad employers rather than a system that is built on the exploitation and subjugation of these women.
“People think it is a right to have a migrant domestic worker live in their home 24/7 confined to her room, and not have her passport with her. These are all things that because of decades of practice have been completely normalised.”
Sky News asked the Lebanese Ministry for Labour for an interview or a statement in time for publication. Neither was received.
The Lebanese government has previously acknowledged that the Kafala system needs reforms to stamp out abuses but they have yet to be implemented.
Sarah is not her real name – it has been changed to protect her identity.
Source: Sky News
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