This year on the 8th of March, International Women’s Day, I watched on social media as people in Lebanon took to the streets of Beirut to demand equality. I listened to women cry out that حق المرأة بالجنسية and that حق المرأة بالحضانة. Citizenship and custody rights have been the target of feminist protests in Lebanon for years, but more recently there has been a trend towards focusing on workers rights. It is a known truth that equal pay for women, in regards to that of their male counterparts, is a ubiquitous liberal feminist demand. In Lebanon, workers rights are a feminist issue for reasons that surpass equal hourly rates. This is because, at the heart of the exploitation of workers in Lebanon (and more broadly, the Arab world), are issues of race and poverty that manifest in the deeply hidden and exploitative Kafala system.
WHAT IS THE KAFALA SYSTEM?
Within the Arab world, Kafala looks like a worker sponsorship system. Migrant domestic workers are hired as temporary ‘guest’ workers, and are dependent on local sponsors for their housing and work permits. Typically, the sponsor serves as the worker’s legal guarantor and sole employer, as such, the worker cannot change employers without the sponsor’s consent. This also means that the sponsor has the power to send the worker back to their country of origin at any given point in time. Within the administrative framework of the sponsorship system, workers are effectively bound to their employers for the terms of their service. As a whole, it appears that the system, which has been described as a modern day form of slavery, oppresses in insidious ways. This is because the oversight of migrant worker rights has been extricated from labor ministries and diverted into the unregulated hands of private citizens.
On discussing labour migration, attention is often focused on people from the Global South moving to the Global North for work. Much of the literature on said labour migration does not reflect the fact that considerably more people move within so-called ‘less developed’ areas. Within the Global South, the Middle East ranks as one of the top destinations for labour migrants, and in 2005 the UN estimated that one in every ten international migrants in the world was in the Arab region. Amnesty International also notes that a large majority of migrant workers under the Kafala system are women.
Supporters of the Kafala System have claimed that sponsorship exists in order to monitor migrant workers. This is despite a reality which indicates that the majority of workers are placed in high intensity blue-collar labour jobs in the construction and domestic fields.
WHERE DOES THE WORD ‘KAFALA’ ORIGINATE?
The term Kafala has a wide semantic scope in Arabic. Within the Arabic language, most words are derived from three or four letter root words, which can assist in defining more complex words. In the context of Kafala, a definition has actually been imperative to understanding the way the system operates. Arabic words have different forms depending on context, and the root for Kafala, kāf – fā – lām (كفل), means to feed, support, vouch for or warrant. Thus the literal definition of Kafala can refer to bail, guaranty, security or sponsorship (Wehr, 1994).
The Islamic definition of Kafala is of vital importance to understanding the ways in which religious governance is used by governments to mask and protect the system. In her thesis “Exporting Subservience: Sri Lankan Women’s Migration for Domestic Work in Jordan”, Elizabeth Frantz says that in the Islamic tradition, Kafala has social, moral and business dimensions. Within Sharia relating to the Muslim family, Kafala refers to the formal agreement of providing temporary support for orphaned children until they become adults. This support has been compared to adoption, but has sparked interest within adoption discourse as the support until adulthood does not allow for inheritance rights. Islamic scholars understand it to be a form of legal guardianship rather than adoption (Frantz, 2011).
Similarly, in “The Islamic Principle of Kafala as Applied to Migrant Workers: Traditional Continuity and Reform”, authors Ray Jureidini and Said Fares Hassan have tried to analyse and make sense of the relationship between religion and the modern Kafala system. Jureidini and Hassan discuss the way Muslim scholars have, in more recent times, extended the meaning of Kafala to a business contract where someone formally guarantees somebody else in terms of delivering goods or carrying financial responsibilities. This leads into the more general discussion that Kafala was intended to provide a framework of social solidarity based on trust and cooperation among people in various realms of their interactions.
The most highly critiqued issues of the contemporary Kafala have indeed centered around the power, control and exploitation of the sponsor over foreign employees as well as business establishments. The criticisms have primarily been based on international human and labour rights law and conventions. It is in this sense that the new Kafala may seem to violate a key traditional Islamic condition and may be seen more as a business-oriented system rather than one of trust and protection. Yet despite this, the Kafala system lives on, thriving in countries that use the word of God as the law.
GEOPOLITICS: WHERE DOES IT TAKE PLACE AND TO WHAT EXTENT?
In the rare news reporting that has occurred on the Kafala system, it is evident that wealth is central to the survival of the system. Though this does not mean a lot in and of itself — considering that most migrant workers would anyway be impoverished and desperately taking part in sponsorship in a hope to give themselves or their families a better life— it is evident that even within the Global South there are disparities. According to Migrant Rights, a Gulf Cooperation Council based advocacy organization that aims to advance the rights of migrant workers, the Kafala system governs labor migration in all GCC countries, such as Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as for most workers in Lebanon and Jordan.
Research and personal stories clearly reveal that Kafala is a system of control. There are not many ways that Kafala is regulated, despite the system being overseen by each country’s Ministry of Interior. The ministry in each partaking country not only oversees it, but enforces it as the system that regulates labour migration. Furthermore, in the Arab world, a workers’ immigration status is treated primarily as a security issue rather than a labor issue. On account of this, it is evident that there is no real reason for governments to oversee justice and be accountable for the exploitation of migrants.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has reported that a majority of the migrants that travel for sponsorship work in the Arab world hail from South/Southeast Asia or Africa. This information alone is indicative of the complex racial dynamics behind the exploitative sponsorship system. In Lebanon, it is commonplace for maids, regardless of their ethnicity to be nicknamed, سرلنكيين, “Srilankeyeen”. The word, literally translates to “Sri Lankans”, and this, partnered along with colourism and stereotyping, is a prime example of the way the Kafala system has a long history that not only exploits migrant workers, but targets specific communities.
SAY HER NAME: FAUSTINA TAY
On the 14th of March 2020, six days after International Women’s Day, 23-year-old Ghanain domestic worker, Faustina Tay died in the southern suburbs of Beirut. I remember scrolling through social media, seeing This Is Lebanon demanding an inquiry into Faustina’s sudden death. This is Lebanon (TIL), is a project and advocacy group run by a coalition of former domestic workers and activists demanding the protection of migrant domestic workers, and an end to labour exploitation and abuse, with the aim to effectively end government-sanctioned, modern-day slavery in Lebanon.
Faustina Tay had worked for Mona Nasrallah and Hussein Dia for 10 months before her death. Police reports initially concluded that Tay’s death was a suicide, with no serious investigation involved. TIL was in contact with Tay between the 6th and 13th March trying to protect her from abuse, and assist her in obtaining her promised salary which had been withheld from her during her time at the Dia household. Over 40 minutes of chilling messages were accumulated by TIL and Tay’s brother in Ghana, along with several text messages that recounted the continual abuse she faced at the hands of her sponsors.
In the days following her death, Al Jazeera shared her story, which then began to rapidly circulate. Her story has been seen far and wide, including, quite notably by supermodel Naomi Campbell on Instagram. People said her name enough times that a new high-level investigation is being carried out.
Faustina Tay’s story is unfortunately not unlike many other stories. Her shaken voice has been engraved into my mind, and as I write this, I close my eyes and can hear her say “…he said he sees me as an animal. He can do anything to me. No one will hold him responsible.”
The exploitation of migrant workers escalates when that worker is a woman. All of a sudden, she is not only a disposable worker, but another target for sexual harassment and assault. Testimonial evidence from Faustina Tay to TIL exposes how her sponsor Hussein Dia, and his 23 year old son, Ali Dia, were both sexual predators.
Following her death, Hussein Dia told Al Jazeera that he “…never laid a hand on her,” and also told the police that his family were God-fearing people and never harmed Faustina. They claimed to be completely unaware as to why their domestic worker would commit suicide. Furthermore, the report from the coroner declared that there were no marks of physical aggression or violence on her body and the only visible injury was a bruised scalp “caused by falling from a high place.”
This is all despite the aforementioned text and voice messages to her brother and TIL where Faustina herself complained of pains and aches all over her body from brutal beatings she had received earlier, on the 12th of March. With photos of her bruising and wounds fresh two days before her death, it is evident that there are discrepancies with the facts, as well as the released police report and coroner’s examination.
Faustina Tay desperately tried to flee her situation. She had, time and time again, requested her pay, and even requested to be sent back to Ghana with no pay, but the Dia family refused and instead asked her to pay $2000 if she wanted her passport.
In some, but by no means rare cases, migrant workers turn to suicide to escape the severeness of their reality. However in this instance, TIL and Faustina’s family have rejected the notion that her death was a suicide and call on the Lebanese government to bring the perpetrators to justice.
According to Amnesty International, within the five million population of Lebanon there are currently 250,000 registered migrant workers. Amongst these workers, a large majority of them are women, who are often deprived of pay, basic rights and freedom. They are often emotionally, physically, financially and sexually abused by their sponsors, and do not have the resources to leave. These women, already at great risk, are now at even greater risk of being abused while Lebanon is under lockdown to control the infection rate of COVID-19.
A month and a half on from International Women’s Day, and a month from Faustina Tay’s death, it is critical that the voices of migrant workers are elevated and made central in the feminist cause. No more Kafala. Not another Faustina. Say her name.