There are believed to be around 250,000 domestic workers in Lebanon, and about 99 percent of them are immigrants on work permits. The majority are women from Ethiopia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, who earn salaries ranging from $150 to $400 per month.

They work under the kafala – or sponsorship – system, which has been likened to modern slavery. The system is a restrictive regime of laws and regulations that ties migrant workers’ legal residency to their employers. Those who leave their employers without permission risk losing their legal residency, and face detention or deportation. The UN, and other human rights groups, have repeatedly called for it to be dismantled.

There have been efforts at reform, though. The labour ministry in 2020 adopted a new standard contract for domestic workers that guaranteed overtime pay, sick pay, annual leave, and the national minimum wage. It also allowed workers to leave employment without the consent of their employer. But, to the dismay of rights group it was never implemented.

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report in January said one of the main reasons for the failure to abolish the system was that it was a highly lucrative business for some. “One study found that the kafala system generates more than 100 million US dollars annually. Recruitment agencies … forced labour and human trafficking generate 57.5 million US dollars a year in revenue,” HRW said.

Last week a viral video of a Lebanese man abusing a domestic worker reignited the conversation about the rights of workers in Lebanon, the kafala system and the impact of Lebanon’s unprecedented economic freefall.

In this episode we’ll revisit the plight of domestic workers in Lebanon against the backdrop of deepening crises in the country.

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