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What do Lebanese employers really think of the kafala system?

On July 30, 2014

A new report from Lebanese human rights NGO, the Insan Association, looks into a rarely-explored perspective on the debate on migrant domestic workers' rights - that of the employer.

The Kafala System: when employers also accepted to share their perspective is based on interviews with 250 employers in Beirut and Mount Lebanon.

The kafala system gives the employer an exceptionally high level of control over the migrant domestic worker, yet Lebanese employers often lack skills and experience needed to manage others, according to the report. Many have a limited understanding of the legalities of employing a foreigner, and often resort to managing disputes with their employees by issuing threats. As one respondent put it, “I solve the problem cordially. Sometimes I threaten her to go to the Employment Agency and sometimes I deduct from her salary” and another; “I call the agency and they give me tips like threaten her with sending her back to Ethiopia and things like that.”

The study reveals that many employers treat migrant domestic workers with a deep unease, and fear that they will pose a risk to the family by having a life of their own outside the home, for example, by having  boyfriend or getting pregnant.  Many have a somewhat paternalistic attitude towards migrant domestic workers, making statements such as 'I treat her like a daughter' or 'she is like a member of the family'. Yet these are often underscored by an unspoken desire to control the worker (for example, but not allowing her out of the house on her breaks).

Here are some of the headline findings of the study:

  • A total of 55.8% of employers interviewed by Insan researchers said that the kafala system should be changed,  largely because of a general perception that it is too burdensome for employer
  • 77.9% of respondents had retained their employee's passports
  • Living outside the employer's home would have a 'negative impact' on the moral character of migrant domestic workers, according to 26%
  • A further 13% said that migrant domestic workers were 'not capable' of living independently in Lebanon. This reveals a "racist tendency to view migrant domestic workers as fundamentally vulnerable", according to Insan.
  • The majority (64.3%) of employers said that when disputes arose with domestic workers, they would resolve the matter themselves, without involving the labour agency or the authorities, a trend which Insan said was 'problematic'.
  • Anecdotal evidence cited by Insan suggests that the female employers can feel threatened by the presence of another woman in the house carrying out duties such as childcare and cooking which can give rise to conflicts, bullying and micromanagement. However, 69.1% of respondents said that they had no knowledge of any NGO or community group that was able to mediate in such situations.

There are around 250,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, a country of 4m people.

An Arabic version of the report is also available to download here.

You can read more background from Migrant Rights on the kafala system here.