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No Ethical Contract Under Kafala

Monday, 6 July, 2020

The Ministry of Labor is set to release an amended version of the Standard Unified Contract (SUC) which, in theory, intends to regulate the working relationship between migrant domestic workers and their sponsors (employers). However, the contract is only one piece of the Kafala system and, due to lack of any enforcement mechanism, it is arguably the least important piece.

To this day and in the context of a complete economic crisis and an ongoing global health crisis, the involvement of the Ministry of Labor in this issue remain purely performative, barely touching the surface of the entire system of slavery that is Kafala. Since 2019 under former minister Camille Abou Sleiman, the ministry has merely suggested basic reforms and has not addressed the root of the issue at hand: the full power granted to the sponsor over the domestic worker, which is guaranteed and reinforced by the Kafala. 

In its new form, the contract acknowledges the most basic of human and labor rights. Significant amendments include specifying the worker’s minimum wage (not yet determined), giving her the right to quit her job unconditionally after providing a month’s notice, and acknowledging the worker’s freedom of movement and communication.

Despite these slight improvements, there is no enforcement mechanism in place for the contract. This means that employers can breach the contract without any consequences or accountability, as is the case for many employers today. The only provisions for dealing with a breach of contract require the worker to file a complaint with the Ministry of Labor. This is problematic because it assumes that (1) the worker is able to do so, and that (2) that the ministry would actually intervene on her behalf.

Ironically, the Ministry of Labor itself fails to meet its own responsibilities detailed in the current and expected contract. According to the contract, upon receipt of a complaint from the wronged workers, the Ministry of Labor is supposed to intervene to retrieve from the sponsor the worker’s unpaid wages and cost of the plane ticket home. Since the end of May 2020, ARM has documented over 65 cases where employers have clearly violated the terms of the current contract. These violations include withholding the worker’s salary for 3 to 36 months, and refusing to pay for the plane ticket for the worker to return to her country. This is in addition to the stark violation of human rights committed by rendering workers homeless, hungry, and undocumented. 

The contract by itself is worthless if not accompanied by other measures to put an end to Kafala. The Kafala system is a web of several laws and policies that encourage and enable the exploitation of domestic workers for their labor. Abolishing kafala requires serious political will and decisive intervention from Lebanese authorities, including:

  1. Pass a law to enforce the contract that would outline the labor inspection mechanisms that would guarantee compliance with the contract and the penalties to be imposed on employers in case of violation of the contract;

  2. Establish an accessible, transparent, and thorough complaints mechanism for workers to report abuses of the employer, and to quit their job safely, that extends beyond documenting the complaint over the ministry’s (more often that not, non-functioning) hotline and ensures that an investigation is launched and employers are held accountable;

  3. Conduct transparent and thorough investigations of the frequent abuses and deaths of migrant domestic workers, and ensure that perpetrators are held accountable through a fair and speedy trial, not through symbolic administrative measures like blacklisting, which are easily circumvented by sponsors;

  4. Amend the Law on Entry and Exit of Foreigners of 1962 and all its operational decrees and decisions to ensure that the work permit and residence permit of migrants in Lebanon are not tied to an individual sponsor, to prevent leaving the legality of the worker’s presence in Lebanon in the hands of one person who can easily exploit this power;

  5. Abolish Articles 7 and 92 of the Labor Law to ensure that domestic workers benefit from the same protections and labor rights as any other worker in Lebanon;

  6. Abolish employment agencies and create an alternative recruitment mechanism for domestic workers centralized in a public institution to ensure that workers are not exploited during the recruitment process.