A Kenyan cry against the Kafala system
Kenyan domestic workers have been protesting to go home for a month now. However, repatriation will not solve the issues related to the Kafala (sponsorship) system in Lebanon. What is happening with the Kenyan workers in the Middle Eastern country?
“We want to go home” is a phrase you won’t miss while passing by the Kenyan Honorary Consulate in Beirut. If you head down to Badaro, you will hear similar stories of abusive employers and deceptive employment agents, making it impossible to live in dignity.
The ladies have been protesting in front of the Consulate for a month, demanding that they be allowed to return home. They claim that they were mistreated at every stage of their stay in Lebanon.
Some came as supporters to persuade the Consulate to assist other ladies in returning home, and others were dumped in front of the building by their employers, who saw the demonstration as a way to get rid of a domestic worker amid Lebanon’s crippling economy.
More than 20 ladies are expected to be repatriated to Kenya this week after the pending process at the General Security Directorate follows through.
These women were housed in an apartment in Furn al-Shubbak while they awaited their departure so they wouldn't have to sleep in the rain. The apartment was provided by the Kenyan Embassy in Kuwait (which provides assistance in Lebanon, since Kenya does not have an embassy in Beirut.)
-"Tunataka kwenda nyumbani" - We want to go home-
Lebanon's economic collapse, which has been ongoing for the past two years, has had a devastating effect on the country's migrant domestic worker population, with many of them now requesting repatriation. Domestic workers typically do not have the right to terminate their contracts under the Kafala (sponsorship) system and must rely on their employers to allow them to return to their home countries.
Several domestic workers from Kenya have been protesting in front of the Kenyan Honorary Consulate in Beirut, demanding their right to go home. They stood holding banners in front of the Consulate walls that are graffitied with phrases demanding justice.
Disgruntled workers hoping to return home are subjected to the Kafala system's injustice, which includes sponsors keeping their passports, avoiding their legal obligation to pay for their return tickets, and even accusing workers of stealing or other crimes in order to avoid responsibility.
“We want to go home… we are tired” is a cry heard by the workers who are accusing the Kenyan Honorary Consulate of negligence towards their rights and needs.
Al Mayadeen headed down to the Honorary Consulate of Kenya where around eight workers were protesting in front of the building. Upon arrival, traditional Kenyan music was played by speakers and the ladies were enjoying their traditional food.
-'This is my story'-
A lady stood in the corner with her hood and mask hiding her identity because speaking up has become a fear. Her eyes met mine as she approached me. “I just want to say one thing… this is my story”, she said with a slight crack in her voice.
Grace, one of the domestic workers protesting, first arrived in Lebanon in 2021. She accused her sponsor of confiscating her monthly salary and exposing her and other workers to sexual and physical abuse.
“We come to the consulate and get no assistance… we are not dogs, I’m sorry I have to say this but we are not animals, we are human beings,” Grace told Al Mayadeen with a lump in her throat.
“I put my passport in the embassy [the honorary consulate], but when I asked for my passport, Kassem [the honorary Consul’s Assistant] refused to give it to me,” Talia, another Kenyan domestic worker, told Al Mayadeen, adding, “They neglect us, it's paining me.”
Al Mayadeen reached out to Kassem Jaber concerning the situation and the accusations directed at the Consulate concerning the possession of passports. Jaber refuted what he called "false accusations", claiming that there are no passports at the Consulate.
He explained that the passports are first in possession of the agents. The passports are then transferred to the General Security Directorate that either keep them in their possession or give them back to the agent. “We don’t have any business with the passports," Jaber stated.
“We want only Africans to work in this consulate because this is not a consulate, this is a business” shouted another, adding that “we don’t mistreat the Lebanese in our country, why are they mistreating us?”
“They (the honorary consulate) say they made the travel document for us to travel, so we are wondering if the organization (NGOs) are going to pay for the tickets, what are they waiting for? The travel document, the GS thing is done… General Security… we have the passport and everything is clear, what are they waiting for? We have sponsors that are ready to sponsor, why are they restricting only some people and not the rest? Is it a business? Are they gaining anything from them and that’s why they are blocking some other people from helping?” stated Olive, one of the ladies protesting in front of the Consulate. However, Olive does not want to go home, she considers herself a supporter of the ladies that do.
Who is the puppet master?
“Most of the ladies protesting don’t even want to travel,” Jaber told Al Mayadeen.
Kassem Jaber provided Al Mayadeen with documents to accuse “This is Lebanon," an NGO that has been actively working in solidarity with the Kenyan ladies, of fueling the ladies to stay on the streets to “benefit from the chaos."
He took us back to 2020, when a Kenyan lady, Eunice, worked at the Honorary Consulate. That same year, she was taken in for questioning at the cyber-crimes after several Kenyan ladies accused her of fraud and collusion with "This is Lebanon". However, the cyber-crimes office released her for lack of evidence.
However, Jaber provided Al Mayadeen with a chat on WhatsApp of a conversation between a Kenyan lady and a member of “This is Lebanon”.
Jaber explained that the lady was in contact with Eunice, who he claims took money from her. He elaborates that “This is Lebanon” asked the lady to "clear chat" in order to get rid of any evidence of contact between Eunice and This is Lebanon.
Al Mayadeen contacted "This is Lebanon" about Jaber's accusations. A member, Zain Lawson, claims that Eunice was a former Secretary at the Consulate who was arrested and taken to cyber-crimes in August 2020, as Jaber stated. However, Zain added that there were "a series of events that surrounded that arrest."
He mentioned that "Kassem was with the ISF and dressed up as one of them when she (Eunice) was arrested. She recognized his eyes and called him out," adding that, "ISF raided her home and took all her digital devices and gave them to cyber-crimes. They found nothing against her and nothing that showed collusion with This is Lebanon."
Furthermore, Lawson added, "After the ISF arrest, when she arrived for interrogation, she was met by Kassem and the Consulate's lawyer. Even though it was the Consulate trying to prosecute Eunice, they wanted her to use their lawyer in a complete conflict of interests."
He argued that the conversation (shown above) is a result of reports of "physical abuse and theft by the Honorary Consul and his assistant Kassem." He added that the worker was asked to keep quiet "for Eunice's protection, as she has been helping out some Kenyan women who ran away from their employers to the Consulate."
'Send Us Home' campaign
In 2020, "This is Lebanon" launched the “Send Us Home” campaign, which demands the Consulate provides free tickets to Kenya, Jaber claims. In defense of the Consulate, he explained that there were ladies who had babies with incomplete papers or missing documents, which delays the laissez-passer (clearance). “If we don’t have the legal documents, we legally can’t give them the laissez-passer to travel,” he added.
Lawson argued that "in 2020, many of the Kenyan women we were talking to had given the Consulate $400 fresh dollars for their plane ticket to repatriate. Then COVID-19 hit, and the economic crisis got much worse. Once the airports opened up, they came back to the Consulate and asked for their plane tickets home. But when they asked for their ticket, they were told that the tickets are now way more. So they asked for a refund, and the Consulate refused to give them a refund."
‘ One goal… the donations ’
“Putting the girls on the street has one goal, gathering the largest amount of donations before their departure”, stressed Kassem Jaber, adding that “if you want to help them, remove them from the streets, don’t encourage them to stay.”
He claims that the ladies were lured to protest at night by providing them with music and goods such as shisha and snacks. Jaber provided photos of the gathering, accusing specific organizations of providing the ladies with leisure goods to keep them on the streets. Amid such provided goods, there were calls by the workers demanding food and aid, stressed Jaber, hinting that the chaos was intentional.
The Consul’s Assistant accused the campaigns of “directly targeting the Consulate," emphasizing that it is a personal campaign against it and the Consul.
He further accused "This is Lebanon" of using the ladies to gather donations. “The fundraising started with $400 and ended with $43,000 because there are cameras taping the girls for the organization to gather funds,” Jaber said, claiming that the funds were not used to help repatriate any of the concerned ladies.
Lawson, from "This is Lebanon", defended the organization against Jaber's accusations. He explained to Al Mayadeen that the tracker was later updated.
However, he mentioned that "one thing that can be said to be true is that we have not spent as much money on repatriating Kenyan nationals as we originally intended to, but Kassem and another woman involved tried to make us look like we were raising the money fraudulently."
Zain Lawson provided Al Mayadeen with a Whatsapp conversation between him and the Consul's Assistant.
The conversation between Jaber and Lawson includes a request from "This is Lebanon" to "book tickets for 33 Kenyan migrant domestic workers. It does not matter if I can book them all at once or if I need to book a few different groups." Jaber requested that they be paid for in one group, referring to the large sum being fundraised and arguing that the amount is enough to pay for all the tickets.
It also includes accusations by Jaber, that he also mentioned to Al Mayadeen, regarding the money collected from the organization's fundraiser.
Lawson noted that "One of our volunteers went to the Consulate to get a repatriation list for us to purchase the tickets, he just told her to piss off."
The question here is if Jaber was eager to give "This is Lebanon" a list of names, why would he, if he was, change his mind?
Modern slavery under the Kafala system
Although the misery of these domestic workers appears to be eased, their repatriation does not resolve the numerous issues associated with the kafala system, which allows domestic workers to work in Lebanon only through the sponsorship of a sponsor.
Domestic workers in Lebanon have been protesting against the Kafala (sponsorship) system that traps thousands of migrant domestic workers in highly abusive conditions that, at worst, amount to modern slavery.
Migrant domestic workers are excluded from Article 7 of the Labor Law, which denies them protections that other workers enjoy, such as a minimum wage, work-hour limits, a weekly rest day, overtime pay, and freedom of association.
Consider for a moment what distinguishes domestic workers from any other foreigner working in a foreign country? Isn't this the modern equivalent of slavery?
The Kafala system is nothing but a restrictive regime of laws, regulations, and customary practices that tie migrant workers' legal residency to their employers.
The system’s tight control over workers' lives has resulted in cases of human trafficking, forced labor, exploitation, and much more. Nonpayment of wages, forced confinement, withholding of identity documents, excessive working hours, and verbal, physical, and sexual abuse are all documented frequently by Human Rights Watch and local organizations.
Authorities have failed to abolish the Kafala system despite years of campaigning by migrant domestic worker groups and rights organizations. One of the main reasons is that it is a profitable business for the majority of those involved.
Kenyan domestic workers are protesting in Beirut today as a result of the process they must go through before leaving their employers, finding another job, or simply returning home.
Where is the justice in a system that forces a domestic worker to stay in a place where she may be physically, verbally, or sexually abused?
In a statement for Al Mayadeen, Kassem Jaber stated that the Kenyan Honorary Consulate supports the Kafala system but requests that it be "adjusted and developed."
He explained that the Kenyan Honorary Consulate requested prohibiting agents from getting Kenyan domestic workers to Lebanon unless the honorary Consulate gives the approval. The request is based on efforts by the honorary Consulate to be in charge of the ladies and their fate in Lebanon.
“Instead of the responsibility being on the General Security Directorate and Labor Ministry, let us work… let us investigate and make sure that the domestic worker knows what her job is going to be, her salary, who she is going to work for, and for how long…” elaborated Jaber.
Jaber stressed that after getting the approval, it was quickly overturned because agents refused to have their hands tied and dependent on the Kenyan Honorary Consulate.
The Kafala System and the exclusion of domestic workers from the Labor Law provisions are in violation of Lebanon's human rights treaties and labor conventions, including those prohibiting forced labor. They also go against the non-discrimination principle and the right to fair and favorable working conditions.
What is an Honorary Consulate?
Honorary consuls are named so because they do not charge a fee for their services and undertake their duties on an honorary basis. All the Consulate's expenses, in our case, are paid by the honorary Consul, Sayed El Chalouhi himself.
The Consulate's duties are to give assistance and guidance to any Kenyan in Lebanon.
Kassem Jaber explained that the Kenyan Honorary Consulate is "not legally existent... consider it a small charity organization for Kenya." He added that an honorary consulate can't legally shelter any Kenyan worker because it is not an embassy. However, it is obliged to assist them with their needs.
-'We are human beings'-
Lebanon has witnessed for years several cases of physical, verbal, and sexual abuse toward migrant domestic workers from different nationalities around the world.
Workers were seen dragged across the street, committing suicide, and abused by their employers, but have their hands tied because of the Kafala (sponsorship) system.
When workers arrive in Lebanon, they walk into a black hole because they have no solid promises. They have a right to know their fate in this country before they come, and they should be allowed to leave whenever they want. Mothers, daughters, and sisters who are leaving their families should be honored with respect and dignity.
It is no doubt that the case of Kenyan domestic workers in Lebanon has many strings attached. Several parties could benefit and are benefitting. How, you might ask? Without pointing fingers, no one really knows what happens behind the curtains of a puppet show. It is sad to admit, but the domestic workers are being played like marionette dolls. Even the workers themselves have found benefits in each other.
Corrupt organizations and systems are feeding on these workers as we speak. The solution is one: Abolish the Kafala system.