The death of a Ghanaian domestic worker in Lebanon has brought the Kafala system into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
The Kafala system is an exploitative system used to monitor migrant labourers, working primarily in the construction and domestic sectors in the Gulf cooperation council member states and a few neighbouring countries namely Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
The system is structured in a way that gives the employer total authority over their employee. It gives the employer the employer power over the visa and legality of the employee by basis of being the employee’s in country sponsor. In most cases this has led to employers confiscating the passports of their employees and abusing them. The kafala system leaves the employees vulnerable to their employers who provide them with accommodation food and sponsor for their visas.
In most cases the domestic workers salaries are withheld during the first months of employment as a way of repaying the employer for the visa and flight tickets. This means the employee for the first months is working for food and shelter. Most migrant workers in the region are found in Africa and Asia. It is evident that the conditions under which the employees work and live in are extremely similar to slavery, these include working for food and shelter, being subjected to physical abuse, having no autonomy over your movements within the country of employment and in some cases working for no pay with no legal recourse available.
Faustina Tay, a Ghanaian domestic worker’s death is just one of many deaths that occur to the domestic workers tied down in the Kafala system. Her body was found between 3 – 4am on the 14th of March 2020 under her employer’s fourth storey home in Beirut’s southern suburbs. Fewer than 24 hours earlier, Tay had been sending messages to an activist group for domestic workers under the kafala system, about the abuse she was suffering at the hands of her Lebanese employers. Her death was ruled out by investigating authorities as suicide. Tay’s story is not unique but just reveals the lengths the authorities are willing to go to sweep the deaths of migrant workers under the kafala system under the carpet. According to the country’s intelligence agency two domestic workers die every week, but the judiciary is never seen to serve justice for these deaths. Despite the messages and pictures Tay sent along with over 40 minutes of voice messages documenting her abuse the police will not investigate the death or the alleged abuse.
Authorities with the requisite power to investigate and serve justice for the abusive system are nonchalant and do not seem to want to decisively tackle the matter. Amnesty international has termed the system “inherently abusive”, because if the employer chooses to terminate the contract, even in cases of abuse, the visa sponsorship is immediately revoked, turning the migrant workers into illegal aliens, and leaving them at the risk of arrest and/or deportation.
Africans are extremely vulnerable as they leave their lives in pursuit of opportunities they hope will be better only to be thrown into a pit of slavery. This was the case with the late Faustina Tay who ran a small noodle business in Accra (Ghana). Her messages to her family and the activist group shows that she regretted her decision.
If the kafala system is not abolished it will leave multiple people who are unaware of the evils within it vulnerable to be victims of the same. Africans sign up and are recruited in hope’s of making an honest living but instead find themselves reduced in value and self-worth. Faustina’s story tells a story that is way too familiar to African history. She was abused even by her employer’s children and occasionally had her phone confiscated.
States like Bahrain have repealed the Kafala system giving the migrant workers a bit more autonomy because their visas are sponsored by the Labour Market Regulation Authority. Although there are still practical aspects which still require attention it is a step in the right direction.
The kafala system should be abolished because it is clearly modern-day slavery and constantly subjects African migrant workers to an experience that should be left in a sad part in the history of mankind.