Over the weekend, hundreds of domestic workers based in Lebanon marched against the kafala system in the country.
The peaceful protest was meant to mark Labor Day (on May 1), but took place on Sunday as it's the only day off for many of the workers. Marching from Beirut's Sodeco Square to a park in Aisha Bakkar, both men and women held signs calling on officials to abolish the kafala system.
The system - which is currently implemented in Lebanon and across the Arab world - has long been criticized by human rights organizations because it legally binds a worker to their employer. Under it, domestic workers are often treated like slaves, denied their most basic of rights, and subjected to abuse.
An estimated 250,000 migrant workers, mostly from countries in Africa and southeast Asia, live and work in Lebanon.
Sunday's march saw hundreds of them demand their rights, with many also calling on officials to end their exclusion from the country's labor law. At the time being, domestic workers continue to be excluded from the labor law, instead obtaining legal residency in the country through their employers. As the walk proceeded in Beirut, domestic workers who were probably not allowed to leave their homes to join their colleagues stood out on balconies and chanted their support. A few Lebanese joined the event early on while others watched it unfold from their balconies.
It comes at a time when thousands of domestic workers based in Lebanon continue to face abuse and racism on a daily basis. In 2017, the state's General Security revealed an alarming increase in domestic worker deaths from one case per week in 2008, to two cases in 2017.
"The only thing we want is respect"
Speaking to The Daily Star, several domestic workers who joined the march expressed their happiness over the event's success. Rayyan, an Ethiopian domestic worker who's been in Lebanon for 7 years, explained that the number of people at the event was considered huge when all circumstances are taken into account:
"It's not easy to come here. Because of employers it's very difficult. But I'm so happy with the number that have made it," she said.
Marie, a domestic worker from Cameroon, also spoke to the English-language daily, saying:
"I really hope things will change. We need things to change. We want to work. We're not refusing to work. We are hard workers. The only thing we want is respect."
While some workers are hopeful their rights will someday be protected in Lebanon, others aren't as optimistic.
"It's very difficult for us. Lebanese discriminate; they see us with black skin and think we are slaves in this country. I've been in Lebanon for 28 years with no freedom," Margaret, a domestic worker from Nigeria, spoke out about her mixed feelings regarding the protest.
"I feel good, but I don't feel good for the country. It's going to be very hard for us to have freedom," she explained.
The kafala system must be abolished
The kafala system exists in different forms in the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon.
According to Human Rights Watch, it's a "system that gives sponsoring employers substantial control over workers and leaves workers vulnerable to situations of trafficking and forced labor."
Under the sponsorship arrangement, which has been called "modern-day slavery," some employees aren't allowed to step out of the houses where they work and risk arrest and deportation if they leave without their employer's permission.
In recent months, there have been calls to abolish the kafala system in several Gulf countries. However, it continues to be implemented across the region and is yet to be reformed or completely abolished.