Kenyan domestic workers in Beirut protest to go back home
Even after two weeks, the women still have the energy to chant. And chant they do, alternating between “home, we want home!” and songs to encourage each other to stand strong in the face of the biting cold and wary stares of the police officers assigned to watch over them.
The group of about twenty Kenyan women have transformed the front of the Kenyan consulate in Beirut into a makeshift encampment. The sight of heaps of clothes, cookware, and women sleeping on bare mattresses on the sidewalks is a stark contrast to the hip, quickly-gentrifying neighbourhood of Badaro, where Lebanese sip on coffee unperturbed as the women protest metres away.
"They allege that they have been mistreated at every stage of their stay in Lebanon, with abusive employers, deceitful employment agents and a predatory consulate making living life with dignity impossible"
The women – who came to Lebanon to work as domestic workers – have staked out the front of the consulate for two weeks now, demanding to be allowed to go home. They allege that they have been mistreated at every stage of their stay in Lebanon, with abusive employers, deceitful employment agents and a predatory consulate making living life with dignity impossible.
The group started small – just six women – but quickly grew to about 20 as news of their protest spread. Some came in hopes that together they could pressure the consulate to help them return home. Others were dumped in front of the consulate by their employers, who saw the protest as an opportunity to get rid of a domestic worker they can no longer afford.
“We want to go back home, but our consulate is the problem. Instead of helping us, [the consul] is nowhere to be found. There’s no help from him,” Lily* (a pseudonym), a Kenyan domestic worker who had been sleeping outside the embassy for two weeks, told The New Arab.
“He told me to go away, to go home. We can’t. I was chased out by my agency. Others were chased out by their bosses, others ran away because of the torture they were getting from their bosses,” Lily said.
"Others were dumped in front of the consulate by their employers, who saw the protest as an opportunity to get rid of a domestic worker they can no longer afford"
All of the women outside of the consulate who spoke to The New Arab had similar stories of abuse, and all desperately wanted to leave Lebanon. Their route out the country, however, is blocked by a legal system rigged against them.
Some had their passport taken from them, with no idea of its whereabouts. Others were waiting on a laissez-passer (a travel document) from the Kenyan consulate but had no idea when they would receive it.
The Kenyan honorary Vice Consul Kassem Jaber denied any wrongdoing and said that “we are doing our best so we can get to our office to be able to proceed with the repatriation process,” but claimed that the women were not allowing them into the building.
He also sent videos to The New Arab of women who appeared to be Kenyan telling him they did not want to go home. “We always help and support any Kenyan citizen in the consulate,” Jaber said.
Abuse, impunity and neglect
After arriving at her latest job, Lily found the conditions intolerable, and so went back to her employment agency and asked to go back home. Enraged, the agent told her that first, she would have to pay him $2,000, which he claimed was the cost of bringing her to Lebanon. He then kicked her out of his office and left her to find her own way back to Kenya.
In Lebanon, recruitment agents have to pay for domestic workers’ travel home if they choose to leave within the first six months of their stay in Lebanon. Despite the fact that Lily only arrived four months ago, her recruitment agency refused to repatriate her.
“I am confused. I don’t know what’s preventing me from travelling, because the consulate said that he would make my papers, but I don’t know when,” Lily said.
The last home she worked at, she faced sexual harassment. The father of the family told her that he would pay extra money if she slept with him, and tried to pressure her into taking unidentified pills he said would 'prevent pregnancy'
Another woman, Delilah* (a pseudonym), said that at the last home she worked at, she faced sexual harassment. The father of the family told her that he would pay extra money if she slept with him, and tried to pressure her into taking unidentified pills he said would “prevent pregnancy.”
She contacted her employment agency for help. The agent arrived at the home and accused her of not wanting to work. After taking her away from the house, he forced her out of the car onto the street.
Delilah showed The New Arab messages between her and the employment agency where she detailed the sexual abuse and asked him for help. The agent’s response was curt: “You seem like a smart girl, you will figure it out.”
After asking him to return her passport, he said he could not help as he had already turned it over to the General Security Directorate.
Farah Baba, a communication officer for the Beirut-based Anti-Racism Movement, said that this is not the first time that the Kenyan consulate faces criticism. The consulate is run by two Lebanese men, appointed by the nearest Kenyan embassy in Kuwait.
She said that past allegations against the consulate include stealing money from the domestic workers and suggesting they go into sex work to make extra money.
A CNN expose from July 2020 which laid out extensive allegations of abuse against the consulate prompted the Kenyan embassy in Kuwait to announce they would send a team to meet with the Kenyan community in Lebanon and review the situation.
A few days after the announcement, however, the Bierut port exploded, killing at least 214 people, injuring 6,500 and levelling what seemed like half of the city.
In the aftermath of the explosion, the plight of the Kenyans was quickly forgotten. According to Baba, the embassy in Kuwait never sent a team to address the concerns of the domestic workers in Lebanon.
Since then, things have only become worse for domestic workers in Lebanon. The punishing economic crisis has meant that many families have stopped paying domestic workers in full or have abandoned them outright.
Baba also added that racism against foreign migrant workers has increased as the economy has worsened. She said that there was much misinformation about workers earning salaries in dollars or that they received outsized support from NGOs when compared to Lebanese.
"Things have only become worse for domestic workers in Lebanon. The punishing economic crisis has meant that many families have stopped paying domestic workers in full or have abandoned them outright"
A gang of complicity
Two weeks ago, a video of a Lebanese man dragging a screaming Ethiopian domestic worker by the hair down the street shocked the country. The incident was not remarkable for its violence, but for the fact that it was taped — usually, these things happen behind closed doors.
Though the man was quickly arrested, Kafala, the legal system which allows employers almost total control over foreign domestic workers in Lebanon still persists.
The Kafala system requires the 250,000 migrant workers working in Lebanon to have a sponsor and ties their residency status to their employer. This creates a huge power imbalance between employer and employee and severely impairs migrant workers’ ability to advocate for their labour rights.
"Employers and recruitment offices are given a lot of power in the Kafala system, and due to the lack of accountability in Lebanon, abuses are common"
The system has been highly criticised over the years, but little has been done to amend it.
“Kafala in Lebanon is an intertwined set of rules, not one single law that can be amended, which makes it even more complicated. But, first and above all, this requires a political will to [amend it],” Zeina Mezher, the national project coordinator at the International Labor Organization (ILO) office in Beirut, told The New Arab.
Employers and recruitment offices are given a lot of power in the Kafala system, and due to the lack of accountability in Lebanon, abuses are common. More than one of the Kenyan women outside of the consulate told The New Arab that their recruitment agent falsely reported them as runaways.
“You are my agent and you are the one representing me here. If I’m telling [him] I need help, and [he doesn’t] help me, that agent is not a human being,” Lily said.
In effect, this illegalises their immigration status in Lebanon and voids the contractual obligations recruiting agents and employers have towards migrant workers.
Once this happens, foreign migrant workers have little recourse to appeal their status as runaways. According to Baba, there is “absolutely no accountability or follow-up in scenarios the recruitment agencies is complicit in the abuse.”
Foreign domestic workers, most of whom are female, are doubly vulnerable since most live in the same house as their employers.
Abuses against them range from extended working hours as there is no separation from workplace and home, to sexual abuse due to the physical and legal leverage that employers wield over them.
“The sponsorship system creates multiple bondages in the employment relationship, starting from the choice (or lack of) of living with the employer... to freedom of movement including changing employment, to dependency on employers’ adherence to make regular payment... as well as decent living conditions that meet minimum standards of health and safety,” Mezher said.
Having an embassy or consulate that is invested in protecting its citizens could help protect foreign domestic workers like Lily and Delilah from abuse and inform them of their rights.
But, at the Kenyan consulate in Badaro, the lights are off and no one is home. And in the eyes of the women protesting, their consulate seemed to be on the side of their employers, far from advocating on their behalf.
“I just want to go back home, that’s it. Let me go and suffer in my country rather than suffering in a place where I have no family,” Lily said.
This article has been updated to include the response of the Kenyan honorary vice consul, Kassem Jaber, who sent the responses after the article was published.
William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean. William is also a researcher with the Orient Policy Center. Previously, he worked as a journalist with Syria Direct in Amman, Jordan.
Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou
All photos in the article were taken by Matt Kynaston for The New Arab.
Matt Kynaston is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Beirut covering political and social issues. He has reported for Middle East Eye, The National, Vice World News, NOW Lebanon and others.
Follow him on Twitter: @mattkynaston