Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Claiming rights under the kafala system

How can domestic workers organise when the legal system places them at the complete mercy of their employers?

Marie-José L. Tayah
17 August 2017

May day parade Lebanon 2017. Photo by Marie-José Tayah. All rights reserved.

The Middle East plays host to the largest number of migrant domestic workers in the world. National statistical sources collated by the ILO estimate that 1.6 million migrant domestic workers are working in the Levant and countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Another estimate, from the International Trade Union Confederation, puts the number even higher at 2.5 million. These women traditionally hail from Asian countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and India, however Ethiopia, Madagascar, Kenya and Uganda have also emerged as new countries of origin.

The admission, residence and exit of migrant domestic workers are governed by the kafala system, a private sponsorship scheme for temporary migrant workers. Kafala ties the work and residence permits of a domestic worker to a specific employer; makes residence permit renewal the responsibility of the employer; and makes employment termination, transfer from one employer to another, and exit from the country contingent on the sponsor’s approval. It is a system that leaves workers at the complete mercy of their employers.

Further, domestic workers continue to be excluded from the scope of national labour laws with the argument that domestic work cannot be regulated like other sectors without violating the sanctity of the employer’s household. Employment contracts thus regulate the employer-agency-worker relationship; however these documents carry little weight without adequate inspection mechanisms. Even where standard unified contracts exist – such as in Kuwait, Jordan, and Lebanon – agreements negotiated bilaterally with countries of origin supersede them, promoting a race to the bottom in the working and living conditions of domestic workers from different nationalities and encouraging stereotypes about the quality of the work performed by women from certain countries.

As a result, domestic workers are overworked, underpaid and cheated by brokers and recruiters. They face considerable barriers to accessing justice and their embassies and consulates do not have the resources or capacity to respond to the volume of complaints. Furthermore, when domestic workers – faced with unfair laws, barriers to justice, and employer impunity – decide to leave the homes of their employers they are declared “absconded” and become susceptible to arrest, long periods of detention, excessive fines, and finally deportation and blacklisting.

Over the past 10 years, international organisations and NGOs in the Middle East have launched advocacy campaigns, submitted legislative proposals, and offered a variety of legal and socio-medical services to migrant domestic workers. These initiatives were rarely guided by the priorities of domestic workers, in part because very few spaces exist for domestic workers in the Middle East to articulate their concerns. The result has been a plethora of well-intentioned but incongruent programmes and services for domestic workers. This is progressively changing. Inspired by images on Facebook and Instagram of domestic workers taking the streets across the world, domestic workers across the Middle East are consolidating in nationality-based or sectorial organisations to make their demands heard.

The following is a description of the barriers to domestic workers’ unionising in the Middle East; a review of emerging models of collective voice outside the union model; and a discussion of the role of the International Domestic Workers’ Federation (IDWF) in reconciling the organic social dynamics of organising among migrant domestic workers with classical trade unions.

Barriers to the unionisation of domestic workers in the Middle East

Freedom of association is generally restricted in the Middle East. Trade unions and strikes are banned in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Only workers’ committees are allowed, although not for women migrant domestic workers. Domestic workers can join existing unions in Lebanon and committees within union federations in Jordan, Kuwait and Bahrain (ILO, 2015). Across the Levant and the GCC, domestic workers are not allowed to run for union-elected positions on account of their migration status.

Domestic workers in Lebanon succeeded in establishing their first sectorial union in the Middle East in 2015 under the umbrella of the National Federation of Employees’ and Workers’ Unions in Lebanon (FENASOL). The union remains unrecognised by the Lebanese Ministry of Labour, but is reported to count over 500 members. It was formed through an ILO-led process involving women migrant domestic workers; four NGOs (i.e., Nasawiya's Anti-Racism Movement, Insan Association, Frontiers Ruwad (FR), Kafa (Enough Violence & Exploitation); the National Federation of Employees' and Workers' Unions in Lebanon (FENASOL); and the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF). The 20-month process, completed in January 2014, had three main objectives: (1) raise domestic workers' consciousness to encourage active participation in advocacy campaigns; (2) promote collaboration between domestic workers, unions, and NGOs over priorities and interventions; and (3) create synergies with the global domestic workers' movement (Tayah, 2014).

The 80 participating domestic workers provided the critical mass required to establish the domestic workers’ union in January 2015. Over the past two years the union has concluded agreements with trade unions in the countries of origin, such as the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT) and the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU), to extend protection to domestic workers across the migration cycle. These agreements, unfortunately, lack focus and are not supported by implementation protocols.

The union has also expended substantial energy campaigning for recognition by the Lebanese authorities, but has yet to define a policy position and strategy on domestic work outside of the generic anti-kafala slogans. Union engagement at the policy level is hampered by the sector’s fragmentation across recruiters and brokers at origin and destination; multiple government agencies; origin country embassies; a multitude of policy spaces (national, binational, regional, interregional, global); and transnational policy issues that are at the crossroad of care, migration and employment regimes. All of these require a high level of technical knowledge that FENASOL, in spite of its heightened awareness to the challenges in the sector, still lacks.

Elsewhere, in May 2017, the Arab Trade Union Confederation (the Arab office of the International Trade Union Confederation) supported establishing a national committee of migrant workers as part of the General Federation for Jordanian Trade Unions (GFJTU). The committee is headed by the president of the federation and composed of the presidents of the construction, garment, public services and municipality workers’ unions. It aims to represent migrant workers, including domestic workers. The General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions (GFBTU) had also set up a committee for migrant workers that will include a focus on domestic workers. These are welcome developments, but the trend toward migrant committees rather than domestic workers’ committees risks stymieing sector-based organising and undermining the principle of equality between migrants and nationals in their working conditions. 

Practical, organisational, and political barriers frequently prevent domestic workers from joining domestic workers’ unions and migrant workers’ committees where they are permitted to do so in the Middle East.

Practical barriers include workplace isolation and restrictions on mobility, such as the denial of a leave day outside the home; bans on driving; long and unpredictable working hours; and the withholding of personal documents. Further, the fear of employer reprisal through contract termination (which may lead to deportation) is also commonly cited as a deterrent against organising efforts. Outreach efforts are further limited due to the absence of gathering areas such as parks and churches/temples in the GCC, which often greatly facilitate ad hoc forms of solidarity among domestic workers.

Gender dynamics, conflicts of interest and the inability of migrant workers to comply with strict union reporting requirements constitute organisation- and union-level deterrents for domestic workers. Men dominate the leadership structure of trade unions in the Middle East, and as a consequence they have largely been unable to welcome (women) domestic workers into their ranks. Trade unionists in the region are also employers of domestic workers, especially in the countries of the GCC. Finally, leaders of the domestic workers’ communities wear multiple hats: they are leaders in their migrant communities and leaders in the sectorial union. Their activism on the migration front is incongruent with strict trade union reporting requirements. The domestic workers’ leaders who worked with FENASOL and became the founders of the Domestic Workers Union of Lebanon have since moved on to form the Alliance of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon. They continue to recognise the importance of the union but prefer the flexibility of organising around both sectoral and national lines.

Additional organisational barriers include low salaries, time limitations and language barriers. Low salaries mean that domestic workers are unable to pay membership dues and are unlikely to pay for transportation to attend union activities. Where the leave day is respected and tolerated by employers, domestic workers are also much more likely to rest rather than to spend their free time with the union. Language barriers in Middle Eastern countries – where domestic workers hail from over 12 countries of origin – are also an obstacle to sector-wide strategies.

More broadly, national level politics serve as another layer of obstacle for domestic worker organising. Population politics – migrants make up half the population of the GCC and over 90% of the population of certain countries like the UAE and Qatar – and the pressing issue of integrating refugee populations into labour markets of countries like Lebanon or Jordan are always thin lines to tread. On top of that, unions are often associated with certain political parties, and in some countries there is a growing rift between independent trade unions and government-supported trade unions. These dynamics greatly complicate organising in the region as these tensions are often instrumentalised to exclude domestic workers from unions and policy agendas.

The association model for collective voice in the Middle East

Domestic workers can set up or join trade unions but they can also adopt the association model of organising (e.g. community-based organisations), and/or experiment with arrangements straddling the association and union models (Bonner, 2010, pp. 10-15). There are many examples of migrant workers’ associations organising around gender, race, nationality and/or occupation in the Middle East. These associations have adopted union characteristics (e.g., paying membership fees) but do not have union powers.

In 2011, the Anti-Racism Movement in Lebanon established the Migrant Community Centre as a meeting space for migrant workers, and offered trainings in online activism, self-defence, computer skills, and grassroots advocacy. The MCC is now host to the Alliance of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon, which is starting to receive attention. On Labour Day 2017 it led the Migrant Workers’ Parade, reading out a statement under the slogan “Kafala kills” that denounced the deportation of domestic workers who give birth in Lebanon and the deaths of migrant domestic workers that are not properly investigated. Photos of the parade and the workers’ demands featured on the evening news and in major national newspaper outlets. In follow-up to the parade, the alliance and concerned NGOs are planning a meeting with the Ministry of Labour to discuss potential strategic partnerships on and with domestic workers.

Other associational models in the region include Migrante International – the global alliance of Filipino Overseas Workers (OFWs) – which counts as a national chapter in Saudi Arabia. Migrante International receives complaints of OFWs in distress and their families and seeks redress for their grievances. It also regularly conducts research and fact finding missions and embarks on corresponding advocacy campaigns. The Sri Lankan Women’s Society in Lebanon organises around gender and nationality, although it is an association of mostly domestic workers, and The Domestic Workers Solidarity Network in Jordan represents Ethiopian, Bangladeshi, Indonesian, Sri Lankan and Filipina domestic workers. The network organises worker literacy programmes and legal clinics.

The Middle East has also experimented with hybrid forms of organising. With Anti-Slavery International (ASI), the Lebanese NGO ‘KAFA (enough) Violence & Exploitation’ supported the establishment of a self-help group of Nepalese women working as domestic workers in Lebanon (NARI) in 2012. NARI members are affiliated to GEFONT, becoming trade unionists at origin and civil society activists at destination. NARI advocated for the establishment of a Nepali embassy in Lebanon.

IDWF: A middle out approach to organising in the Middle East?

The IDWF is a membership-based “global union of domestic workers” with 62 affiliates in 50 countries, and almost 501,000 individual domestic workers as members. Most of its members are trade unions or national trade union federations while the rest are membership-based associations and worker cooperatives. IDWF’s objective is to build a strong, democratic and united organisation to protect and advance domestic workers’ rights everywhere. IDWF has been present in the Middle East since 2017.

Given the web of challenges facing the labour movement generally and domestic workers specifically in the Middle East, the IDWF is investing in ‘middle-out’ approaches to organising where the emphasis is on building strong, membership-based organisations of domestic workers until unions are legally, organisationally and culturally able to host them and integrate them within their ranks/leadership. At the same time, IDWF works with unions in the region to lay the groundwork for formal unionisation.

Specifically, IDWF supports networks of domestic workers in defining: vision and mission statements; leadership structures, bylaws, and election systems; and membership fees, payment methods, and benefits. It also helps with developing recruitment drives. The establishment of membership-based organisations outside the union structure prepares a critical mass of domestic workers to hit the ground running when trade unions are ready to host them.

In working with trade unions to lay the groundwork for formal unionisation, IDWF, in collaboration with the ILO, is using the My Fair Home (MFH) campaign to raise the awareness of trade unionists to the working and living conditions of domestic workers, as well as to encourage them to invite the workers in their own employ to discussions on trade union premises. When trade unions join the campaign their members pledge to: pay fair wages to domestic workers (at least the minimum wage); ensure fair working hours and rest periods; negotiate the terms of employment with the domestic workers themselves and to set those terms in writing; ensure access to decent healthcare and a home free from abuse, harassment and violence; provide a safe, secure and private bedroom; and safeguard domestic workers’ right to spend their free time wherever and however they choose.


My Fair Home campaign pledge cards in FENASOL. Photo by Marie-José Tayah. All rights reserved.

In March 2017, FENASOL joined the MFH Campaign. FENASOL affiliates from sectors as diverse as hotels and restaurants, garment and construction took the pledge to respect domestic workers' rights in their own homes. The General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions joined the MFH one month later.


IDWF’s affiliates in Asia and Africa have broadly national memberships. IDWF is encouraging these affiliates in the countries of origin to extend membership to co-nationals and co-workers abroad, especially to places where such individuals are not allowed to join trade unions. IDWF union affiliates in Africa, for example, are beginning to lobby their governments to negotiate MoUs with the countries of destination that promote protections for domestic workers abroad in addition to facilitating labour market access.

Selected IDWF affiliates in countries of origin for domestic workers in Asia


National Domestic Women Workers Union (NDWWU)


Jaringan Nasional Advokasi Pekerja Rumah Tangga (JALAPRT) - National Network for Domestic Workers Advocacy

-       SPRT SAPULIDI, Sapulidi Domestic Workers Union, Jakarta

-       Serikat PRT Tunas Mulia, (Tunas Mulia Domestic Workers Union)

-       KOY, (Yogyakarta Domestic Workers Organisation)

-       Serikat PRT Merdeka Semarang, (Merdeka Domestic Workers Union)

-       SPRT Sumut/North Domestic Workers Union in North Sumatra


Home Workers Trade Union of Nepal (HUN)

Sri Lanka

Domestic Workers Union (DWU)


-       Gharelu Kaamgar Sangathan (GKS)

-       National Domestic Workers Movement (NDWM)

-       National Domestic Workers Federation (NDWF) – 15 union affiliates

-       Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA)


United Domestic Workers of the Philippines (UNITED)

UNITED has the following chapters:

1. Murphy Domestic Workers Association- UNITED

2. Roxas Domestic Workers Association- UNITED

3. Samahan ng mga Manggagawasa Tahanan ng Payatas- UNITED

4. Veterans Domestic Workers Association- UNITED

5. San Dionisio, Paranaque Domestic Workers Association –UNITED

6. Samahan ng mga Nagkakaisang Manggagawa sa Tahanan ng Amparo-UNITED

7. Bagong Silangan Domestic Workers Association- UNITED

8. Tunasan Domestic Workers Association of Munitilupa- UNITED

9. Poblacion Domestic Workers Association of Muntilupa –UNITED

10. Amytiville Subdivision Domestic Workers Association- UNITED


Selected IDWF affiliates in Countries of Origin for Domestic workers in Africa


Syndicat des Employés d’Hôtel et de Maison (SYNEHM)

Cote d’Ivoire

Syndicat des Travailleurs/ses Domestiques et des Travailleurs/ses de l’Economie Informelle de la Côte d’Ivoire


Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA)


National Hotel Trade Catering, Cafe, Bar and Allied Workers (domestic and informal)


Conservation, Hotel, Domestic and Allied Workers Union (CHODAWU)


Uganda Hotels, Food, Tourism, Supermarkets and Allied Workers Union (HTS-Union)


Conservation Hotel Domestic and Allied Workers Union (CHODAWU-Z)


Conclusion: a non-traditional sector in a non-traditional context needs to think outside the box, not dig its heels in

There is a general obsession with structure when discussing the organising of domestic workers in the Middle East. This causes us to lose sight of context, of how migration, care and employment regimes and their institutions intersect, and of existing ad hoc forms of solidarity. Development actors working in the sector want quick and simple models of organising for replication across the region without considering both the intended and unintended consequences of their interventions. They are either opting for trade unions models or civil society models of organising, and establishing their respective fiefdoms in one or the other of these two realms.

The two systems are not, however, mutually exclusive. They each bring an added value to workers in the sector and must work in conjunction with one another until the opportunity to build a strong sectorial union for domestic workers presents itself in each national context. Migration and domestic work are hot topics that attract the attention of many donors. Organising domestic workers in the Middle East should not be understood as an activity fitting of project lifecycles and donor time frames. Organising is a bottom-up, long-term and ever-transforming process, especially in domestic work, a highly technical subfield that straddles borders and policy areas.

To push token representation from domestic workers’ communities into unions transforms the latter into a golden cage for workers, one that that is totally dependent on funding and technical assistance from donors because it lacks the knowledge and momentum of committed and knowledgeable workers. It is one thing to create a structure and another to create a social dynamic or organising within that structure. Similarly, the rush to set-up migrant or domestic workers’ associations in complete isolation from the labour movement transforms these associations into support groups that work apart from other sectors of the economy and leaves them excluded from important policy discussions that have significant implications for the sector.

Organising is an organic and naturally evolving process that is shaped by how the political, economic and demographic situation in a country develops. Organising also requires solidarity building between labour and diaspora, labour and NGOs, across sectors and borders. It took 22 years for the Jamaica household workers' association to register as a formal union; 25 years for the national domestic workers’ movement in India to organise domestic workers into state-level unions; almost 10 years for domestic workers’ organisations to consolidate in a regional grouping in Central and South America; and 30 years to organise globally. To do it right takes time.

All view expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of the institutions with which she is affiliated.



Bonner, C. 2010. Domestic workers around the world: Organising for empowerment (Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising, WIEGO).

ILO. 2014. Cooperating out of isolation: The case of migrant domestic workers in Kuwait, Lebanon and Jordan (Beirut).

ILO. 2017. Employer-migrant worker relationships in the Middle East: Exploring scope for internal labour market mobility and fair migration (Beirut).

ILO. 2015. Global estimates on migrant workers: Results and methodology (Geneva).

International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). 2014. Facilitating exploitation: A review of labour laws for migrant domestic workers in Gulf Cooperation Council Countries (Brussels).

International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF). 2017. Caught at the crossroads: Nepalese domestic worker activists in Lebanon fight kafala's ruthlessness, heartless human traffickers and a network of corrupt officials, available at: [accessed on 19 May 2017].

Tayah, Marie-José. 2014. Organising through research: The story of a participatory action research with women migrant domestic workers, NGOs and Unions in Lebanon (Geneva, ILO). 

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