A Day Out and a Union: Lebanon’s Domestic Workers Organize

A Day Out and a Union: Lebanon’s Domestic Workers Organize

In a country of 6 million, there are now 250,000 migrant domestic workers laboring under the oppressive kafala system. Can a new union help transform conditions not just in Lebanon, but across the Middle East?

There are a staggering 400,000 Ethiopian women living in Lebanon as domestic workers (Courtesy UN Women)

On April 30, Beirut was unseasonably hot, oppressive clouds casting white glare over the densely constructed city. The people gathering for the Labor Day march in Sodeco—a neighborhood uphill from Downtown—didn’t seem to mind. Some of the milling women were dressed in Ethiopian colors, others hoisted Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan flags. Many carried signs: “domestic work is work,” “stop labeling every murder a suicide,” “no violence at work,” “food deprivation is a shame,” “we will not be silenced anymore.” Their laughs and called greetings belied the severity of their slogans.

And why not laugh? These women are the lucky ones—migrant domestic workers in Lebanon for whom a day off is a reality, not a dream. As the rally passed along an elevated spine of the city, others less fortunate gazed down from apartment balconies: distant black and brown faces floating above candy-colored uniforms, many accompanied by Lebanese employers, or carrying a baby on the hip. “Yalla! Let’s go!” the women below shouted up, waving boisterously, and receiving bashful smiles in response.

Lebanon, a country of around 6 million, plays host to almost 250,000 registered migrant domestic workers according to official statistics obtained this July. Estimates of the number of unregistered workers—those who have not received residency permits or work visas, and are thus in the country illegally—vary drastically, but could reach a hundred thousand or more. The sector is made up overwhelmingly of foreign labor (the number of Lebanese nationals willing to take such jobs is vanishingly low) and these women undoubtedly make up the country’s largest female labor force. The hiring of domestic workers for live-in, full-time help is so common that their presence has altered residential architecture. Pass any real-estate billboard in east Beirut’s affluent Ashrafieh, and chances are the floor plan of the apartment will include a tiny enclave at its heart: “Maid,” the description of this room will read, “180 × 155 cm.”

Women who work in such positions enter the country—from Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Eritrea, the Philippines, and elsewhere—via recruitment agencies and under a system known as “kafala” (sponsorship), which ties their presence in Lebanon to a single employer (the sponsor, or “kafeel”), whose consent is de facto required for the worker to return home or seek another job in the country. Explicitly excluded from Lebanese labor law and isolated in private homes, such workers, many of whom spend decades in the country, are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Reports of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse proliferate, but workers also face less sensational violations of their basic human rights.

The most pervasive problems include the non-payment or withholding of already minimal wages (average starting salaries are $150 per month), the seizure of identity documents, the inability to change employers or break contract, chronic overwork, no days off, and no guarantee of time spent outside. Recruitment networks seldom make clear the working conditions in Lebanon, and typically withhold several months’ salary once the women arrive—ostensibly to pay their own recruitment fees. Such practices amount to debt bondage and are illegal in Lebanon. Even something as quotidian as seeking health insurance or access to medical care can have devastating consequences—it’s not uncommon for migrant workers, particularly undocumented ones, to find themselves exploited at hospitals, with delayed services or inflated bills.

The situation for migrant mothers is particularly grim: given the living conditions mandated by kafala (according to which workers must reside with their employers), this foreign female labor force is effectively barred from entering into relationships or having children, and crackdowns on women who do so occur sporadically—with the children or the mothers, or both, deported.

That domestic workers are often not allowed out of the house on their own, or at all, and have few legal ways to quit can lead to “incredibly abusive situations,” says Rothna Begum, a researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Some of these abuses amount to forced labor or trafficking . . . even situations of slavery”—serious crimes for which domestic workers seldom receive redress.

Women brave and informed enough to press charges often end up facing trumped-up counter charges of theft or absconding. Labor tribunals, run by the Labor Ministry to deal with civil matters, work at a glacial speed. Even if a worker makes it to court, dispute resolution mechanisms are typically stacked against them. “The procedures themselves and the people administering justice more often than not do not find in favor of the domestic worker and allow the employer to get away with abuse,” Begum says. On a few occasions, the presiding judge has ruled in favor of the worker, suggesting that creating court precedents is a possibility. But the amount of time and money required means workers are unlikely to be able to see a trial through.

Suicide (or, at least, suspiciously untimely death) is shockingly prevalent—perhaps unsurprisingly, given the daily reality for these women. According to a report published by Human Rights Watch in 2008, domestic workers were dying at a rate of more than one per week from unnatural causes—primarily botched escape attempts and suicides. Official data obtained this year by IRIN news agency suggests that the rate of deaths (from all causes) in this sector is two per week. “In many ways, it’s an emergency,” says Bassam Khawaja, another HRW researcher, of the current status quo—although he cautions that the most recent numbers are disaggregated, with no way of telling the cause of death. To have a better picture of why these women are dying, argues Khawaja, authorities should make public the number of workers who die each year from non-natural causes.

On May 28 the death of an Ethiopian domestic worker was broadcast on social media, accompanied by a disturbing bystander photograph of a slim body impaled on a fence. The woman had presumably either leapt to her death or slipped while attempting to escape. Such ambiguity is standard, Begum says. The Ethiopian contingent at the workers’ May Day rally focused their ire on their consulate for refusing to facilitate the costly repatriation of these bodies, charges Atnafu Asfaw Amebushi, the Ethiopian Consulate’s first secretary of consular affairs, denies. But Amebushi, who estimates that there are a staggering 400,000 Ethiopian women living as domestic workers in Lebanon (far in excess of the official count of 158,000—which makes Ethiopians the largest national group in the sector), concedes that the consulate is beyond capacity and not doing enough to help. “We can’t do everything we should,” he says.

On June 5 another Ethiopian domestic worker was found dead, hanging from a tree by the neck, a chair by her side, in a border town in south Lebanon. When contacted two hours after the death was reported, Amebushi had not yet heard of it.

“What do we want? Liberty!” the workers chant, in French, as the Labor Day march makes its way across the city. Another anthem soon swells up. “All we are saying: give us our rights.” Rose, a forty-seven-year-old Cameroonian woman who arrived in Lebanon eighteen years ago, is leading the chanting. After the procession has arrived at Raouché—a patch of land overlooking limestone promontories that jut into the Mediterranean—Rose takes a moment to rest in the shade. “Freedom is the most important thing,” she says. “Because when you are living with someone for twenty-four hours, seven days a week, you never step outside. You are seeing people from your balcony, how they are living in the street. You also want to go down. Just to breathe the fresh air coming from the sea. But you can’t. Because you are not allowed.”

Rose worked and lived with one Lebanese family for thirteen years. They were “good people” she says, but she didn’t earn enough to support her parents and two children in Cameroon. Rose is now a “freelancer,” like many others at the march: a migrant who lives alone, and is—from both a legal and normative perspective—irregular. Her feelings for Lebanon are ambivalent. “I regret [coming] and I’m happy also. You know?” she says. “I regret because I miss [my family], and sometime I really used to cry, [wondering] why I am here. But sometimes I call home and my mom talks to me and she’s ok, she’s taking her medicine. And I’m happy.”

A freelancer’s position is precarious, as is that of all Lebanon’s migrant workers. The requirements attached to kafala can be changed without warning or clarification by Lebanon’s Directorate of General Security—a state intelligence body charged with issuing passports and visas, whose jurisdiction over this sector has securitized what is ostensibly a labor issue.

Since the end of 2016, after a several-year lull, General Security has detained and deported a score of otherwise compliant migrant domestic workers, seemingly because they had given birth to children in Lebanon. When contacted by Human Rights Watch in 2017, General Security responded that the birth of a child to a migrant worker would be “difficult to achieve without violating many laws and regulations,” but declined to make public the referenced statutes. Roula Hamati, who works at the Beirut-based organization Insan Association, deems these recent expulsions “very random, very arbitrary and very illegal.” How, after all, can documented workers be deported on the basis of directives that have not been made public?

And migrant women needn’t have children to be vulnerable to deportation. In December 2016, two Nepalese domestic workers—legally employed in Lebanon and members of the nascent Domestic Workers’ Union in Lebanon (DWU), the first organization of its kind in the region—were detained and expelled from the country after being questioned about their involvement in labor organizing. Precise reasons for their deportation were never ascertained, but the move was seen as an anti-union gesture—a message to others.

Gemma Justo, fifty-one, a woman from the Philippines who has lived and worked according to immigration regulations in Lebanon for twenty-four years, M.C.’d the May Day rally. Asked whether the assembled workers were afraid to engage in activism, she responded swiftly. “Yeah of course, always! We say we are not scared anymore, but still . . . the fear is in our hearts.” Justo’s pitch for more rights and protections under Lebanese law—and for respect from the society these workers have made home—was simple. “Migrant domestic workers have families too. They left their own homes to come and seek for a paid job—not to be harassed, not to be mistreated. We may not be somebody here in Lebanon. But for sure, we are somebody in our country and in our family.”

Justo is a community leader and a founding member of the Alliance of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon, a splinter group of DWU, which was established in 2015 but has yet to be recognized by the Labor Ministry. The country is also unusual in the region. “Lebanon is unique in that its civil society is present, it’s active, it’s vocal,” Begum says. “Domestic workers are on the streets doing protests . . . you don’t see that in the Gulf.” But the women protesting on the streets in Lebanon are a small minority. Most are unable to openly engage in activism, something Justo is painfully aware of. “My rights were respected, I can have opinions and express my feelings,” Justo says. “I’m doing well, I’m being treated well, I have a fine salary. But witnessing all this everyday life here of the migrant domestic workers, it tears my heart.”

Justo and others worked for years to establish the union, with the support of the International Trade Union Federation and the International Labor Organization, and under the auspices of a national federation of trade unions, FENASOL (a necessity: under Lebanese labor law, migrants are allowed to join but not lead unions). DWU was hailed as a breakthrough, even if—as was expected—the then-labor minister refused to recognize it. But the initiative was, in many respects, a top-down project—one that, in seeking formal recognition, arguably diminished the autonomy of the women it sought to represent. “We believe a domestic worker union [should be] operated, managed, decided by the workers themselves,” Justo says. “That’s not the way it was happening.”

In response to the limitations of DWU, a core group of workers went rogue in 2016, forming the Alliance. “We don’t have bosses, it’s not an NGO,” Justo says, of the Alliance. The group is small, and decides on issues unanimously, its members offering each other much-needed support. Policy change is the goal, “But since it’s not in our hands, we try as much as possible to be useful, to be the ones they [the workers] can lean on.” The half dozen members act as crucial liaisons between workers who need help and the civil society organizations (CSOs) that can provide it and vice versa, connecting CSOs to hard-to-reach workers. The Alliance has given Justo a new sense of freedom, solidarity, and purpose. “Nobody is, like, on top of our head,” she says. “It’s us: it’s our Alliance and our Alliance is us; our own decisions collectively, our blood, our sweat; it’s our life.”

Domestic workers’ status is determined by a complex web of regulations—including Lebanese labor law, the 2009 standard contract for domestic laborers, and the deeply entrenched kafala system. Perhaps more significant than what these structures stipulate is what they fail to mention: a day off, for example, is mandated by the contract, but the employer need not allow a worker to spend that day outside the home. Insan’s Roula Hamati says that ultimately, because kafala effectively functions as a means of “delegating the task of policing the migrant worker to the employer,” societal and kafeel attitudes determine the workers’ experience. It is here, perhaps, that activist groups like the Alliance and DWU have the most chance of making a change—not at the level of policy, but at the level of public awareness and shifting cultural attitudes.

And change is badly needed. Recent studies highlight not only ignorance of the law on the part of Lebanese employers, but a flagrant disregard for regulations. One need only spend time in Beirut, watching employer-employee dynamics to recognize engrained social attitudes colored by race, class, and gender prejudices. Rose—the Cameroonian worker—was unequivocal about the racism she faced daily. Gesturing at her skin color, she said “[Lebanese people] don’t care. . . . [Y]ou can be an ambassador, you can be a minister, you can be anything you want. But they will just see you like their own maid in the house.”

Ghada Jabbour, who works at Lebanese organization KAFA, points out that prevailing attitudes spell both isolation of workers and an asymmetric relationship with employers. “The whole system erases completely the independent status of this person and makes them completely dependent on the employer,” she says. Dehumanization of workers is compounded by damaging rhetoric perpetuated in the media, where they are often portrayed as mentally unstable (for committing suicide) or dangerous (in a recent court case, a domestic worker accused of killing the baby in her care was characterized by the prosecution as “a monster in the body of a human”). Promoting the independence and humanity of migrant domestic workers is one of the key functions of the Alliance.

Kafala, as a visa-sponsorship system to regulate and organize migrant labor, is not particular to Lebanon; it exists throughout the Arab world. Outcry over kafala—notably in the case of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup infrastructure projects, where the widespread abuses suffered by workers have been reported on extensively—has sparked some nominal change. There have been a flurry of recent moves by Gulf states to amend labor regulations and ostensibly alter kafala: Kuwait in 2015 passed a new labor law regulating, for the first time, the rights of domestic workers, legally enshrining entitlements such as a weekly day off and paid leave; in 2016, Qatar passed new legislation putting in place fines for employers who confiscate passports and procedures for workers to supposedly seek redress; the UAE has approved, but not ratified, a law stipulating days off and limiting hours of work; Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have also gestured towards altering the sponsorship system—by amending the labor law or establishing new permit systems—but these changes, in practice, exclude the category of migrant workers, who make up some of the most vulnerable laborers operating under kafala.

These initiatives have been met by the international community with a mixed response. While such moves are encouraging, many argue that the reforms are moderate improvements at best, superficial distractions at worst. “Changes to Qatar’s kafala (sponsorship) system left its fundamentally exploitative characteristics in place,” reported HRW in 2017. Amnesty International, meanwhile determined that migrant workers in Kuwait “continued to face exploitation and abuse” under kafala in 2016, despite the recently introduced minimum wage for domestic workers. “Abolishing the term kafala or the term sponsorship is often interpreted in the media as the abolishment of the system, when really it’s using other language to perpetuate a very similar system, with some positive changes,” the ILO’s Sophia Kagan explained. Besides, the Gulf states exhibit none of the openness that has allowed a worker-led movement and a substantial “freelance” population to emerge in Lebanon.

If the relative freedom of some of Lebanon’s domestic worker population—born, in part, of a weak state and a comparatively open society—has been a key factor in domestic worker organizing, another enabling element is the country’s relatively muscular civil society.

The Migrant Community Center, established to provide migrants with a space of their own, facilitated the emergence of the Alliance and continues to act as their de facto headquarters. Born of a local initiative called the Anti-Racism Movement, the MCC first opened its Beirut location in 2011, before expanding to Saida and Jounieh (south and north along the coastline) to reach more isolated communities. The MCC began, its general coordinator Farah Salka explains, to facilitate “a partnership between Lebanese or local activists and migrant community leaders in a . . . healthy relationship, that is not governed by a power imbalance.” Both workers and worker-activists make use of the space, she says—many coming simply because they “want to feel like they are people, which they don’t feel anywhere in Lebanon.”

Among other activities, MCC holds activism trainings and classes in language and computer literacy for migrant workers. It also offers its members—who pay a largely symbolic annual fee—miscellaneous services, driven by demand, including organizing trips to the mountains or sea, birthday celebrations, child care, and assistance with university applications or starting a business. MCC staff also mediate, on a case-by-case basis, between employers and workers. “We sit with every single different problem,” Salka says, “and we see who is the employer: rich or not? Famous or not? Do they have weapons at home or not? What can we do? Can we shame? Can we write posts about them? . . . Do we call them? Will they be scared or not?” Cases the MCC can’t deal with—if a worker has been abused or needs a safe place to stay, for instance—are referred to other organizations: KAFA, Insan, Amel, or Caritas, which work variously on shelters, mediation, education, research, advocacy, litigation, and restitution.

MCC also tries to publicize the stories of domestic workers, but struggles to generate widespread outrage. “Many people know how bad the situation is, but really to hear these stories every single day . . . it’s different,” Salka says. Despite her frustration, she understands the apathy. In Lebanon, “you don’t have time to be angry or active on everything,” she says. What with the ongoing garbage crisis, the sporadic electricity, women’s rights struggles and environmental woes, the country’s activists have their hands full.

Precious little is being done at the political level on the migrant domestic worker issue. And the workers themselves—despite their sustained demands for the ratification of C189 (the ILO’s convention concerning decent work for domestic workers)—can’t engage in activism aimed directly at policy change due to their precarious legal status. “The work they’re doing is internal strengthening for their communities and for themselves,” Salka says, and “working with the Lebanese community to see them, to become more visible, to hear their voices, to work together. But they’re not doing work that’s aimed at governments because they are completely not allowed to be on the scene.”

Engaging with the Lebanese government is frustrating enough at the best of times, and migrant domestic workers are at the top of nobody’s agenda. The inclusion of this sector under labor law would be a paradigm shift. “We can speak about many rights that we want but this summarizes them all,” Salka says, “because this means minimum wage, this means maternity leave, this means vacation days, a limited number of hours of work, this means overtime.” But the Labor Ministry has shown no interest in taking such a step. Nor has alternative legislation specifically focused on domestic work been discussed in Parliament.

The National Steering Committee On Women Migrant Domestic Workers, established in 2007, is reportedly working on a fair recruitment initiative and ways to blacklist abusive employers. But progress is slow. “The complexity of the domestic workers issue is that every single person is an employer,” ILO’s Zeina Mezher says, “so even people meeting in the National Steering Committee have two hats.”

The recent repeal of Article 522—which allowed rapists to go unpunished if they married their victims—after sustained activism is a reminder that Lebanon is susceptible to pressure on human rights, including women’s rights. But despite that success, Salka is circumspect about the prospects for legislative change. She believes that the situation of domestic workers won’t truly improve until “Lebanese women see migrant women as allies, as women they should respect and stand in solidarity with, or support and push forward—not . . . as secondary to them.”

HRW’s Begum suggests that both a carrot (explaining why a fairer system might be mutually beneficial, administratively and politically) and stick (making clear the ramifications of contravening international human rights norms) approach could be utilized in Lebanon on the domestic worker issue. Now that the country has a president, Michel Aoun, after a gap of two and a half years, and is preparing for 2018 parliamentary elections, legislative action may be more viable. But the local constituents of such reform have yet to be identified. “The state is complicit, the citizens are complicit—everyone is complicit” in the current system, says Roula Hamati of Insan.

The fate of migrant domestic workers is tied up in a complicated mesh of stakeholders and institutions: recruitment agencies, employers, the law and its enforcement, politicians, security agencies, employment contracts, the government, the financial and political calculus of sending countries, the shifting dynamics of the care industry, the opaque monolith of kafala, geopolitics, and the interests of the domestic workers themselves. “This is the most complex issue I’ve ever come across,” ILO’s Zeina Mezher told me. “It’s like a huge mountain that you want to bring down. And no matter what you do, it cannot fall down by itself. You have to work a bit here, a bit there, until you reach the centre of it.”

Despite this, Lebanon has seen the unprecedented emergence of a grassroots labor rights movement from workers popularly viewed and legally considered, as Begum puts it, as “the bottom of the barrel.” But politics drags on and public opinion is hard to sway. “Lebanon could be the one to say, ‘We’ve allowed a union to exist for domestic workers’—the first one in the region,” argues Begum. “And yet instead of using that opportunity to champion domestic workers’ rights . . . they’re seeing it as undermining their regulations.”

Nevertheless, Lebanon continues to lead the region in its willingness to tolerate a limited public dialogue. Hamati thinks this is crucial. “[I]t’s . . . been agreed that if anything were to happen in this region, it would have to be in Lebanon, because migrant workers relatively are freer. They’re free to express themselves, to be visible, with little repercussions.” And the willingness to engage in discourse is reason enough to hope.

The union that sparked hope two years ago, DWU, has suffered setbacks but is still active, hosted in FENASOL’s Beirut headquarters and claiming a membership of 500. Marie Constante, the Madagascan secretary-general, has lived in Lebanon for twenty years, working for a single family. Her devotion to the union is evident, although her employers are not thrilled with her involvement. The most important step now, she says, is simply to work out how to ensure domestic workers can participate in the union. Ensuring, at minimum, one day off per week for each worker, is currently her main goal. Asked if anything has improved, she considers for a moment. “Maybe not big changes,” she concedes. “Maybe small, small changes—and for us small changes are already quite big.”

The Alliance and DWU illustrate the importance of communal initiatives in lifting the isolation inherent in most domestic workers’ lives. Even if the workers’ activism has made no discernible political impact yet, it allows these women to become agents in their own narrative, and members of a supportive community. And it lays the groundwork, perhaps, for political struggles in the future. The Alliance, domestic worker Justo says, is “one of my consolations . . . Because I found women [who are an] extension of myself. I found women that think like me.” Public interest in labor migration and trafficking has increased, Justo believes, and the government will eventually have to adapt.

While Roula Hamati of Insan agrees that public opinion of domestic workers’ rights is improving, she still thinks that day is far off. “We know that every day inside the house there are those who can’t even open the window.” Justo is driven by these women behind the shutters. The Alliance is bound, she says, to the dictum “No woman left behind.” Although she hopes one day to leave Lebanon—speaking tearfully of her yearning to be with her family, to hold her ageing mother—her sense of mission makes her think twice. “Are we ready now to go home? Did we leave a footstep?” she wonders. “No. I think that footstep is still in the sand—it can be washed away easily, quickly. We want to put a marker on a stone.”

Kirsten O’Regan is a writer and editor currently living in Beirut.