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Activists report on their resistance to the exploitation of domestic workers

Protest von Hausangestellten im Libanon
Domestic workers protesting in Lebanon Foto: The Alliance of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon

After decades of marginalization, many of Lebanon’s approximately 250,000 domestic workers are demanding an end to their exploitation and fighting back against racism. At the conference “Connecting Resistances – Emancipatory Activism in West Asia, North Africa and Germany”, two activists reported on the alliances they are building and how they managed to find their voices. 

During the question and answer session, Yabrek** asked rhetorically: “If a worker is abused, verbally degraded and yelled at, or even harassed by the husband or brother of the madame, whom should she confide in?” Yabrek is one of the estimated 250,000 domestic workers living and working in Lebanon. She has the abbreviation C189 printed on her white shirt, a shirt she usually wears on the streets of Beirut on 1 May and 16 June. C189 is the abbreviation of the convention passed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on 16 June 2011 to strengthen the rights of domestic workers around the world and protect them from violence and exploitation as they clean, wash and take care of children and the elderly. Despite constant human rights violations, the Lebanese government has neglected to ratify the convention, but resistance to the injustices is growing.

Yabrek had just turned 18 when she left her childhood home in the Philippines more than 20 years ago. She uses the money she earns in Lebanon to support her family and pay for her children’s education, who still live in the Philippines. Her husband passed away. Yabrek has changed employers multiple times over the years: “I was hit by the first, second and third”, she says. That the situation of the thousands of domestic workers in African countries such as Ethiopia, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast as well as in South Asian countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh has hardly improved over the course of the years is not just due to a failure to implement C189. It is also a result of the kafala system, a work-sponsorship system according to which foreign workers are recruited in their home countries with the help of international agencies.

In the kafala system, the legal status of foreign workers employed in the low-wage sector is tied to Lebanese citizens who organize visas and residency permits for them and sponsor their stay. Usually, foreign workers are sponsored by their future employers. When the latter end the work contract, the legal status of their employees is cancelled. The kafala system is common not only in Lebanon but also in other West Asian countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman. In addition to domestic workers, it regulates the working conditions of migrant workers in the service industry and in construction.

For years, human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch have criticized the kalafa system for facilitating exploitation by allowing employers to withhold passports, wages and days off with impunity. The kafala system leaves workers completely at the mercy of their employers. “Workers don’t treat us like humans, they treat us like their property”, says David**. He left his home in Ethiopia almost a decade ago and is now one of the few men employed as a domestic worker in Lebanon.

“Kafala creates suffering and misery. It’s comparable to modern-day slavery and needs to be abolished as soon as possible”, emphasises Yabrek. Yet as she elaborates assertively, “it’s not going to abolish itself!” This is why domestic workers in Lebanon are forming advocacy groups like the Alliance for Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon in which Yabrek is active. In these groups, women give each other advice as well as practical and emotional support, providing diversion from the dreary work routines through a variety of activities. The organisation in which David is involved is called “Mesewat” and mainly targets domestic workers from Ethiopia. The suicide rate among this group is particularly high, as David explains: “Many of them are from remote areas and have never been in a city before, not even in Ethiopia.” Having arrived in the Lebanese capital, they feel disoriented and alone, and are unable to access information and make themselves understood due to their lack of language skills.

It is not known exactly how many domestic workers are driven by their situation to jump off the balcony in order “to be free”, as David says—either by dying or escaping. Lebanese officials do not provide official statistics, yet in 2008 Human Rights Watch estimated more than one per week. In 2017, the human rights news agency IRIN reported two deaths per week on the basis of information leaked from the Lebanese secret service.

In their struggle to achieve something positive against the backdrop of rampant death, abuse and exploitation, domestic workers have a number of supporters. These include registered Lebanese NGOs like the women’s rights organization KAFA and the Anti-Racism Movement, which maintains several centres for domestic workers in Lebanon. These centres are where the activities organized by Yabrek and David’s groups take place. Additionally, international organizations such as the ILO and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung stand with domestic workers in an advisory capacity.

2015 witnessed the formation of the first union for domestic workers. In order to make this happen, activists took advantage of a hole in Lebanese labour law. Although foreign workers are not allowed to form their own unions, the left-wing union FENASOL offered domestic workers the opportunity to organize their union as a subsidiary of their organization, the leadership of which consists of Lebanese citizens. Nonetheless, the union of domestic workers was not formally recognized, and two of its founding members were deported in 2016 on what Yabrek and David suspect were political grounds. They themselves have both turned away from FENASOL in the meantime along with many of their comrades, as they feel patronized and deceived by the leadership. This was why Yabrek started her own group two and a half years ago.

Domestic workers are not only marginalized institutionally but also in their day-to-day lives: “Racism is a disease in Lebanon”, David says. Although he could afford to do so, he prefers not to spend his free time in Lebanese restaurants and cafés: “I can’t relax there, everyone stares at me.” Instead, David prefers Ethiopian cafés. In 2013, the government in Addis Ababa forbade its citizens from working as domestic workers in Lebanon due to the numerous human rights violations. Nevertheless, workers can still enter the country either via Sudan or illegally. Because David has spoken up too loudly against the kafala system, he was blacklisted by the Ethiopian embassy in Lebanon, which meant that he could not visit his home for five years. Not until the new Ethiopian government under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took power was David’s entry ban removed. Since 2018, Ethiopian citizens have again been permitted to travel to Lebanon.

Yabrek is also no stranger to daily harassment. She recounts being fondled by a taxi driver while being driven to a friend’s birthday party and balancing a pot of homemade noodle soup on her lap. “I threw it in his face and got out”, she remembers. When she arrived at the party, her bewildered friends asked about what happened with the soup: “The taxi driver ate it”, Yabrek told them. Even though this anecdote may elicit a laugh in retrospect, it and similar stories help to illustrate the multifaceted obstacles encountered by domestic workers in their struggle for recognition and dignity.

Looking forward, both activists are hoping that a transformation in the racist thinking of society will set in, and that they will find more resonance within civil society. Achieving their goals will require persistence, yet as Yabrek declares militantly: “For me, there’s nothing stronger than a determined woman!”

Translated by Adam Baltner