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The difference self-organising makes: the creative resistance of domestic workers

Informal networks of self-help and mutual care have given rise to a workers-led alliance in Lebanon to fight for the rights of domestic workers.

Photo provided by author.

Many conditions play into the exploitation of migrant domestic workers (MDWs) in Lebanon. Most of the time, MDWs are women, and some of us are illiterate. And at times, this illiteracy furthers existing exploitation, which is already embedded in sexism, classism, and racism. These factors are present in our home countries, and migration renders us even more vulnerable to them.

Our employers often believe that people migrate because they had nothing to do, were not qualified, or lacked opportunity in their home countries, and that we therefore owe them for saving us. The vicious chain of exploitation begins in the home countries of MDWs, where some agencies attract domestic workers and facilitate their migration in exchange for a commission. To put it bluntly, ‘traffickers’ take advantage of domestic workers and sell them to host families, who continue this practice of exploitation. For example, the families we work for might keep our money in their pockets because they belittle us, or because they believe that we do not have any urgent bills to pay since we are living in their house.

There will always be people who will benefit from the exploitation of others. This means that there will always be resistance to changing the laws surrounding the rights of MDWs, since there are people who get rich on the backs of these workers. At the end of the day, it is always the women domestic workers who pay – both materially and figuratively. While legal discrimination can end with the adoption of proper laws, personal discrimination will not simply come to an end suddenly, because the stereotypes that exist in people’s minds cannot so easily be erased. Laws nevertheless have the power to influence people – regardless of their prejudices – to change their behaviour towards MDWs out of fear of punishment.

On hope and activism

Nevertheless, we believe that the day will come where everything will change, where the cage will be opened and the bird will be able to fly freely once again. We organise ourselves in collectives, unions, and alliances, so we can fight for our rights and thus be prepared for that moment of desired freedom. There is a saying that goes: ‘one hand cannot clap alone’. If I were on my own in claiming my rights regarding my paycheque, vacation, and insurance, I would be viewed as the exception, and no one would take my demands seriously. But if more and more MDWs combine forces and we start screaming in demand of our rights, one person might hear us, and then a second and a third, and the movement would snowball from there. And who knows? One day: bam! The authorities would decide that they are tired of hearing us and that they need to respect our rights.

If more and more MDWs combine forces and we start screaming in demand of our rights, one person might hear us, and then a second and a third, and the movement would snowball.

I was an activist since my childhood. When I was in primary school, I was a tomboy, and I always defended others. When my friends were being harassed, they would look for me, and my fists would go looking for the boys who were responsible. I grew up that way. When I arrived in Lebanon, I couldn’t wrap my head around the atrocities committed against MDWs. While I hesitate to say that the family in which I first landed was the worst, they were certainly not perfect. Looking around me, I thought that it was not possible for people to live in such conditions. Thus, I started my activism in my employer’s household.

I began by talking to my employer openly, but she did not appreciate my honesty. She would scream at me and we would quarrel, but that did not stop me from expressing myself and my needs. One day, she asked me what my expectations for her were, and, having heard them, she told me there was nothing she could do to change the situation. While I understood the limitations she faced, I asked her to at least use her power to talk to other women employers, her friends. For instance, my birthday was coming up and I asked her to convince her friends to give their domestic workers a day off to visit me at her house, so we could celebrate my birthday. Then little by little, my sisters and I began to form a community of MDW leaders.

Creative resistance

Over time, we developed subtle ways of resisting. There was a MDW from Sri Lanka who lived in the building across mine, and another one from Ethiopia who lived on the floor below. We were able to see each other when we stood on our respective balconies, but we could not speak to each other due to the distance. In order to not attract unwanted attention of our employers, we intuitively started communicating in non-verbal gestures. We were able to understand each other without prior agreement on the meanings of the gestures we used.

We are a group of women who share one voice, because we all undergo similar problems and have had enough with the way things are.

I lived on the fifth floor of my building and we used a rope to send food to the girl who lived on the second floor and that was being starved by her employer. I would put the food in a plastic bag, tie it to the rope, and slowly glide it down the outer wall of the building. When the food would arrive to the second floor, I would make a sound with the pans in the kitchen, so she would know that the food had arrived. Then, she would take the food and send the container back to my floor using the same rope.

This is how she managed to eat without anyone noticing. At times, we also used the elevator: I would call the elevator, put the Tupperware inside, and she would receive it on the second floor. She would eat it quickly without anyone noticing – what the eyes do not see, the mind does not know. Then, I would receive my Tupperware the same way I sent it. There is always a way. Despite not being able to communicate verbally, we managed to develop these techniques of mutual care. We were able to achieve this organic way of communicating our needs because our lived experiences were similar: I lived what she lived, and vice-versa. She didn’t need to explain her situation to me with words: her gestures sufficed for letting me know if she was in trouble, if she was left starving the day before, or if she hadn’t had breakfast yet.

Organised resistance

We have developed techniques to mend the conditions that increase the exploitation of MDWs in Lebanon. We offer English, French, and Arabic language classes, as well as courses for people to learn computer skills and how to play the guitar for both men and women, old and young. Our work contracts are written in Arabic rather than French or English, but if you know the rights have, and you have them written somewhere, you can back up your claims when you demand your rights regardless of whether you can read Arabic or not.

Photo provided by author.

Otherwise, you are obliged to believe and accept whatever your employer tells you, since they can read better than you do. We also started giving courses on MDW rights, in order to spread this knowledge through the networks of people that we were able to reach. For the types of discrimination that are not visible or codified, it is very difficult to come up with techniques to fight against them. We try to provide support for these cases, but so far our support remains moral, operating through networks of mutual care. Our outreach methods include online work and word of mouth. We establish trust with communities and have workers get their friends and circles to learn about us and to join, or to refer cases that require help and intervention in the future. It is a like a water bubble that is growing and expanding with time, and that relies on trust and confidence in the leaders who are at the heart of the alliance.

Since May 2016, we have been organised in an alliance: the Alliance of Migrant Workers and Domestic Workers in Lebanon. While we are based in Beirut, our members are working in different regions in Lebanon. We are a group of women who share one voice, because we all undergo similar problems and have had enough with the way things are. We trust each other and we are ready to walk the whole distance. At this stage, we are small and do not yet have access to funding, but this does not stop us from being very active in strategising and planning.  

Our alliance’s work is different from the work of different organisations we have witnessed in Lebanon, and this is mainly due to one reason: we are domestic workers. Many organisations that work for our cause consist of individuals who have never been subjected to what we experience with our flesh, bones, and blood. Our alliance mirrors who we are and our shared experiences. It is our bread, blood, sweat, and life.

The ‘we’ in this article refers to the common voice of the members of the alliances and their domestic worker comrade, the ‘I’s refer to the personal voice and story of Rose Mahi.

About the Alliance of Migrant Workers and Domestic Workers in Lebanon

We – the migrant domestic workers in Lebanon – have come together and organised ourselves as an alliance for our cause. We share one voice. We are the women migrant domestic workers activists who fight to claim our rights. We fight against oppression and exploitation in all aspects of being women and as domestic workers. We see ourselves as one despite our different nationalities because we share the same struggles and challenges at work and in public spaces. We strongly believe that working collectively enhances our unity and solidarity amongst all workers leading to women's empowerment. The alliance is self-funded for now.

About the author

Rose Mahi is a migrant domestic worker from Cameroon. She has been living and working in Lebanon for 16 years. She is a community leader and human rights activist. She has led many initiatives, projects and campaigns and continues her work as a community mobilizer with her community and beyond.)

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