The migrant women working in Lebanese homes have little in the way of protection or rights, but they find ways to carve out normalcy for themselves nevertheless.
Cameron Thibos (oD): So you do a lot of work with domestic workers in Lebanon. Who are they and where are they coming from?
Roula: In Lebanon, the estimates are around 250,000 domestic workers. These are the official numbers, but we suspect that the actual numbers could be a little higher. Domestic workers mainly come from five countries: Bangladesh, Philippines, Nepal, Ethiopia, and Madagascar.
More recently we’ve seen new routes of migration, with some people coming from Africa, specifically Kenya and Benin. These migrants are mainly women, though their ages and profiles vary. These women are motivated to come to Lebanon to work and make some savings so that they could support their families back home.
Cameron: What is the legal framework within which these women enter the country and work? What’s their status and what are the rights attached?
Roula: There is a big problem with domestic workers in Lebanon, as domestic work is unregulated for the most part. Article 7 of the Lebanese labour law excludes domestic workers from the protections of the labour law. As such, there are no laws that protect them. Lebanon has not ratified convention 189 on decent work for domestic workers, so you can see there is a legal vacuum.
These women are not allowed to have children, otherwise they will be deported. They cannot live independently, or they will be deported. Sometimes they are deported for no reason at all.
In 2011, Lebanon imposed a standard unified contract for domestic workers. This is a contract enacted by the Ministry of Labour that was developed in consultation with civil society organisations. However, this contract still lacks many protections, such as minimum wage, the right to a day off that is not determined by the consent of the employer, compensation, etc. We are still having a lot of problems with the legal framework for domestic workers.
Cameron: What would be the range of conditions that migrant domestic workers are living in?
Roula: We see a lot of problems. Domestic workers typically live with their employers, at their home. This is the concept of domestic work. We have had a lot of advocacy work directed towards saying that even though the workplace is a home, domestic workers should not necessarily need to live with their employers. Yet, the prevalent perception is that domestic workers must live with their employers.
When domestic workers live with their employers they face a lot of risks, because the home belongs to the private sphere. It’s closed. It is therefore far away from inspection and labour protection. We see a lot of abuse happens behind closed doors, from physical to labour rights abuse.
Some women work 12 hours a day, some women work for more. Some women don't have a private room, they sleep in the kitchen, or on the balconies. Some don’t receive their salaries and there is no way to prove whether or not they have been paid. These are only some of the issues affecting migrant domestic workers in Lebanon.
In addition to these, we have a big issue with security in the country and government policies towards these women, who are usually vulnerable because they are foreign and because they are women. Residency permits for these women are controlled, and the state imposes many conditions on them. For example, these women are not allowed to have children, otherwise they will be deported. They cannot live independently, or they will be deported. Sometimes they are deported for no reason at all.
Cameron: How are these women getting to Lebanon in the first place? Are they being recruited, coming independently, or through some sort of government programme?
Roula: We have a very big recruitment industry. The system has been built in a way that makes it impossible for an employer herself to recruit – not because it is illegal, but because is very complicated. The employer must therefore rely on recruitment agencies.
There are many abuses that happen during the recruitment phase. For instance, employers pay large amounts of money, anywhere from $1500 to $5500. This money is supposed to cover the fee to bring the worker over, their airfare, etc. But we hear from the countries of origin that these workers also pay recruitment fees, in addition to the fees that have already been paid by the employer.
The agencies also abuse the workers. Sometimes, they are thought of as discipline mechanisms for the worker. If employers are displeased, they send the workers back to the agency. The agent has a stake in making sure that the worker delivers, so they can use many means to force her to work. We see a lot of situations of forced labour as well.
Cameron: As you say, recruiters are expensive, so are a lot of women also getting trapped into this work through debt?
Roula: Yes, this is true. We still lack data on the percentage of women trapped like this, and on how big the debts are. But through our legal work we know that many women owe recruiters back home large amounts of money. This means that even if their work conditions are bad, and even if they could leave their job in theory, they choose not to.
Cameron: For those that do end up in bad situations, what kind of recourse do they have on the state level or through civil society?
Roula: At the state level, there really is no recourse. There's legal aid but it is not very effective, as there aren’t many lawyers that offer legal aid. The only option they have is to get these services through civil society organisations.
Many employers use phrases like ‘we treat her like a daughter’, but domestic workers don’t eat or go out with their employer’s family; they are only there to clean and cook for them.
The problem is that these organisations are largely concentrated in Beirut, so the women who are in the north and the south of the country don’t really have access to these recourses. There is definitely also a lack of legal protection. Even when they can access legal aid, in many cases the outcome is not sufficient. Courts are very slow, and these women cannot afford to wait for justice for two or three years while they lose their legal status (because of the Kafala system).
Cameron: So in your view, do many of these issues stem from migrant women workers being more invisible than their male counterparts? What are the structural factors creating this invisibility and how can that be changed for the better?
Roula: Of course, women are more vulnerable than their male counterparts. First, they are vulnerable because they live in their employer’s house. We have advocated for workplace conditions to apply to employers’ houses, as it is the domestic worker’s workplace.
In addition to this, there are racial and economic dimensions that operate here. When you have a domestic worker who comes from a poorer country, or a domestic worker of colour – these dimensions add to the domestic worker’s invisibility in the home.
She is wished to be invisible. Even though her presence is felt and is needed in certain respects, the domestic worker is not supposed to interfere in family life. She is not considered equal to the family members. Even though you hear many employers using phrases like ‘we treat her like a daughter’, domestic workers don’t eat or go out with their employer’s family; they are only there to clean and cook for them.
Cameron: Women are very often framed as victims in these stories. Where do you find that to be an accurate or an inaccurate portrayal? And what do you think the consequences are of framing them as victims rather than as agents or employees?
Roula: This is a very important question. Yes, it is true that the system victimises women. But we cannot portray these women in a one-dimensional way. Even if there are abuses, we have to look at their reactions – how these women interact with the system and what the outcomes of these interactions are.
For instance, we can think about the issue I brought up earlier about the deportation of women who have children in Lebanon. A lot of women know that this is a risk, but they still decide to make a life for themselves in Lebanon: to have families, and to raise children.
When they are arrested, many of them defy their situations. They go to NGOs. They seek help. They say ‘yes, even though we know we might lose everything, we are willing to challenge the system because it is unjust’.
Just this recognition of injustice makes way for agency and for system change. We as a human rights organisation cannot build towards change unless we are backed by the women whose reality we want to change, and unless we feel that they have agency and that they are leaders of change.
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