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A cage built with laws, not bars

Household and care workers in Lebanon are hemmed in on all sides by legal restrictions. How does one claim rights when one has none?

Fish/IDWF/flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Marie-José Tayah and Farah Salka were both participants at the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women’s conference ‘Human trafficking, forced labour and modern slavery: understanding popular narratives and planning strategic action’, held in August 2017 in Bangkok, Thailand. Marie-José is the regional coordinator for Middle East and North Africa at the International Domestic Workers Federation and Farah works in the Anti Racism Movement in Lebanon. Beyond Trafficking and Slavery caught up with both of them between panels to discuss the history and current state of domestic work in Lebanon, and where it might go from here.

Cameron Thibos (oD): Marie-José, I recently heard you speak about the transition to migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. This is something you never hear about – what came before the status quo and how that shift came about. I was wondering if you could thus start us off by tracing that shift to migrant domestic labour in Lebanon.

Marie-José: So traditionally families used to employ domestic workers who were essentially children, between the ages of seven and nine. These domestic workers would help with the household chores, help with cooking, but at the same time they were taught how to write and how to read an exchange. Not always, but in certain instances.

Mostly they came from Syria, and from a minority community. At one point the regime changed, and it was this minority that took over the regime. They made sure to recall all the women from Lebanon and wanted them to get a better education. They integrated them into the school system in Syria, made sure that they had decent jobs, and that they were not working as domestic workers in Lebanese households anymore.

After that, the Lebanese resorted to employing women from other neighbouring countries, mostly from Egypt, but that was short lived. Immediately after the civil war, Sri Lanka became the main partner with recruitment agencies in Lebanon. The sector was unlicensed, so random offices opened here and there, they identified business partners in Sri Lanka, and started bringing in domestic workers to work in Lebanese households.

These women were also young. They never had a passport or an I.D. card until they came to Lebanon. The people who arranged their travel said they were 18 years old, and in fact they were 11 or 12 or 13 or 14 years old. So it was again a practice of hiring children for domestic work in the country, either from neighbouring countries or from countries in Asia.

This, I think, contributes a lot to today's practice of treating a domestic worker as your child. You want to control her behaviour, you want to control her mobility, and you do so using the pretext of maintaining her safety or her morality. That means controlling her personal life, making sure that she's not engaging with men who might threaten her dignity or her sense of self-respect and that of the household.

Yet they're not really treating them as children, because at the same time they're imposing very harsh working conditions on them that they wouldn't want to see their daughters go through. There's this ambiguity and duplicity in how they're treating domestic workers. On the one hand, when it comes to the moral argument, it's used to control their private space. But then again when it comes to working in the household, they're not their daughters anymore.

Cameron (oD): That gets us part of the way there, but somewhere in this story we also have the start of the Kafala system and the imposition of more regulation by the state. How does this story then continue?

Marie-José: The Kafala system did not exist in the past in Lebanon. It came from the Arab culture, from the countries that are now the Gulf Corporation Countries (GCC). As in every other policy sub-field, policies and regulations diffuse. Countries do not innovate – they tend to adopt policies that exist in neighbouring countries and adapt them to their own context.

Kafala used to regulate the stay of people who weren't from the tribe. They weren't countries in the GCC at the time, it was tribes, and this system regulated hospitality for foreigners. People who were passing by: traders, or people who stayed a while until they could move onto another location. This was adopted to regulate what was foreign to the region, especially to Lebanon, because Lebanon in 1975 also became a country of immigration.

The institutions of Lebanon are set up to promote emigration. We have a Lebanese Ministry of Emigration, and we have a world cultural organisation that handles relationships with the Lebanese diaspora. But there hasn't been an effort to develop these institutions to govern immigration into Lebanon.

It's still being treated on ad hoc basis under the guise of temporariness, yet we all know that migration, especially in the domestic work sector, is not temporary. There are women who have been in Lebanon for 35 years. Ever since they first came in the 1970s you will find, on average, women who have been in Lebanon for 12 or 13 years. It's no longer a temporary phenomena. It's women coming to stay and to set up a community, to set up a social life, and some of them don't want to return to their countries of origin except for visits.

We need proper immigration governance that recognises the need of our community for these women.

We need to the develop these institutions. It's no longer about regulations, it's no longer about ad hoc mechanisms or codes of conduct. We need proper immigration governance that recognises the need of our community for these women. Lebanon’s population is aging. We have a fertility rate of 1.6 compared to 4.2 ten years ago, so it's really dropping. And the population over 65 is increasing rapidly.

Those people will need long term care, and there will not be young people to take care of them anymore, especially since the youth continues to leave Lebanon. We thus need a labour market assessment that recognises the long term need for migrant domestic workers, and to establish institutions that govern the sector properly. We need to move beyond temporary migration schemes which are not fair to the country and not fair to migrant women.

Cameron (oD): So we've ended up in a situation where permanent migration is being governed by temporary migration law.

Marie-José: Exactly. This can only lead to informality and irregularity.

Cameron (oD): Does it seem like this is the wrong political context for Lebanon to create a permanent migration system, given the influx of over 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the past years?

Marie-José: We need to look at the long-term perspective. There will always be something. We grew up in a country where there were always surprises: skirmishes, wars, little feuds here and there, maybe regional, maybe national. There will always be something, but the demand for women caregivers is not going to stop. This is a constant. With wars and without wars, with refugees and without refugees, there will always be demand for caregivers and that needs to be addressed.

It's a matter of first priority because caregivers determine the next generation. They spend almost 70% of the time with young children during their most formative years and they determine the outcome: the educational outcome, their cognitive development, their emotional development. They also spend a lot of time with the elderly. They need to know what medicine they should give. They insert feeding tubes, they give injections, they dress wounds – these are all things that require a certain level of professionalism. So it's good to recognise the need in the sector, especially since social care institutions are not available and the country, as you said, is under a lot of pressure.

Cameron (oD): Rather than talking about vulnerable people, we at BTS like to talk about how vulnerability is created, and how factors often combine to be more than the sum of their parts. You’ve described the Kafala system elsewhere as having five basic pillars, and you’ve already mentioned the current regime of governing domestic workers in Lebanon. Can you describe how at least one of these pillars combines with the national context to form cage around domestic workers' movement and hinder their ability to direct their own lives?

Marie-José: The five pillars restrict domestic workers’ physical mobility and occupational mobility. The admission of a domestic worker is the first pillar. It's tied to an employer. That's what we call the kafeel, or the sponsor. From her first day in Lebanon and throughout her work contract, she is tied to that sponsor. If the worker wishes to transfer her employment to another employer, then she will have to acquire the permission of the sponsor. If she wants to terminate her employment then she will also require the permission of that first employer. And if she wants to exit the country, she will also need the permission of the employer.

The employer can technically do anything to the worker in his or her household.

Put together, these definitely give an advantage to the employer, because the employer can technically do anything to the worker in his or her household. If the worker revolts or complains there are two options. The employer can terminate her contract, which means the worker will have to leave the country. If she leaves the country, she will default on the loans that she had to take before coming to Lebanon to her placement fees – which she's not supposed to be doing under Convention 189 to begin with – and she'll also default on all her other financial commitments: school tuition, medical support for the family, household loans in her country of destination and her country of origin, etc.

The other one is for the worker to run away, and you will find that a lot of women have left the employer's household to seek other employment arrangements. They either figure out a way to register with another employer, with the support of legal services from NGOs, or they will stay under the radar. That means they're more vulnerable, because the employer keeps their documents and if they are then subject to sexual or physical abuse they cannot report it because they're not supposed to be there.

Cameron (oD): Farah, you work with the migrant community centres in Lebanon. Do many runway domestic workers show up there? Do they find solidarity and support, and are there informal mechanisms of redress that these sorts of centres or the people within them have created?

Farah: There are three migrant community centres in Lebanon, one in Beirut and two outside the capital. They serve around a thousand workers of around twenty different nationalities. Most of them are women and most of them are domestic workers, but there are also women who come with their families or with their husbands or with their children.

The centres serve as an alternative home to many. People use it for different reasons. People come to classes, come to meet friends, come to chill, come to speak their language. Conditions are very harsh for migrant workers in the country, so some people come to the centres to live something they can't live outside.

Some people come and take courses to build certain capacities or certain skills they have, be it public speaking, or connect to media, or negotiating their work conditions with the employer. Some also become something like community leaders or activists, who try to support and help other women in the community – women who haven't been paid, women who are locked up, women who are completely deprived of any rights. They use the space as a place to organise, to think together, to reach out to lawyers, and to find solutions to all this.

Fish/IDWF/flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Cameron (oD): Are they meeting with some success, in terms to bringing legal cases in Lebanon, or trying to claim back wages? How does this actually play out, formally or informally?

Farah: Unfortunately there's a huge void in Lebanon. It's such a small country and there's such a high number of migrant workers, most of whom are not registered and irregular because the situation does not allow them to be. You know, anybody would like to be regular and safe, and not have to fear for their safety every time they're on the road and there's a checkpoint. But the lack of any legal protection in Lebanon, the sponsorship system, and the void in terms of legal mechanisms of support force many people into irregular ways of doing things.

Many people want to leave the country, for instance. Some want to stay and are satisfied, or are okay at managing. But there are lots of women who want to leave the country but can't because they're stuck. They're completely stuck in this system and it's a spiral.

There are lots of women who want to leave the country but can't because they're stuck.

Some cases do get successful outcomes. But it's all really trial and error, because there's no system. Domestic workers in Lebanon have no mechanism whatsoever to complain about the conditions they are living in and working under. If you're not getting paid, if you're being abused, if you have harassment at the work place, if you have any of the million issues that the workers are facing, you have no way of going and complaining about this.

There are some really good human rights lawyers who have been putting their time, pro bono, into supporting domestic workers and taking their cases to court. But only very few cases reach court because most of the time the workers are told to get out of an abusive house and then they want to drop the case. They really can't wait for years and years to have their case submitted. They fear for their life, and there's always a risk for you as an irregular worker to go and sue a Lebanese person. The power imbalance is huge.

Cameron (oD): Marie-José, you've done a bit of work with the Sri Lankan embassy. How are home state governments or embassies involving themselves in this, or are they letting everything wash under the bridge?

Marie-José: There are some countries of origin that have diplomatic representation in Lebanon, and some don't. Traditionally migration for domestic workers was from countries in Asia. More recently, we have more women coming from Africa, and there hasn't been time yet to establish or set up embassies for these countries or diplomatic representations.

There are some countries that are well established across the world and in Lebanon, like the Philippines embassy, which has a shelter. I don't know if they still have it, but I know at some point they did. At one point they also operated a rescue operation, to rescue women who weren't able to leave the household of their employers. Again, I don't know if this is still in place or not, but it's in place in other countries in the GCC and the region.

The Sri Lankan embassy also provides support to the community, but I think they have limited capacity to do so relative to the Philippines. Nepal does not have diplomatic representation. It has an honorary consulate that's not necessarily able to cater to the demands of the community at the same rate as other embassies.

In part it depends on how the embassies are governed and how immigration is governed in these countries of origin. The Philippines has a dual system. They have the Overseas Welfare Association, which handles protection, and then you have the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, which handles employment placements. So the recruitment agencies are separate from the protection institutions. In other countries of origin they're together, so you may have collusion between staff who are dealing with recruitment agencies and staff who are dealing with protection. So it's a diverse picture.

Cameron (oD): The Lebanese government's not exactly known for its citizen responsiveness, and I don't know how one lobbies the government in Lebanon. But do you know of any projects or avenues of change that give you hope for the future, in terms of improving the conditions of domestic workers and their access to their rights?

Marie-José: I have a more optimistic view of responsiveness from the side of the Lebanese government. I had the opportunity to leave Lebanon for a while, and to look at domestic work in other contexts before coming back, and so I'm seeing things a little bit from a distance. In other countries, the civil society will always tell you that we had to come up the proposal, and we submit it, and we had to make it the business of government to follow through. Governments rarely come up with proposals. Usually, you should have a proposal, and have a policy proponent who carries it forward and waits for the right time to push it.

I think we haven't been that successful in Lebanon, namely because we have a very fragmented civil society bringing in different proposals. At one time we had some sections of civil society who wanted to include domestic workers under the labour law. At the same time, you had another section of civil society who was pushing for a special bill for domestic workers. And, strangely enough, it was one donor funding both proposals, so that gives you a sense of the fragmentation.

We've been harping on the same thing: kafala, kafala, kafala, which is true but kafala is not a ghost.

I think what's missing in the discussion is how domestic workers are resisting the system in order to respond to labour market needs. There's a variety of demands on the sector: some want live in housekeepers, while others want live out housekeepers who come in just for a few hours and clean up the house. Some want live-in caregivers, while some want live-out caregivers, who come in and patch up the wound, clean it up, and then leave. And they're willing to pay different wages for different tasks.

I think our main drive as a civil society should be to carry out a market assessment, see where the need is, demonstrate that employers are driving this demand, and then use this as the basis for a proposal to submit to the government. So I think we need to take a different approach. We've been harping on the same thing: kafala, kafala, kafala, which is true but kafala is not a ghost. We need to look at the elements that make up kafala, come up with a concrete proposal, and unite behind this proposal. This proposal should respond to the needs of employers. It should demonstrate that domestic workers have the capacity to deliver, that they are delivering, and then push for higher wages.

It's also not fair for all domestic workers to earn the same wage when they're doing different functions. A lot of countries have collective bargaining agreements that push for different wage scales for different occupations within a single sector. I think the same should happen for domestic work in Lebanon because clearly they're doing different functions. We need to come up with something concrete, and we need to push that. We cannot wait for the government to present it. They never will.

Farah: I completely agree. I just want to add that the more visibility that is being given to or being taken by migrant workers, the more we are going in a more hopeful direction. At one point migrant domestic workers were completely invisible. It's only in the last few years that different spaces were opened up by migrant workers, or with the support of others, so that these women could represent themselves.  

Migrant domestic workers cannot definitely do this on their own with all the context that we were talking about. But they need to be there and the more voices we hear, the more we hear of their ideas and their proposals, the healthier the process becomes. The activist scene needs to be convinced of this idea first, before we are able to convince the government to give spaces to migrant domestic workers in negotiations and at meetings.

There's a lot of inspiring work that is being done by women that should give us inspiration to feel like this can one day go in a good direction. There are women who are doing amazing work given the complexities and the fear. As one example, I look forward to a group of migrant domestic workers who are trying to assemble together to prepare a radio programme on a Lebanese radio station. This has already been agreed, thankfully, so they're preparing that. It's going to include different things about culture, about rights, about responsibilities, about numbers, etc. It's going to be a very interesting combination, so I look forward to that.

About the authors

Marie-José L. Tayah is the regional coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Domestic Workers Federation.

Farah Salka is an activist with the Anti Racism Movement in Lebanon.

Cameron Thibos is the managing editor of Beyond Trafficking and Slavery. He is a former research associate at the Migration Policy Centre of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, and holds a D.Phil from the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford. 

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