North Africa, West Asia

Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon: a case study in the global labour hierarchy of gender, race, and nationality

The plight of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon is not just a legal issue that can be solved by reforming the exploitative kafala or sponsorship law. It reflects deeper race and gender prejucides and must be addressed as a social and moral problem.

Arianne Shahvisi
4 June 2014
 Neil Singh.

Domestic workers march in Lebanon. Credit: Neil Singh.

On the first Sunday of May, east Beirut brimmed with flags and chants to mark the city's annual march for the rights of migrant domestic workers. It was a notable display of defiance given the invisibility of the issue in daily Lebanese life, but the numbers were modest and the march diplomatically skirted the wealthier districts of Beirut, where many of the workers are resident with their employers and their demands would have been most relevant.

The march was dominated by migrant domestic workers themselves, for whom Sunday is invariably the only day off, representing at least a dozen states across Asia and Africa, and it was interspersed with migrant workers of another kind: international employees of Beirut's plethora of NGOs. Lebanese participants were disappointingly, yet predictably, few and far between. The issue is rarely discussed and tends to strike a personal chord, which provokes defensiveness rather than engagement.

In Lebanon, a great many households employ domestic workers (there are a quarter of a million domestic workers resident in Lebanon, whose population is just four million). The practice is not only socially acceptable, but is seen as a middle-class aspiration. Many domestic workers are ‘sponsored’ through the kafala legal framework, which allows households to import workers from abroad, who then reside within the employer's home and have no legal right to remain in the country if their employment contract is terminated, and no recourse to the rights other workers can claim according to Lebanese labour laws, such as sick leave, a minimum wage, and fixed working hours.

These rights were the central demand of the march, which is the latest in the trend of lobbying for legislative changes and developing awareness-raising initiatives, in an effort to humanise attitudes. These pragmatic concerns are undoubtedly of great importance, but their monopoly in the discussion disguises the reality that outsourced domestic work is itself deeply problematic from a moral perspective, and may serve to stabilise and entrench a bifurcated globalised culture of the ‘served’ and their ‘servers.’ This—however the legalities may eventually sugar-coat matters—paints a shameful picture of race and gender hierarchies working in the service of borders which protect and mobilise capital, rather than people.  

To be clear, I use the term ‘domestic worker’ to refer to the women who work in other people's households, particularly those who are ‘in residence’ to perform domestic tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and child-minding. These workers are also described as ‘maids,’ or worse, ‘helpers,’ terminology that has a friendly, traditional, voluntary feel that does not fairly convey the power relationship that domestic work entails. Worse, it obscures the urgent fact that these women are workers (and precarious ones at that), and are therefore embedded in the global politics of labour, as well as being wage slaves to their bosses. In this case, the other members of the household are by contrast‘legal,’ racially privileged, and situated in an environment (both household and nation) they may properly call ‘home.’  

In Lebanon, domestic workers are women. Further, they are working-class women. They are also almost exclusively foreign women, ‘sponsored’ by their ‘hosts’ to travel from for example Sri Lanka, Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Philippines. There are few women of these nationalities in Lebanon who are not employed in domestic work. So much so that the term ‘Sri Lankan’ is colloquially synonymous with domestic worker, so that sentences such as ‘my Sri Lankan is Ethiopian’ are possible.

Moreover, domestic workers are commonly salaried on a scale that correlates to their country of origin, in accordance with racist stereotypes about the industriousness and capability of different ethnic groups. It is claimed that the lighter the domestic worker's skin, the higher the social status of the family she works for.

In 99 percent of cases, these women are denied their freedom of movement (which in some cases involves the removal of passports and other identification, and in a third of cases means being confined to the home), two-thirds work eleven-hours each day, more than half are verbally abused, and a third work a full week without a day's break.

Human Rights Watch estimates that one migrant domestic worker dies each week in Lebanon, noting that the majority of the cases are classified as suicide, or as accidental deaths while fleeing from employers or escaping confinement. Such grim realities can no doubt be improved through raising awareness and legislation, and the obvious moral stance is that they should be improved, and with the utmost haste and thoroughness.

However, a number of factors implicate outsourced, in-residence domestic work as sufficiently exceptional that legal reforms are a misguided long-term response.  As a rule, domestic work is work that almost nobody likes, or likes enough to want to do it all day, all week, or all year. Attempts to valorise this work, as a way of valuing the sphere usually seen as ‘feminine,’ are often self-defeating.

True, women have been relegated to performing the important, but inherently limited, domestic tasks that are essential to the perpetuation of society. It may follow that the domestic sphere should be reframed with a positive valence, but this is too often used as a gloss to excuse or defend women's relegation, rather than as a way of disrupting the norms that prevent men from performing their share of domestic responsibilities. Such reclamations of domestic work are usually made by men, or by white, middle-class women, many of whom do comparatively little domestic work themselves, as a consolation prize that fortifies the current hierarchy of labour.

Domestic work is seen as work that somebody (or, better, everybody) must do, but that is not exclusively and intrinsically enjoyable or rewarding. Whether or not these attitudes are reflective of our individualistic, career-centric modern lives, the social reality of domestic work is inescapably as work that we  ‘get out of the way’ in order to turn our attention to the rest of our lives, where the ‘real living’ occurs, and greater fulfilment is deemed to be possible.

The content and context of domestic work as performed by domestic workers is the content and context of personal lives, not the content or context of ordinary employment. Domestic work in-residence is ‘affective labour’: it is work that requires an affect, the maintaining of an emotional front that is independent of the worker's real emotions. The domestic worker is expected to appear grateful for the work, maintain a cheerful countenance, and thereby do her utmost not to upset the emotional well-being of the members of the household, or to make the power dynamic (or her awareness of it) any more explicit than is necessary. In other words, she is expected to perform her role within a constructed reality in which her person, her life, is secondary to the lives of those around her, and her value is judged solely on the extent to which she serves them to their satisfaction. Her entire being is instrumentalised: she is an object. 

Domestic workers' oppression is nominally three-fold: they are working-class women of colour from the global south. But there is a unique fourth dimension, which relates to the nature of the job itself and does not extend to other persons who belong to the category just described. The domestic worker is oppressed as a domestic worker. The difference between these oppressions is that the domestic worker could, in some other modality (or even in this one), derive pleasure or celebration from facets of her identity vectored on the first three axes: the power dynamics are constructed and overlaid by the presiding hegemony. 

But she will not, in any modality, derive pleasure or celebration from being a domestic worker. And that is not just because domestic work is devalued by society, or because it is essentially oppressive or not worthy of celebration, but because the work is constructed around the premise that one person's life—vis-a-vis their access to comfort, company, and variety—is worth more than another person's life. There is no way of thinking of oneself as a domestic worker that diminishes one's awareness and experience of oppression.

Rightly or wrongly, Lebanon is celebrated for its progressive social standards. Women's ‘liberation’ in Lebanon, as elsewhere, is chiefly enjoyed by wealthy, powerful classes, whose quality and variety of work and leisure is premised on the availability of foreign women who are sufficiently poor to readily take up the aspects of their day-to-day lives they would rather outsource. The stark injustice of the daily reality of one group of people serving another is obviated by carefully maintained racism towards these women, and justified by slovenly capitalist rhetoric (‘at least she has a job’) that galvanises, rather than challenges, the global economic order.

Such is the desperation and vulnerability of these women's lives that obtaining legal recognition and protection is a worthy and pressing short-term cause, and we should support them in that pursuit however they self-determine it, but the real victory will be when the societal structures—namely, racism, hetero-patriarchy, capitalism, and border imperialism—that create room for outsourced domestic work are dismantled, and the domestic workers return to their own lives, to care for themselves and invest in their own communities.

For that to happen, Lebanese men will need to assume their rightful share of the household chores and caring work that sustains societies from one day to the next, so that Lebanese women do not feel pressured to outsource this labour. Further, the men of the domestic workers' home communities will also need to assume their share of the burden of everyday living, so that women are not merely displaced from one form of slavery to another.

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