05. Lebanon’s Migrant Domestic Workers: Between the Coronavirus and Slavery

There is a meme that was posted on Instagram on International Women’s Day depicting a fictional conversation between a migrant domestic worker and a Lebanese woman participating in the women’s day march. Between a “Yes Madame” and “Okay Madame”, the Lebanese woman texts the following: “I know it’s Sunday but I’m busy reclaiming my rights, so no off today, do the laundry, do the dishes, take out the garbage, keep an eye on the children and the food ready @7”.

The meme speaks to a great dissonance between much of Lebanese society, including those protesting since October, and those that live in Lebanon as migrant domestic workers. The underlying culprit of that dissonance has a name, the Kafala system. It is not well-known outside of Lebanon, but an estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers in the country, mostly women, know it all-too-well. It governs their lives 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It has lead to horrific abuses by those that are their ‘sponsors’.

You see, Kafala means sponsorship in Arabic, and this works the way you might guess. Migrant domestic workers, from countries such as Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Nepal, come to Lebanon under the sponsorship of a ‘kafeel’ (sponsor in Arabic) and live with a sponsoring family, often in a household of a couple and their children. There, they usually take care of all household shores, from the cleaning to the cooking to the raising of kids to even walking the sponsors’ dogs. They are often visibly identifiable by their costume.

So normalised is this state of affairs that one can still reasonably expect, despite relative gains in recent years, to hear the word ‘sirlankyyeh’, which simply means a Sri Lankan woman, to be used as synonymous with ‘maid’, leading such questions as ‘what is your Sri Lankan, an Ethiopian?’ depressingly common.

In recent years, migrant domestic workers have been organising like never before. Groups with or without the support of Lebanese and Palestinian activists have been getting increasingly vocal. One can think of the anti-racism movement or the migrant workers’ task force as two notable example. Full disclosure: I briefly worked with the latter some years ago.

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In part 2 (part 1 here), recorded on March 26th 2020, I spoke with Banchi Yimer, founder of Egna Legna who define themselves as “community-based feminist activists working on migrant domestic workers’ issues and general women’s issues in Lebanon and Ethiopia.” She spoke to me about the Kafala System, the impacts of the economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic on migrant domestic workers in Lebanon as well as her ongoing trauma after working in Lebanon for seven years.

Yimer recently wrote a piece for The Public Source entitled “The Lebanese Revolution: A New Chapter of Kafala Misery“. Among their activities are various workshops teaching various skills to domestic workers in Lebanon, financial assistant, educational videos, establishing shelters, legal assistance as well as a brochure of Lebanon’s bus map in Amharic, Ethiopia’s dominant language. They also take part in the relevant demonstrations, such as the yearly Labor Day organised with the Alliance of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon. Their partners include the Anti-Racism Movement, the Feminist Network, the Knowledge Workshop, KAFA, The A Project, Rootslab, the Legal Agenda and Oxfam.

They seek to, among other things, have the Lebanese government include domestic workers in the country’s labor laws (they currently are excluded), as well as fight gender-based violence and racism. To put it mildly, their work is very difficult, so I urge you all to check out their work and support what they do. You can follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Additional links:

You will hear stories of migrant domestic workers and what they go through in Lebanon.

You will learn about the Kafala system and how it operates in Lebanon.

You will also learn about what migrant activists and their allies in Lebanon are trying to achieve.

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