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From Resisting Definition to Resisting Exploitation: The Ongoing Struggle of Domestic Workers in Lebanon

Arianne Shahvisi, Truthout | News Analysis

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Mar. 28, 2015

The dehumanization, both at the legal and the personal level, of these racialized working-class women from the Global South is responsible for the perpetuation and invisibility of their suffering. The Lebanese public should call for an urgent reform of the inhumane "kafala" sponsorship system in which they work. 

A quarter of a million migrant domestic workers serve the middle classes of Lebanon, whose population is just 4 million. They have no recourse to domestic labor laws and no right to remain in the country in the event of terminated employment. Instead, as in many other countries across the region, migrant workers enter Lebanon through a "kafala" system of sponsorship, in which the state leaves it to the host household to manage the visa and legal status of their sponsored domestic worker and grants a residence permit on the strict condition that the worker remains in the custody of the household throughout the term of her employment.

The benefits to the trading states are obvious: They are relieved of any responsibility to the women who travel thousands of miles for work, keeping the arrangement a purely economic one. A cheap service is tendered which is not readily available locally, and substantial amounts of capital flow to the home state (which is invariably poor, indebted and undergoing disastrous economic structural adjustment) in the form of taxation. Putting the women back into this fiscal exchange, the potential for abuse is alarming, and the actual statistics are a harrowing lesson in the dangers of unregulated labor.

This month, Melika Begum, a Bangladeshi domestic worker in northern Lebanon, told her employers that she wished to return to her home to be with her children. The request was refused and was followed by her three-day hunger strike, after which she was found hanged in her room.

Three months ago, Emebit Bekele Biru, an Ethiopian domestic worker was found hanged in her employers' home. The next day, Derhemesh Labou fell to her death from the third floor of a residential apartment building. Three days later, yet another Ethiopian domestic worker, Birkutan Dubri, jumped from a fourth floor balcony, minutes after she was observed by eyewitnesses arguing with her employer. Miraculously, she survived the fall and was hospitalized with traumatic injuries.

On average, one domestic worker dies each week in Lebanon from unnatural causes. Hunger, forced confinement, isolation, rape, sexual assault, beatings, verbal abuse, exploitative working conditions, threat of deportation, nonpayment and inability to communicate with friends and family are all cited as contributing factors. The kafala sponsorship system is directly implicated in creating and maintaining such hostile working conditions.

Domestic workers are expected to work uncomplainingly without a break, often with minimal and irregular pay, with little regard for their personal lives or the importance of maintaining meaningful contact with the worlds they had to leave behind.

The kafala sponsorship system descends from the customs of hospitality that are characteristic of the Arab region. Bedouin tribes would customarily invite foreign travelers to enjoy temporary membership in the tribe - typically food and shelter - as they passed through an inhabited region. This widespread custom has evolved into a set of administrative rules and legal regulations, permitting families to play host to foreign visitors, provided the expense and bureaucracy of the visit are shouldered by the household and not the state.

Nowadays, the most common application of the kafala system is not to extend a gracious welcome to a guest, but to permit the expedient employment of a household worker for whom the state takes no responsibility. One of its most obvious pernicious effects is to eliminate competition between households to attract and retain domestic labor. When working conditions become unbearable, as they very often do, or the household dynamic does not work out, a migrant domestic worker cannot choose to leave her employers' home and take up a position elsewhere, even if other positions are readily available (as they often are: Domestic work is always in demand in Lebanon). The kafala system ties each worker to the household that brought her to Lebanon, with the threat of deportation if that employment is terminated. This effectively eradicates any mercenary incentive for employers treating domestic workers well. Unlike other employers, who may retain employees by maintaining agreeable working conditions, migrant domestic workers can only leave on a plane home. Even then, if the worker is expected to cover the cost herself, this may not be a realistic possibility, and since passports are invariably seized on arrival, there may even more prohibitive barriers to leaving.

Domestic workers are manifestly not family members in a society in which family is sacrosanct, yet neither are they strangers, since they are privy to the details and secrets of the host family's lives in a society in which family honor is fiercely protected. The result is an obvious cognitive dissonance.

Faced with this dilemma of categorization and given that an implicit part of the job description of a domestic worker is her silence and invisibility, it seems that resident domestic workers are treated as household furniture or appliances: necessary, functional, but not worthy of personhood. Further, since domestic workers are evidently "choosing" not to live with their own families, there may also be the perception that they are cold, unfeeling and money-minded.

Since their employers see many women of particular races in Lebanon confined to the same profession (domestic work), a face value reading might warrant the conclusion that some races enjoy, or are particularly good at, household chores. Racism is certainly rife and overt in Lebanon, where postcolonial internalizations of inferiority are revisited upon particular immigrant groups (notably migrant workers, Palestinians and Syrian refugees), or across sects, and where rigid social structures preclude social mobility.

Whatever "rationalization" may be offered, apologism should not be tolerated, and the nuances of this national embarrassment pale in comparison with the urgency of the domestic workers' plight. One thing is obvious: The dehumanization of domestic workers in Lebanon is a direct result of the toxic combination of racism and capitalist economics.

A Global Heart Transplant

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild describes the migration of domestic labor from poorer countries to wealthier countries as a global heart transplant. Women workers from a few pockets of the global South prop up caring services in the rest of the world as full-time employment, coupled with increasing levels of privatization, turns care work into a tradeable commodity.

This is evident in hospitals, nurseries and care homes the world over, but takes on a particularly strange dynamic when migrant domestic workers - many of whom have their own children - are raising the children of other nations, so that the women of those communities may be liberated from one of the burdens of heteronormative womanhood.

Transnational migration presents a win-win situation for wealthier countries, which contend with a growing care deficit as care is lost to external employers due to increasing numbers of women joining the paid workforce. This care deficit is managed by outsourcing the work to poor women from abroad, which then permits both the sending and receiving nations to present the outward face of progress toward gender equality, since in both cases greater numbers of women are undertaking paid work.

Attracting migrant domestic workers relies on there being a considerable difference in salaries between the sending country and the receiving country. In simple terms, migrant domestic work is a product of international wealth polarities, while nonmigrant, outsourced domestic work is contingent on intra-national wealth polarities. The entire industry is premised on some people being able to outsource unpleasant and time-consuming domestic labor due to their comparative wealth. This forms a chain, at the bottom of which are the women who must perform unpaid domestic work.

Consider that the migration of women (as primary caregivers) to meet foreign care deficits leaves a new care deficit in the home country. In some cases, the difference in salary between the two countries is sufficiently large that the migrant domestic worker is able to employ a domestic worker of her own to take on her care work in the household she left behind. The migrant domestic worker's domestic worker is obliged to leave behind her own care work, which is invariably picked up by her daughter, often precluding formal education.

Importantly, the receiving state takes on no responsibility for the maintenance and reproduction of its "borrowed" care workers. They are born and raised in faraway countries, and in ill-health and old age will return to those countries to be cared for by the women of their families and communities, whose labor is unpaid. The host country has no legal responsibility for migrant domestic workers' health, their dependents, or their futures. This represents an enormous financial perk for the host country, since it can rely on workers who help to reproduce its own workforce with no hidden costs to the state.

Resisting Definition: Not Workers, Not Mothers, Not Women

Migrant domestic workers live at the perilous intersection of various forms of oppression. They are not workers, women or mothers, in any ordinary sense of these terms. That is, while these functional roles proscribe aspects of their day-to-day existence, they do not have access to any of the protections and solidarities that are available through these three identities, while suffering the worst of the associated abuse and vulnerabilities.

As women, migrant domestic workers are subject to actual, threatened or potential violence and sexual assault. Their vulnerability is heightened by the necessarily private realm of their work, and their negligible recourse to legal protection, exacerbated by the kafala system.

The societies into which they migrate do not see them as women in the sense of eliciting gallantry: Their "honor" is of little consequence, and they are not potential wives or friends. As Sojourner Truth famously pointed out, the (sexist) allowances and gestures that are sometimes afforded to white women have rarely been extended to women of color.

Migrant domestic workers work longer hours, under more trying conditions, than the Lebanese men who employ them, but no slack is cut because of their womanhood. They live in a double bind. Their womanhood makes them targets for sexual abuse, while they do not enjoy the compensatory "protection" from harm and hard labor that is afforded to more privileged women.

Nor are migrant domestic workers mothers in the day-to-day sense. Many are mothers in the actual sense and have left behind their own children in their home countries, their move motivated in part by a desire to provide a brighter future for those children. Most find themselves as primary care-givers of children in the homes of their employers, assuming the role of mother (often from infanthood to adulthood), with all its emotional attachments, while ultimately subservient to the growing children, whom they must one day leave forever with little or no meaningful contact afterwards.

Finally, they are not workers in the conventional sense. Many migrant domestic workers live in the homes of their employers, are unable to move to another job without having to leave the country, and are expected to maintain an affect of contentment and gratitude to foster harmony in the households and buffer their employers from the cognitive dissonance of an ugly power dynamic.

In these senses and others, migrant domestic workers resist definition. Their work is unique in that it is a complex yet direct mock-up of global society: It is symbolic of binary power relations between genders, races, nations and classes.

Although domestic service is an ancient profession, it has taken on a wholly new and much more discomfiting character in a globalized world with an increasingly precarious feminized proletariat. Migrant domestic work is a manifestation of the extent of global wealth inequality, as people who are gendered - as submissive and hypersexualized - and racialized - as unintelligent and not wholly human - are pawned by the neoliberal economy to extract care from poorer countries to wealthier countries.

Since care work has tremendous and obvious actual value (it maintains people and their environment for pleasant, healthy living), but little assigned social value, poor countries participate in this exchange on losing terms, and wealth and health continue to flow to from poor to rich.

Resisting Oppression: The Region's First Domestic Workers' Union

The year 2015 has so far been the most promising for migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. On January 25, some 350 domestic workers gathered in Beirut for a conference establishing the first domestic workers' union. No doubt many more were not permitted to take the day off work to attend and have heard the news across social media networks and across balconies and schoolyards.

The Labor Ministry lost no time in rejecting the move as "illegal." Contrast this stubborn commitment to the law with the ministry's silence regarding the deaths and abuse of domestic workers.

Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi claims that a law will better serve the rights of domestic workers than a union. Coincidentally, he claims to be in the process of drafting such a law, which would meet the International Labor Organization (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention 189 , which was introduced in 2011 to better protect the working conditions of domestic workers across the world. The convention has not yet been ratified by any country in the Middle East or North Africa.

The difference between a law and a union is obvious. If the law is broken, as it likely will be, since its proposed terms are very distant from the average working conditions of domestic workers as currently reported, then domestic workers will have to open a legal dispute with their employers. Presumably during the course of this dispute, they will either be expected to remain in the employers' home or be relocated to a detention center, since their immigration status is tied to the kafala system.

Chances are, many will be too scared to speak up in the first place. If they do, their legal battle begins with a police force that is famous for its human rights abuses , and ends with a corrupt prosecution service. As in all legal disputes, Lebanese employers may draw on their "wasta," that is, their social capital, to ensure that no claim against them is brought to court, while domestic workers would be left to fend for themselves in a system whose rules and language are unfamiliar. In any case, the introduction of a law would be unlikely to change employers' practices. Lebanon is not a country dictated by laws. Laws are flouted both intentionally and in ignorance. A recent smoking ban in public spaces is almost never observed. Traffic laws are systematically flouted. Developers build skyscrapers with impunity on supposedly protected land.

A union presents very real possibilities of strike action, of domestic workers witholding their much-needed labor to ensure that their collective rights are protected. Unionization offers the best hope of bringing about a minimum living wage, maximum working hours, protected leisure time and a place for workers to take their complaints about the conduct of their employers.

Domestic workers are a hugely disempowered group, who are necessarily divided by the conditions of their work, making organization near impossible. With just one day of leisure each week (a third are denied even that), the success of having formed a congress in their hundreds and voted to become unionized is nothing if not awe-inspiring.

The union's efficacy will of course be contingent on employers' attitudes. No doubt there will be a short-term backlash to this empowerment (enacted through further restriction of movement, and fewer days off) as domestic workers collectively set their sights on long-term goals. But it must be remembered that they are an extremely numerous sector of the population. They are as populous as one of the smaller religious sects, are united by a strong and urgent common cause and, given the precariousness of their situation, arguably have a good deal more to gain than to lose.

The unionization of domestic workers sends out a powerful message: First to the politicians who have ignored the needs of migrant workers while maintaining a sponsorship system permitting their exploitation; second, to the many middle-class families whose inhumane treatment of resident domestic workers has contributed to the need for urgent collective action; and third to the domestic workers themselves, the power of whose collectivity must be sending waves of contagious empowerment from household to household.

That a strongly patriarchal, wildly incapable government should shun the attempts of the country's most disempowered group to assert their right to dignity in their work is a sad but unsurprising reflection on not only the racism, sexism and classism, but also the misguided libertarianism and mythic meritocracy that are all too evident among the Lebanese political classes.

Ultimately, justice in the realm of domestic labor will be the harbinger of a broader justice for women, workers, and the forgotten masses of women workers who constitute a new and growing global proletariat. Confining women to the domestic sphere while simultaneously devaluing that sphere is one of patriarchy's most repugnant tricks. Pursuing a fair distribution of a more judiciously esteemed care work should be high on the agenda of a global anti-capitalist feminism.

As yet, the union remains unofficial and therefore illegitimate, according to Lebanese law. This does not in any sense render it powerless, and the intention of its members and supporters, who have worked so hard to see the union through to its incarnation, is to proceed unperturbed by the predictable wrath of the government.

Members are currently in the process of electing their committee and will continue to meet and organize, determine the struggles that are most urgent, and conceive of imaginative ways to fight them in the face of so many obstacles. As yet, one of the most powerful weapons available to migrant domestic workers is still gathering dust after all these years: There is yet to be any real pressure from the Lebanese public to defend one of the country's most vulnerable groups and offer solidarity. This is perhaps the moment of greatest need: The hardest part has been achieved by the workers themselves; the rest is merely cheerleading. I won't be holding my breath.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.


Arianne Shahvisi

Arianne Shahvisi is a professor of philosophy at the American University of Beirut who writes occasional opinion pieces on gender, race, class, and borders, and has recently written for the New StatesmanJacobin  and Open Democracy