In any other context, this set of people would not be mingling in Beirut: artists, academics, and domestic workers. On a recent evening, all gathered at a community center to share research and experiences on an issue–domestic workers’ rights–not otherwise addressed much in Lebanese circles.
“I want to try and help our sisters who don’t sleep, don’t eat, and are afraid,” said Sujana Rana, a member of a Nepalese domestic workers group. “We leave our homes, our families to come to Lebanon,” she said with a quivering voice, “and work so hard to
earn a living.”
Ms. Rana is one of about 200,000 migrant workers in Lebanon. Hired household help is common across the Middle East. In places like Lebanon, it’s inexpensive, so large communities of domestic workers from Ethiopia, Nepal, the Philippines and other countries come to meet the demand. They are part of the fabric of life here–but no legislation protects their rights.
Migrant domestic workers are excluded from the Lebanese labor law, according to a 2013 report by Human Rights Watch. Their terms of employment are defined in a specific relationship with their employer, a system called “kafala” that is rife with profit-reaping and exploitation. Agencies lure workers from their home countries with promises of large salaries and a better life–a far cry from the working conditions they usually face.
Ethiopia and the Philippines even banned their citizens from working in Lebanon. The Philippines overturned the ban in 2012 after signing an agreement with Lebanon to regulate recruitment and employment. Ethiopians still find ways to come here, despite their country’s regulations.
Their plight grabbed headlines in 2012 when an Ethiopian domestic worker committed suicide at a psychiatric hospital. After that incident brought public outcry, workers began to speak out across the country about abuse by their employers.
The Migrant Community Center in Beirut was set up three years ago as a place where migrant workers and others in the community can learn about the workers’ rights and how to protect them. “People come here for help,” said Rana Boukarim, a program manager.
Alicja Rogalska, an artist based in London and Warsaw, organized the recent gathering at the center as part of a series of events that bring together artists and academics on various social issues.
Ms. Rana, the Nepalese worker whose group is supported by a local NGO, said she visited the center to learn how to help others in her community “who are suffering and who are scared to speak up.”
“We want to help migrant workers,” she told a room of Lebanese researchers, expats, and other migrant workers. “We are all human beings.”