Migrant Women Workers
These pictures are part of the "INDIVISIBLE" campaign launched by @_1morecup in partnership with MOSAIC-MENA and with the support of the German Embassy in Lebanon for the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender-Based Violence 2022. This project documented stories of diverse survivors of GBV, from some of the most marginalized community groups.
The Kafala system, an adaptation of modern slavery, began in the 1950s, an era of booming economic growth in the Middle East. It is an oppressive system which consists of hiring and controlling migrant workers usually coming from South and South East Asia, and Africa. Brought through agencies from their home countries, the migrant workers need to be sponsored by a citizen from the host country, also known as Kafeel, who will be in charge of their legal status and visa. Therefore, the employer have all the power over the worker’s livelihoods, that often leads to human rights violations, including racism and gender-based violence.
The workers have no safety measures and are not protected by any law against labor abuses. They often feel scared of the consequences if they had to speak up about their living conditions. Often locked at home or walking in the shadow of their Kafeel, they have no say in any of the decisions and have no agencies over their lives. The ones who decide to leave their oppressors, in one way or another, as Sari shares in her testimony, find themselves working illegally in the country. After spending years working “freelance”, these workers are still tied to their sponsor, which means they cannot leave the country without their permission and would be rejected at the airport. After the economic crisis that erupted towards the end of 2019, many migrant women were left on the streets as their employers could not pay them anymore. Despite the contract they both signed, stipulating that the employers have to cover the salary, medication, food and a return plane ticket home, the protection of the migrant domestic workers is not guaranteed. Other rights, such as one-day off or the contact with their family, are most of the time ignored.
‘‘There are many girls who are being abused or even killed. They take their passport, they don’t give them food or their salary, no day off, they can barely sleep and are not allowed to go out because they are afraid they would speak up about what is happening. I know a woman, she was locked for 30 years, days and nights’’
However, I have met a few migrant women who were still well paid, others who declared being happy and well treated. After numerous conversations, I realized that, even if they weren’t confronted with physical or mental abuse, they are still seen as migrant workers before being seen as women. No matter what, they should follow the system or walk with their head down not to get into any troubles. While one of them said « We come to a new country, this is not our country. We need to know how to behave ourselves to not be facing challenges or being abused by people », another woman shared that she rather stays alone to avoid discrimination outdoors, even if she is free to go out whenever she needs and is not locked inside by her ‘Madame’ (as they call them and which reminds us of the superior and patronizing approach).
If the Lebanese Ministry of Labor has made proposals to improve labor laws and rights for the migrant domestic workers, they are still on hold, not being judged as a priority amidst all the troubles Lebanon is facing. Despite this lack of interest, a large number of migrant workers, foreigners, and Lebanese people are fighting to abolish the Kafala system, and to raise awareness not only in Lebanon but also the countries participating in this abusive system by sending their citizens through agencies violating human rights.
Whether due to the fear of speaking up, the numerous hours of work they have, or simply their pride, it was not easy for them to share their testimonies. Coming from different backgrounds, from Ethiopia to Sri Lanka, and having experienced opposite situations yet so close and complimentary, their stories and experiences testify the difficulty of their situation, and all the challenges and violations they have to endure.
On a Sunday morning, Flora met her older sister Maria, and her friends Rita, Patricia, and Agnes among other women coming from Kenya, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and Nigeria to the church in Burj Hammoud. They spend their time together singing, laughing, praying and discussing different topics, from racism to work, religion and their lives as migrant women working and living in Lebanon.
Flora opens up about her life, over some 15 years ago, she met her belated husband who moved to Lebanon with a working visa through an agency.
“I came here with my husband, it was hard, but we learned to adapt. We believe that with time, no matter what happens in life, everything will be okay”
They had two daughters, her eldest went to Beth Aleph school, a free kindergarten school for migrant children in Ashrafieh. However, due to the impossibility of registering the kids at a public school, and the high fees of private ones, Flora had to send her daughters back to Africa so they could attend school. Her husband passed away a few years ago, since then she has been sustaining her family by working several jobs, “I have been struggling, and it hasn’t been easy for me especially with the current situation in Lebanon. People don’t pay like before, and I’m all on my own. I have to feed my daughters, to make sure they have everything they need and that they go to school. Also, I have to pay the school fees on a monthly basis.”
Maria reminisces about her early time in Lebanon, “we used to get paid in fresh dollars, but now we aren’t able to do anything with the current crisis, we have to remain strong.” Migrant workers face racial discrimination and exclusion from Lebanese labor laws.
Another migrant woman, who preferred to remain anonymous, explains that today independent workers have to constantly negotiate their prices and sometimes people don’t even want to pay 5$ per hour, while they need to pay rent, transportation, and food to sustain themselves, “I don’t have the same rights as Lebanese people, so nothing is easy. This is one of the many problems we, migrants, are going through. I am an independent woman and I have to work very hard to sustain my family and myself.”
Flora concludes: “The economic crisis is making everybody’s life hard, and there’s racism as well, but we turn our deaf ears to it.” “What else can we do?” Asks Maria, “You can’t change the old generation’s mentality, it’s everywhere not only in Lebanon, but not all people are racists. We believe in God, and we believe that he will grant us the strength to face all obstacles.
Many migrants leave their home countries seeking a better future through working in Lebanon, that some of them consider as the easiest country in the Arab World to access. « In Lebanon, we are allowed to come easily and it is still better than any other Arab countries. We feel more accepted ». Unfortunately, their expectations are far from what they imagined at the first place. Brought through agencies, they have to pay around 200$ to enter the host country where they are directly picked up from the airport and sent either to the agency or to the household. Most of the time, they are deprived of their rights, and confronted with abuse and racism. « They kept our passports and put everybody in the same room. They weren’t feeding us. We had to manage everything by ourselves and we stayed like this until we found a job. They would lock the doors in case we ran away, since they had to sell us », told one of them.
Sari (Sarktelu) was born in 1995 in Ethiopia. In 2011, she came to Lebanon to visit her sister who was already working in a household. When she entered the country, she had to sign a contract she could not understand or even read as it was written in Arabic. In fact, she had no clue she was coming to work. After only 15 days and against her will, she ended up working in the house of her sister’s employer's daughter as a migrant domestic worker and therefore was trapped into the Kafala system.
As the first job she ever experienced by the time, Sari was obliged to give away her passport, wear a uniform, and forced to work, locked in this house. «The only reason I had my own bathroom is because they would be disgusted if I were to use their own» said Sari who was constantly reprimanded by her employers. After a couple of months, she took her passport, 50.000 LL, the equivalent of her salary (33$ at the time) and a picture of her dad. She then picked up the garbage she had to throw outside and ran away. She did not know where she was living and did not know where she was going when she got into that van.
After working in different houses, being harassed and abused by the employers or even by other migrant women, not knowing anything about Lebanon or its system, Sari decided to take control of her life by working independently and finding her own apartment. Despite everything, the only reason she stays in Lebanon is her 6 years old son, Paul, for whom she fights every day to obtain official papers and identity recognition. She said, «As an Ethiopian mother, I can give him my nationality but only if his dad agrees to let go of him. It is very frustrating because in my country, as long as you give birth, your baby takes your nationality. As a woman here in Lebanon, you don’t have any power, you don’t have any rights. Even less as a migrant worker. If you have papers, if you don’t have papers, it doesn’t matter, you are just an object for them. They buy you. It is modern slavery. Like, I have one at home. But we are human beings. »
From “where is your Madam” while playing with her son in a public space to “we don’t want any people from the black community who work as prostitutes” when she visited an apartment in Geitawi, Sari is a victim of racism every day and anywhere she goes. No matter what she does, no matter what she says, everything reminds her she is not accepted and she does not belong here. The only moments she feels safe, is when she’s with her friends and people who like her for who she is.
Today, Sari works actively in an NGO and a coffee shop in Beirut. She is also an activist and brings awareness through videos and articles on social media to reach women in Ethiopia. She explained, «In Ethiopia they don’t know anything. They believe Beirut is amazing because the migrants here are not showing they are vulnerable but that they are having a good time and they support their family by sending money. They drop out of university to come and work here but they end up being enslaved. Agencies in Ethiopia work in the Kafala system. They are not abolishing it because they are benefiting from it, over there and here. They don’t even bring a contract in English... They think it is normal to sign the paper for the work without asking questions but they fall into their trap. They have no idea what is going on, how they have to dress, how many hours they have to work, that their passports are taken away or they won’t have a day off. People are still coming and getting shocked by the reality, and some of them are dying. Some of them are getting killed. I hope the message reaches them and they stop coming because it is really frustrating and hurtful for me to see sisters suffering».
“I feel proud of myself for standing on my ground. I am working, I am raising my child successfully in this difficult country. l always found a way and I would not handle it if i could not. I don’t regret anything and I am who I am today, I have my son and I feel powerful having him.”