Julia Soanirina is one of the founders of the Migrant Domestic Workers Alliance, an association working for the rights of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. Born in Madagascar, she came to this country in 1996 through her older sister, who had left to work before her. She says that migrating “was the only option she had,” as job opportunities in Madagascar were and are scarce. Since arriving in Lebanon, she has always worked for the same family and says that, despite the difficulties, it is in this country that she has built herself as a trade unionist and activist. “The conditions in which we migrant domestic workers live in Lebanon have pushed me to show the hidden face of our work.”
In Lebanon, in addition to being tied to a labor system – the Kafala system – that does not respect the rights of women workers, she has had to deal with racism and classism. However, she does not have in mind, for the time being, to return to her home country. “In Madagascar life is difficult and working here I can help my family. There it is very complicated to have a salary like the one I have here; and I don’t have any degree. The last time I went back was in 2014. Then, with the outbreak of the pandemic, everything became difficult. Madagascar has been closed for a whole year. It also became very complicated to go back to Lebanon, even if I had a visa. It was risky to leave the country.” For these workers, returning to their country of origin is a challenge, an unknown.
The story of migrant domestic workers is a story of struggle, and Julia Soanirina insists: she does not want anyone to speak for them, because they are the ones who have to explain their own story. “It is us who live like this, no one else. We are the ones who spend 24 hours with our employers and in 24 hours a lot of things happen. Things that we have to continue to explain.
The Kafala system, a system to be abolished
Under the Kafala system – widespread in Lebanon and other Arab countries – the lives of migrant domestic workers are tied to their employers, who function as sponsors. Contracts can only be terminated with the consent of the employing families, and the moment they are dismissed, the workers lose their visas and become undocumented. This situation exposes them not only to constant abuse by the employer families, but also to an unjust law that provides for imprisonment and forced deportation for those who find themselves in an irregular situation within the country.
This deeply rooted system of sponsorship has, over the years, caused the situation of these women to degrade to unsuspected limits. For years, social networks have been full of testimonies of migrant women domestic workers in this country explaining their experiences of constant abuse: excessively long working hours, denial of rest days, delay in the payment of wages, confiscation of passports, dismissal without cause, deprivation of liberty, physical and psychological abuse or denial of medical assistance are some examples.
The evidence of this situation, in addition to being collected in the testimonies of many female employees, is amply documented in the report Their house is my prison: Exploitation of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon, published by Amnesty International in 2019. Although more than three years have passed, the present is unchanged, even worsening, due to the social and economic crisis Lebanon is experiencing. The conditions of these workers have also been shown in reports in different international media. In one published by journalist Natalia Sancha in 2018 in El País, a testimony is collected that attests to the conditions in which these women work: “Every two weeks we have to repatriate the body of an Ethiopian woman. Most of them have fallen from the balcony of the home where they worked as maids or committed suicide. Fewer have died in a traffic accident,” Wahide Belay Abitew, the Ethiopian consul in Lebanon at the time, assured the journalist.
In February 2022, Meseret Hailu, an Ethiopian migrant, succeeded in bringing her employer to justice for abuse, as well as the agency that had mediated her recruitment. An unprecedented case that opens the door to justice for these workers, who day after day continue to demand their rights and fight for the Lebanese government to look after their interests by adopting fair labor laws and ratifying ILO Convention 189 of 2011. Lebanon, a country of nearly seven million people and some 250,000 migrant domestic workers, has not ratified ILO Convention 189, which provides specific protection for domestic workers. It sets out basic rights and principles, and requires states to take a series of measures to make decent work a reality for these workers.
Migrant Domestic Workers Alliance, a space for mutual care
The Migrant Domestic Workers Alliance was born in 2016, the result of a split from an association of domestic workers working on a broader scope. It is made up of migrant women working in Lebanon as domestic workers; most of them from the Philippines, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Madagascar or Sri Lanka. The bulk of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are Ethiopian, but they have their own association.
The association aims to empower migrant women domestic workers, to give them the necessary tools to fight for their labor rights and to make a common front against the Kafala system. It works on collective and individual empowerment through feminist solidarity and a mutual care system to take on challenges in a communitarian way.
Unified standard contract, recommended but not binding
In 2020, a unified standard contract was adopted with the aim of protecting these domestic workers – it guarantees their wages and accommodation, prohibits the employer from withholding the workers’ wages and confiscating their passports, establishes a weekly day of rest and exempts the worker from paying the costs of their employment, among others – however, the contract is not binding and there is no mechanism to ensure its implementation. Not only that: testimonies of abuse of these women by their employers’ families have increased considerably since the outbreak of the pandemic and during confinement, as documented by Amnesty International.
Although Julia Soanirina and the Migrant Domestic Workers Alliance actively participated in the drafting of the unified standard contract, the outcome was not as expected, and the document that was adopted did not respond to the workers’ demands. “Since we cannot abolish the Kafala system, we had hoped that we could work on a document to improve our situation, but the proposal we submitted was rejected. There are currently three contracts, but they are not binding: the 2009 contract (old), the 2020 contract and the one proposed by the Migrant Domestic Workers Alliance,” Soanirina explains.
Lebanon hit by economic crisis
Lebanon is currently experiencing one of the worst economic crises in recent decades. The devaluation of the local currency due to the fall in the exchange rate, as well as the outbreak of the pandemic, together with the explosions that took place in the port of Beirut in August 2020, led to the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his entire cabinet in August 2020. Since then, the country has been plunged into a deep economic crisis, with the vulnerable and vulnerable people bearing the brunt of the consequences. By 2020, the Lebanese pound had lost more than 60% of its market value, and the situation seems far from recovering.
Currently, and according to the latest World Bank reports, youth unemployment has almost doubled compared to before the economic crisis, reaching 40%. This economic collapse and the context of political instability are causing many young Lebanese to emigrate.
As far as migrant domestic workers are concerned, this situation has considerably worsened their living conditions. Many employers now pay the workers in Lebanese pounds, which means that they lose part of their wages.
Various national and international NGOs have long been calling for the Ministry of Labor to create an inspection unit to monitor the conditions under which migrant women working in the domestic sector work, as well as mechanisms to take action against abusive employers. However, it seems that this is not one of the Lebanese government’s priorities.
What was your first contact with activism?
In my community, when I was still living in Madagascar. When I saw how things worked. In Lebanon, I started working with an NGO and my activism grew from there. I used to work with that NGO until we decided to found the Migrant Domestic Workers Alliance. Talking is sharing, and that’s what we do.
When was the Migrant Domestic Workers Alliance born?
In 2016. We created a union in 2015 with other domestic workers, but after a year of work, we realized we were losing power. We started from scratch with migrant workers only.
Where are the women of the Migrant Domestic Workers Alliance from?
There are many women from the Philippines, Cameroon, Madagascar, Ivory Coast, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Ethiopian women, who are also very numerous, have their own association.
Are there many differences between the struggle of Lebanese domestic workers and migrant domestic workers?
Yes, that’s why we specialize. The perspective is not the same. When we arrived, we started from scratch. One of our Filipina leaders was deported when she was going to renew her papers. She was given one week to leave Lebanon. Otherwise, she would have been imprisoned. It was very sad. We cannot expose ourselves too much for security reasons. Even the NGOs here can’t do much for us, so we are even more afraid.
Has your activism at work harmed you?
I have worked for the same family since I arrived in 1996. First I was with the mother and now I am with the daughter. My employer doesn’t know too much about my activism, because I don’t tell her. It could get me in trouble, but she knows I’m into it.
Do you explain the Kafala system to girls who are new to the Migrant Domestic Workers Alliance?
Yes, we teach them in the workshops we organize. You have to think about the challenges faced by people who migrate: many of them have not been to school much, they don’t speak the language, they can’t read well. There is a significant language barrier. The government doesn’t want to abolish this system and the girls don’t know about their rights. In the workshops we explain it to them and they ask us what they don’t understand.
And what do they tell them?
Don’t leave jobs without asking; because without a work permit, the law is not on our side. Even if we are victims, we are treated like criminals.
What is the main fear?
To being deported. That is the main fear but also the main reason why we continue to fight. After the explosion, 25% of the domestic workers who worked here left. It is not easy to stay, so now we are rebuilding the alliance with new workers.
What kind of assistance does the Migrant Domestic Workers Alliance provide?
Since the explosion, we have been distributing food and medicine, and also helping with some money. A French journalist helps us with fundraising. We work with allied associations that get us medicines and we share what we have.
They also conduct training workshops.
Yes, for example soap. They are so that each one can start her own business in case she wants to return to her home of origin. The objective of the workshops is to provide tools for work and for life.
How do the current economic crisis conditions in Lebanon affect migrant domestic workers?
We are going through a major crisis. In fact, it is a triple crisis: the post-blast crisis, the Covid crisis and the economic crisis. This affects us a lot. There are colleagues who have lost their jobs and many of them have been owed their salaries for a year. On the other hand, we have started to be paid in local currency, not in US dollars, as had been the case until now. If we are paid in lira, we lose part of our salary, because it is so devalued. I told my employer: ‘I can’t do anything with lira, I can’t send it to my country. She agreed to continue paying me in dollars, but she reduced my salary. After 21 years I don’t think about moving, because everything is very difficult here, and finding someone to sponsor you is not easy.
What are the living conditions like for a migrant domestic worker at the moment?
Bad ones. Some of them are locked up at home and don’t even have a day off. Now, with the crisis, everything has gotten worse. Employers buy less food for the employees, hence the food aid. We lack basic foodstuffs. Everything is very expensive.
How have you dealt with racism and classism?
Racism here is seen in a direct way. When I arrived, my employer forced me to wear my uniform even to go shopping. One of the first times, some children started to say something to me in Arabic. I didn’t understand and when I got home, I asked the employer. It meant ‘donkey’. I didn’t understand anything, why were they talking to me like that, why were they insulting me? Later I realized that nobody wanted to sit next to me on the bus, even when it was full. People don’t want to sit next to black people. The Lebanese, the Turks, the Kurds, the Syrians? They are all white. We black people are the migrants, the last ones. We do not exist. For them we are the ones who clean toilets and have no value. Even now there are stores where, when you enter, they ask you if you have money to pay. In many others they don’t even let you in and from the door they ask you to leave.
In October 2019, the Philippine Embassy organized a mass repatriation of 52 female Filipino employees in Lebanon.
The Philippine embassy is very supportive of its workers. For me, it is one of the best embassies because it puts conditions on the hiring of Filipino staff. It has bilateral agreements with the Lebanese government. The salary for Filipino workers is better and if the employer mistreats them, they can report it to the embassy.
Have you thought about reporting a case to the courts?
We do not take cases to court because we do not have lawyers. However, we do send some cases to other NGOs that do have lawyers. Our association is not registered at the governmental level, because as migrants, we do not have that right. We are not registered, but we exist; and many people know us and support us!