Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon organize for economic justice

“[Lebanese employers] categorize us as the lowest of the low in terms of

social class. “Domestic worker” becomes our class, and it is as if

we cannot go beyond a certain social standard” – Julia

On January 28, 2017, the Lebanese General Security deported Roja Limbu, a Nepalese migrant domestic worker, activist, and unionist. Only a month and a half before Roja’s deportation, her colleague, Sujana Rana, had experienced the same predicament. Despite having legal papers, both migrant domestic workers had been arbitrarily arrested from their employers’ homes in late November and detained in an old parking under a bridge turned into an immigrant detention facility in part of Beirut called, Adlieh.

The Kafala or “sponsorship” system ties migrant domestic workers to their employers, limits their freedom of mobility and access to justice, and denies them their bodily autonomy and integrity. Lebanese authorities have ferociously thwarted migrant domestic workers who have been organizing and mobilizing their community against this system. In addition to the authorities’ imminent threats of detention and deportation, the Lebanese Ministry of Labor rejected the legitimacy of the migrant domestic workers’ trade union, formed in 2015.

The complicity of the Lebanese authorities with “maid” agencies and trafficking of migrant domestic workers make domestic and care work a profitable industry that feeds into the capitalist interests of the Lebanese state.

“Care is […] extracted from the sending nation to the receiving nation at a great loss for the former” (Shahvisi 11). In their current format, care economies are intrinsically woven in the fabric of capitalism. They capitalize on global economic injustice and inequalities. Many women who migrate to countries such as Lebanon to engage in domestic work find themselves stuck in a lifetime of servitude; they provide care for other women’s children, a care that their own children lack back at home.

With “domestic worker” becoming a class of its own, migrant domestic workers are either hypersexualized in the public sphere, in some instances, by their employers who perceive them as sexual objects, or at other times, stripped of their sexuality altogether when sex and intimacy are a matter of agency. The Ministry of Justice issued a decree urging employers to ensure that the migrant domestic workers they employ do not engage in any type of amorous or sexual relationship.

The commodification of care economies is “facilitated by carefully maintained racism” towards migrant domestic workers (Shahvisi 11). Xenophobia and racism are at the heart of class and labor injustices. Global and local economic orders are not the only forces with which migrant domestic workers have to contend with.

Despite their longstanding activism and history of community mobilizing, migrant domestic workers are always treated as inferior to their Lebanese counterparts, even in more radical or activist circles. Human rights organizations often appropriate their struggles and treat them as subjects of research or as a means of attracting funding. They are seldom perceived as allies, specifically because of the precariousness of their economic and legal situation.

Recognizing Lebanese institutions and entities, whether feminist or not, as the “white” counterpart to migrant domestic workers is a first step towards social justice for migrant domestic workers, and a big leap towards decolonizing care economies. Another step would be to revisit feminist solidarity, acknowledging our positionality as allies, and to support migrant domestic workers’ activism from the margins, rather than from the frontlines.

This Our blog appears in South Feminist Voices and is tagged with Lebanon, Economic justice.