‘Part of the Family’

Helen Sullivan

Earlier this month, on a Lebanese variety show called Menna W Jerr, a man performed a skit dressed in blackface – he wore a braided, beaded wig – and a domestic worker’s uniform. In the sketch, the overworked domestic worker berates her employer for complaining that he has no money, and constant headaches, but meanwhile ‘has fun with’ his wife every night. The audience laughed, but one of the show’s judges, the Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef, spoke out against the portrayal. There was no need for blackface, he said, and the sketch was especially insensitive considering the system under which most domestic workers in Lebanon are employed. The programme issued an apology on Twitter, saying it meant no harm to domestic workers, whom ‘we consider part of the family.’

Kafala (the word means ‘sponsorship’ in Arabic) is used in several countries across the Middle East; the workers who died building the World Cup stadiums in Qatar were recruited under it, for example. In Lebanon, an estimated quarter of a million domestic workers are employed under the system; almost all of them are women. Half are Ethiopian, others come from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or the Philippines. Their employers act as sponsors; their residency is dependent on their employment; and they are not protected by labour laws.

In many cases, they live in the apartments they work in. Only half have their own rooms, according to an International Labour Organisation survey; others sleep in the kitchen, living-room or on enclosed balconies. The ILO survey also found that a quarter of migrant domestic workers reported being locked inside the house ‘either always or sometimes’. They may be deprived of food, access to cellphones, medical care, and their passports.

In August 2008, Human Rights Watch reported that 95 migrant domestic workers had died in Lebanon since January 2007. Forty of the deaths were classified by embassies as suicide, and ‘24 others were caused by workers falling from high buildings, often while trying to escape their employers.’

The same week that Menna W Jerr’s sketch was aired, a thousand Filipino migrant workers, mostly women, went to the Philippines Embassy in Beirut to register for a free repatriation scheme, offered in response to the way Lebanon’s ‘trying times’ – a diplomatic euphemism for the country’s economic crisis – are affecting some of its most vulnerable residents.

In October, the economic crisis – and the corruption that underpins it – sparked protests that have continued across the country. Meanwhile, the Lebanese lira is still officially pegged to the US dollar, but in reality is rapidly losing value. Most domestic workers send three-quarters of their salary home: 40 per cent of Lebanon’s migrant domestic workers are parents; almost none have their children with them in Lebanon. Those paid in lira face losing a third of the value of their pay. On average, they earn $180 a month.

It’s women’s work, after all. According to the United Nations Development Programme’s Gender Development Index, Lebanese women’s Gross National Income is a quarter that of their male counterparts. The World Economic Forum Gender Gap report ranks Lebanon 140th out of 149 countries (just above Saudi Arabia), and third last on women’s political empowerment (only six of its 128 MPs are women). In one of the world’s most unequal nations – Lebanon’s overall GINI coefficient puts it 129th out of 141 countries – women are less equal still.

In Beirut, at eight o’clock most nights, women protest by banging pots and pans in their homes. In the streets below, one of the chants is: ‘Those who are on your balconies, come down and find your people here.’ But as the Lebanese journalist Joey Ayoub wrote in the Addis Standard in November, ‘quite often those who are on balconies are migrant domestic workers who are expected to stay in their Lebanese sponsors’ houses.’ Since then, however, the street has taken up their cause. On 7 December, as Lebanese women marched through Beirut protesting against sexual harassment, they called for an end to the kafala system, too.