The Community Organizing Journey of Lebanon's Migrant Domestic Workers

During a migrant domestic workers march - June 2023 (c) Photo by Mohammad Cheblak

Interview with Salma Sakr, advocacy and communications manager at the Anti-Racism Movement Lebanon.

The Anti-Racism Movement (ARM), a grassroots feminist organization advocating for migrant workers’ rights and solidarity in Lebanon, recently published a report documenting efforts by migrant domestic workers to organize for their rights. This research – covering the period from 1980 to 2022 – marks the first effort to thoroughly document the rich history of community organizing by migrant domestic workers in Lebanon – who numbered an estimated 250,000 in 2016.1International Labor Organization, Intertwined: A Study of Employers of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon, 2016, available at https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---arabstates/---ro-beirut/documents/publication/wcms_524149.pdf  

Like workers in the Gulf, migrant domestic work in Lebanon operates under an exploitative Kafala system. It is not a codified law, but a set of procedures that are based on a law governing the entry and exit of migrant workers in Lebanon and managed by the General Security. In addition to restrictive migration regulations, domestic workers – Lebanese and foreigners alike – are excluded from the Lebanese labor law, leaving this already isolated group of workers vulnerable to exploitation.2Ramy Shukr, Historicizing Migrant Domestic Workers’ Community Organizing and Class Struggle In Lebanon, Anti-Racism Movement, January 2024, available at https://armlebanon.org/chyfonee/2024/01/Historicizing-Migrant-Domestic-Workers-Community-Organizing-and-Class-Struggle-in-Lebanon.pdf

Faced with widespread exploitation, migrant domestic workers in Lebanon have self-organized for years. Initially focused on relief initiatives led by faith and nationality-based organizations with male-centered leadership, the movement evolved as labor dynamics changed. It shifted towards more female-led political organizing that challenges the foundations of the Kafala system with rising attempts to organize across nationalities. This development is non-linear, influenced by crises, conflicts,  Lebanon’s changing political landscape, situations in home countries, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the recent economic collapse. The research maps these different initiatives and draws lessons highlighting challenges, opportunities, and recommendations.

We interviewed Salma Sakr, advocacy, and communications manager at ARMto discuss the findings and explore the domestic workers’ struggle within the broader human rights and social justice movement in Lebanon.

Could you introduce the Anti-Racism Movement in Lebanon (ARM)?

ARM is a feminist grassroots movement launched in 2010 in Beirut, Lebanon. Initially formed as a collective of Lebanese and migrant women, ARM's primary goal was to document and raise awareness about racist policies and incidents through online platforms. Over time, the movement expanded its scope and activities, establishing migrant community centers in various regions of Lebanon, though now primarily operating in Beirut.

One of ARM's core components is the Migrant Community Center, which serves as a physical space for migrant workers, particularly those working as domestic workers. The center facilitates organizing efforts and fosters social bonds among migrants from different nationalities. This is particularly important considering the legal challenges posed by the Kafala system that prohibits the formation of associations and unions headed by migrant workers. The center also provides capacity-building opportunities to equip migrant workers who want to be at the forefront of the fight against the Kafala system with the tools they need.

Another component is the casework team, which provides support on legal and administrative issues related to migrant workers.

The ARM's advocacy team, established in 2019, focuses on research, knowledge production, and campaigns related to migrant workers' rights, with a specific emphasis on challenging the Kafala system. This emphasis on research and advocacy reflects ARM's commitment to addressing systemic issues and archiving the history of the movement.

The newly published research documents the history of migrant domestic workers’ community organizing in Lebanon from 1980 to 2022. Why do you think it is important, especially now, to document this history?

We've been wanting to undertake this research for quite some time now. Given that ARM started as a grassroots organization, we didn't always have the means to extensively archive our activities as we progressed. However, we've always recognized the importance of preserving this history. Some significant events and actions occurred but weren't adequately recorded, so part of our goal now is to retrieve and document this vital knowledge.

In 2023, we finally had the opportunity to dedicate resources to speak with individuals who have been part of migrant domestic workers' organizing efforts over the past 40 years. This research initiative is crucial because, unfortunately, this history hasn't been documented by any other entity.

Moreover, the research sheds light on an often overlooked aspect: migrant domestic workers are frequently viewed solely through a humanitarian lens, neglecting their roles in labor and feminist organizing. Yet their experiences and contributions are an integral part of the anti-racist labor and feminist movements, and it’s imperative that this history is documented and recognized accordingly.

So, we see our research as filling a gap in the history of labor organizing in Lebanon by focusing on the experiences of migrant domestic workers who have attempted to organize under the Kafala system. We decided to focus specifically on community organizing because of the specific constraints of the system but also because ARM puts a strong emphasis on the importance of community organizing. We actively engage with groups and individuals who aspire to organize various initiatives or establish their own groups. It's an area of focus that aligns with our mission and has always been integral to our work.

Can you outline the major milestones in this history: how did community organizing emerge amongst domestic workers, what were significant initiatives, and what forms did this organizing take?

Our research involved creating a timeline of significant events that impacted migrant communities in Lebanon. It all began with the civil war and subsequent economic crises in Southeast Asian countries, which led to an influx of mainly Sri Lankan and Filipino migrant workers to Middle Eastern countries, coinciding with developments in Lebanon’s labor movement. For example, Lebanon always had foreign workers. For a long time, they were Arab workers, mainly Syrians, Egyptians, and Palestinians. Then after the civil war, there were a lot of restrictions on the movement of Syrians and Palestinians. As a result, Lebanese families who were able to afford foreign workers started using recruitment agencies so they could find someone who doesn't speak Arabic. This was the political situation at the time, and this is when the migration flow increased.

Initially, migrant organizing was primarily facilitated by faith-based groups, organized around nationalities such as Sri Lankan, Filipino, Bangladeshi, and others. These groups initially focused on aid and social activities, not intending to become political or labor movements. However, as time progressed, there was a noticeable shift towards politicization and addressing specific needs and demands of migrant domestic workers.

Early organizing efforts were often led by male figures, such as pastors or community leaders. However, this dynamic gradually changed, and many groups in Lebanon became predominantly female-led, with a specific focus on supporting migrant women.

The origins of this organizing can be traced back to the exclusion experienced by migrant workers, both politically and within relief efforts. For instance, in light of the recent Gaza war, we started reviewing the situation of migrant workers in the Lebanon-Israeli war in 2006. As expected, migrant workers were marginalized and lacked support, highlighting the need to self-organize and be self-sufficient.

What were some of the major obstacles that migrants faced in trying to organize?

Several significant obstacles hindered efforts by migrants to organize. Firstly, the nature of domestic work itself posed a challenge, as domestic workers lack a common workplace where they can gather and organize collectively. Unlike other industries where workers share working conditions and spaces, domestic workers often work in closed households, making organizing more complex.

Additionally, legal constraints played a significant role. Migrant workers do not have the legal right to organize in Lebanon, which not only made organizing efforts illegal but also imposed limitations on funding opportunities as many donors require formal registration for funding support.

Moreover, migrant organizing faced marginalization within the broader Lebanese labor and feminist movements. This exclusion limited the support and recognition of migrant organizing efforts by groups that should have been natural allies.

The isolation of migrant organizing in the region from the broader labor movements had a direct impact on how their struggle was framed. For instance, the conditions of migrant domestic workers were often framed as humanitarian issues, detracting from its political dimensions and further isolating migrant organizing efforts from broader labor questions. These challenges collectively contributed to the non-political perception of migrant organizing and its reduction to a humanitarian issue.

Despite facing unjust legal systems, restrictive working conditions, and socio-economic challenges, migrant workers in Lebanon have demonstrated remarkable solidarity, mutual aid, and community organizing. What do you see as the key factors that have facilitated this organizing?

There are several key factors that have facilitated community organizing among migrant workers in Lebanon despite the numerous challenges they face. One crucial factor was the establishment of the first Migrant Community Center in 2011. This provided a non-nationality-based space that encouraged organizing efforts, fostering a sense of solidarity among various groups. The center played a pivotal role in enabling migrant workers to come together and collectively address their concerns. The research highlighted the important role played by the presence of physical meeting places that are feminist and safe. This shared experience created a strong bond that propelled collective action and organizing efforts.

Additionally, the attempt to form a union in 2015 had a significant impact.3In 2015, an attempt to form a union was supported by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Trade Union Federation (ITUC), and the Federation of Trade Unions of Workers and Employees (FENASOL). It succeeded to gather approximately 350 domestic workers from various nationalities but was denouned as illegal by the labor minister at that time. The union continued its efforts to work informally and push for its legalization. However, it faced many challenges including the fact that it was headed by a Lebanese male. While the efforts to unionize faced challenges, this still helped politicize the cause and encouraged many groups to organize and advocate for their rights. Despite the union's shortcomings, it sparked a wave of activism and led to the formation of several groups focused on migrant workers' rights.

Feminist organizations also played a crucial role in solidifying the idea that the migrant issue is not merely humanitarian but fundamentally political. Collaborating with these feminist spaces helped shift the narrative and focus on addressing the root causes of migrant workers' struggles.

Moreover, the changing immigration flows and demographics of the migrants in Lebanon have also influenced the organizing landscape. The shifts in nationalities of the migrants over the years, with an influx of migrants from Central and Western Africa, have altered the dynamics as the focus of the struggle has evolved from primarily class-based issues to encompassing racial and intersectional challenges, reflecting the changing composition of migrant communities in Lebanon.

The report highlights recurring challenges such as leadership vacuums and governance issues in decision-making structures for the migrant movements. From your perspective, how are these challenges currently being addressed or manifested within the movement? Are there any other significant challenges that the movement is grappling with today?

The research revealed a prevalent pattern wherein many groups were reliant on one individual for leadership. Usually, the issue is showcased when this “leader” grows old, leaves the country, or is deported, leading to a leadership vacuum or the dissolution of the group. This highlighted the need to reassess and question the effectiveness of one-person leadership models within migrant movements.

Newer groups are actively learning from these challenges and shifting their focus towards establishing structured decision-making processes that involve collective input rather than being centered around a single leader, particularly emphasizing the involvement of groups of people or women. This shift reflects a generational change where younger migrants, exposed to diverse events and experiences, are responding differently to community issues and are more inclined towards fostering migrant-led initiatives and groups.

Beyond leadership and governance, migrant movements face additional challenges. One significant challenge is what we refer to as the 'NGO-ization' of community organizing efforts, a problem highlighted during discussions with various groups. When NGOs get involved, they often come with good intentions and financial resources. However, as they work with grassroots groups, there's a tendency for them to impose an NGO structure and operational model on these groups, which can lead to various problems. This issue became particularly prominent in newer groups, reflecting the recent surge of interest and support for migrant-led initiatives. These groups may find themselves adopting systems that they did not actively choose or that may not suit their specific needs, highlighting the challenges posed by the 'NGO-ization' phenomenon. Additionally, organizing across different nationalities remains difficult due to linguistic and cultural barriers, especially for groups not organized around nationality.

Moreover, the Kafala system exacerbates divisions among workers as it has created categories of workers, perpetuating stereotypes and hierarchies that hinder collective organizing efforts. Kafala employs the strategy of “divide and conquer”. For example, it perpetuated for years the stereotype of Filipino workers being better than Ethiopian workers and thus deserving better working conditions. This leads to divisions and fragmentation within the migrant community.

The issue of honorary consulates [often a Lebanese national acting as representatives for migrant workers’ countries due to ties this Lebanese may have to that country] presents a distinct challenge. Following the 2019 crisis, which saw significant mobilization around repatriation, many migrant workers sought to return to their home countries, particularly after the Beirut port explosion in 2020. During this period, organizing efforts were primarily directed toward addressing the actions – or lack thereof – of honorary consulates.

We are currently conducting research specifically focused on honorary consulates due to their intriguing institutional nature. These consulates, typically headed by Lebanese men, are tasked with representing the interests of migrant women. However, they lack accountability mechanisms and are often perceived to exploit their positions for financial gain. This lack of accountability and potential misuse of power complicates organizing efforts against them.

Moreover, honorary consuls often hold political positions in Lebanon, granting them the connections and links to make arrests and deportations of migrants who may criticize them or whom they deem problematic. While not all honorary consulates exhibit problematic behavior, a significant number of them unfortunately work against the interests of the minorities they are supposed to represent or protect. This dynamic further adds to the challenges faced by migrant movements in Lebanon.

How has the economic crisis in Lebanon affected the movement?

The economic crisis in Lebanon has had a profound impact on the movement. After the crisis, organizing efforts shifted towards relief, humanitarian aid, and repatriation, sidelining the political dimension once again. The inability to meet basic needs hindered political organizing, leading to a resurgence of nationality-based organizing during the protests of migrant workers in 2020 and 2021 which were heavily focused on demands for repatriation.

Before the crisis, there was a trend for organizing across nationalities, but the economic downturn redirected attention towards nationality-specific needs, influenced by various factors such as the situation in the country of origin, the pandemic, and differences in diplomatic representations. This shift disrupted organizing efforts that had been ongoing before 2019.

Despite these challenges, many groups persevered and continued organizing, with new groups emerging as well. The worsening situation highlighted the necessity of organizing to respond to the crises, as there was a realization that external assistance may not be forthcoming. This sentiment was particularly evident after the Beirut port explosion, where migrant workers were excluded from reconstruction efforts. There isn’t even a record of the number of migrant workers killed or affected by the explosion.

The exclusionary practices persisted during the pandemic, with migrant workers who no longer had valid residency permits or were in a precarious legal situation being excluded from vaccination programs, further marginalizing a significant portion of the migrant population. This exclusion served as a catalyst for organizing efforts, as communities realized the imperative of organizing for their own rights and needs in the face of systemic neglect and discrimination.

What are the key priorities and demands for the movements today?

Today we have more groups with targeted or specialized focus. For example, there are groups focusing on organizing migrant mothers, others are organizing across ethnic lines, such as black women and not migrant women in general. Another rising issue of interest is the organizing of “freelance” migrant domestic workers [migrant women whose papers may be tied to a particular employer or whose legal residency expired but who in practice work for many employers and often live independently]. Additionally, there are groups dedicated to mutual aid, humanitarian assistance, and advocacy, reflecting the multifaceted nature of the movement's activities.

A notable development is the increase in efforts focused on countries of origin. These initiatives aim to raise awareness by migrants returning to their home countries about the conditions in Lebanon and encourage pre-departure organizing and support for potential newcomers. The level of networking is unprecedented and is proving to be highly effective. Organizations like DoWan, which assist workers from Sierra Leone before and after their migration to countries with the Kafala system, showcase the effectiveness and the promising nature of such pre-departure initiatives.

In general, inclusion remains a paramount priority for the movement, encompassing inclusion within the labor movement and legal frameworks, as well as within the broader feminist movement. Addressing exclusionary practices is a central demand, particularly concerning labor rights such as the absence of a minimum wage for migrant domestic workers. Before the crisis, an informal adoption of a salary range dominated the informal “contractual” expectations, whereas the post-crisis saw salaries unregulated, creating a labor rights issue affecting various sectors, including migrant workers.

How would you characterize the relationship between the migrant domestic worker movement and the broader human rights movement (including women’s rights and feminist movements) as well as the labor movement in Lebanon and the region? Are there instances of collaboration, shared demands, or intersecting mobilizations?

ARM’s position is that the issues faced by migrant domestic workers should not be solely categorized as human rights issues but rather as systemic problems that require political action and intervention. This perspective, however, has been somewhat lacking in the feminist movement until recent years.

The relationship between the migrant domestic worker movement and the broader human rights movement, particularly the feminist movement, has seen some improvement in recent years but remains exclusionary to a considerable extent. This exclusion resurfaced during recent attempts to organize by multiple Lebanese feminist and queer groups, such as during a feminist demonstration in July 2022 in response to the Minister of the Interior's decision to ban all pride events and amid an increase in crimes against women in the region. Despite intending to be inclusive of migrant women, Lebanese feminists fell short in their efforts by not providing for language diversity during meetings. This oversight would have catered to migrant women who do not speak Arabic.

In the labor movement context in Lebanon, challenges persist, with labor organizing, already fragmented and weak, often being based on nationality and prioritizing Lebanese workers. This situation has been exacerbated by the economic crisis, leading to heightened competition for jobs and increased tensions. This tension is often targeted at Syrian refugees/workers but also affects all categories of migrant workers.

Additionally, the cessation of organizing around the Women's Day march after the pandemic has affected coordination and collaboration between migrant groups and the feminist movement. However, there are emerging signs of solidarity, particularly following the Gaza war, which have highlighted shared struggles among Palestinian women, Sudanese women, and migrant women in Lebanon.

Efforts to build solidarity and collaboration across these movements are still in their early stages, with collaborations primarily focused on specific projects rather than comprehensive and sustained partnerships. Moving forward, there is potential for greater Global South solidarity and a shift towards addressing collective struggles rather than being divided along national and issue-based lines. However, these efforts require further clarity and are still in their early stages.

In terms of future efforts, the research notes that this is the first attempt to document this history. Are there any forthcoming initiatives in the pipeline? What do you see as priorities for the next phase of work?

In terms of future initiatives, there are several forthcoming efforts that we're planning to undertake based on the findings of the research and the ongoing developments in Lebanon's migrant worker landscape.

One of the primary initiatives is to delve deeper into understanding the Lebanese economy as an institution and how it shapes and categorizes different types of workers. This examination is crucial in comprehending how labor fragmentation occurs and how it poses challenges to organizing and fostering solidarity within the movement. Specifically, we're focusing on unraveling the political economy of migrant labor in Lebanon. This entails analyzing the intricate web of economic policies, labor regulations, and social dynamics that influence the experiences and rights of migrant workers in the country.

Moreover, we recognize the interconnectedness of various issues affecting migrant workers, such as the Kafala system and the rights of Syrian workers. Our next phase of work involves linking these disparate yet interconnected issues to form a more comprehensive advocacy framework.

Additionally, recent events like the Gaza war have underscored the importance of solidarity among women from diverse backgrounds facing similar struggles rooted in colonial and exploitative systems. Building on this realization, we're working towards fostering a movement that emphasizes solidarity and collective action against common adversaries.

Overall, our priorities for the next phase of work revolve around deepening our understanding of the political economy shaping migrant labor, forging strategic links between different issues affecting migrant workers, and building a movement grounded in solidarity and collective resistance against systemic injustices.

Endnotes

Endnotes
1 International Labor Organization, Intertwined: A Study of Employers of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon, 2016, available at https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---arabstates/---ro-beirut/documents/publication/wcms_524149.pdf  
2 Ramy Shukr, Historicizing Migrant Domestic Workers’ Community Organizing and Class Struggle In Lebanon, Anti-Racism Movement, January 2024, available at https://armlebanon.org/chyfonee/2024/01/Historicizing-Migrant-Domestic-Workers-Community-Organizing-and-Class-Struggle-in-Lebanon.pdf
3 In 2015, an attempt to form a union was supported by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Trade Union Federation (ITUC), and the Federation of Trade Unions of Workers and Employees (FENASOL). It succeeded to gather approximately 350 domestic workers from various nationalities but was denouned as illegal by the labor minister at that time. The union continued its efforts to work informally and push for its legalization. However, it faced many challenges including the fact that it was headed by a Lebanese male.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.