A History of Migrant Worker Organization in Lebanon: Report by ARM

The Anti-Racism Movement (ARM) in Lebanon released a new report titled “Historicizing Migrant Domestic Workers’ Community Organizing and Class Struggle in Lebanon”, containing decades of migrant domestic worker (MDW) community organizing and includes reflections upon such experiences by MDW rights activists.

The report is “the first historical overview of community organizations and groups formed by migrant domestic workers in Lebanon from 1980 to 2022”, as stated by ARM in their Instagram post.

“In this research paper, we reflect on the journeys that migrant women have embarked on to build their communities, whilst they’re away from home, and to unite and contribute towards stronger labor movements,” they added.

With a heavy reliance on literature reviews and interviews with MDWs for data collection, the report begins with a general overview of the history of Kafala system in Lebanon and the Middle East, a description of components of Lebanon’s political economy which have reinforced the system, and an overall look at how Kafala has evolved throughout the years.

The report examines the timperiod between the 1980’s and 2010’s, with the addition of the timeperiod between 2020 and 2022. Through focusing on this timeframe, the report contextualizes organizational typology through these periods against the background of Lebanon’s changing sociopolitical dynamics.

The report also includes a substantial section on different reflections on MDW community organizing in Lebanon by MDW rights activists, and ends with a recommendations section targeted at people supporting MDW community organizing and migrant-led community organizations themselves.

Unequal Political Economy: Cheap labour in exchange for minimal rights

The report sheds light on the historic rise in demand for migrant domestic workers in Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war and the need for “low-skilled labor” during this time as the Lebanese economy began to heavily suffer with the onset of the war.

As part of the practical nature of the Kafala system, exploitation in Lebanon – similarly to Gulf States – relies on a series of restrictions on MDW rights such as passport confiscation, curfews, absent rest days and a lack of protection.

The report details how the migrant domestic work sector, through the provision of cheap labour, has risen to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in profit for a large network of actors, often at their own personal expense.

It is estimated that in 2016, one quarter of Lebanese households were employing a MDW. Such a development is attributed to the involvement of numerous powerful actors in maintaining such a cartel, a repeated undermining of Lebanese labor unions and worker organizational endeavors which already host considerable gender inequalities, and the lack of recognition of MDW work as “real work.”

In response to the inequality and discrimination experienced by migrant workers, workers began to organize between 1980 and 2022 to create communities within themselves. Several developments and notable organizations dedicated to MDW community organization emerged, including:

Kerala Welfare Association (1986) – the Afro-Asian Migrant Center (1987) – Laksehta (1988) – Seela Samadhi Ekamuthuwa Sangam – Mahindasri and Malkanthi (1990s) –  the Tamil People Association (1996) – the Pastoral Committee of Asian African Migrants (PCAAM) (1997) – the Filippino Basketball Leage (1990s) – the Sri Lankan Welfare Association (1999) – the Sri Lankan Women’s Association (1990s) – Samaham Mangagawa (SMB Group) (2000 -2018) – African United Communities in Lebanon (AUCL) – the Migrant Community Center (2011) – NARI (2012 – 2016) – Mesewat (2014) – the Migrant Domestic Workers’ Union (2015) – the Alliance of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon (April 2016) – Egna Legna (2017) – Together Forever (2017), the Domestic Workers Advocacy Network – DoWAN Unite (2019) – The Kenyan Hope Community (2020) – Rhantnadip Migrant Society Center (2021) – Regroupement des Migrant.e.s de l’Afrique Noire – REMAN (2022) – VONWAIL (2022).

While many of these groups advocated for better work conditions and inclusion under the labour law, political negligence over the years has led to minimal progress in this regard. 

Reflections on MDW Community Organizing in Lebanon

The report highlights a number of reflections on MDW community organizing through the interviews conducted with MDWs’ rights activists, many of whom are migrant workers themselves.

One of the many reflections on community organizing included the overcoming of the isolating nature of domestic work, which is generally perpetuated as a result of the lack of absent days, holidays, and curfews. 

MDWs build a sense of commitment to one another despite political or social differences, making community building not only a means to an end, but an end in itself.

The reflections highlight that while informality is a challenge to the organizations’ sustainability, formality can also come with its own challenges to internal cohesion. 

In addition, interviewees reflected on the use of alternative tools for labor organizing given the lack of official unions in Lebanon, with the report centering the class element of labor struggles.

In addition to the many restrictions and overall violence against MDWs, matters are rendered worse as honorary consulates in country-of-origin embassies generally work against MDWs’ interests in Lebanon. 

This is a result of rampant corruption and the prioritization of profit, which was most clearly demonstrated during the onset of the pandemic in 2020. In one instance, dozens of Kenyan migrant workers were left to camp outside the consulate in Badaro following the August 4 blast.

The workers demanded immediate repatriation after the situation had become very dire. Multiple women said they were exploited, verbally abused or physically assaulted by the consul, Sayed Chalouhi, and his assistant, Kassem Jaber.

The government did little to help, and the surrounding community instead came together to aid the women in seeking repatriation.

Afterwards, reflections included the challenge of “finding a way to care for long-term community organizers as they age or get deported”, who are often left with little to no money and/or health issues, not to mention the difficulties of returning to one’s home country after decades abroad.

Finally, reflections highlight the risk of deportation and the worry of “upsetting the wrong Lebanese citizen”, especially given the practical difficulties of adhering to General Security legal paperwork requirements which leave many MDWs in Lebanon to be considered “irregular.”

As of 2024, the number of MDWs in Lebanon has significantly reduced, with estimations indicating that around half have left the country. At a time of high security and economic precarity, solidarity among those living in Lebanon is desperately needed.