From helping to collective organizing: Insights from women migrant domestic workers in Lebanon

From helping to collective organizing: Insights from women migrant domestic workers in Lebanon

May Adra and Sawsan Abdulrahim | 1 February 2023

May Adra and Sawsan Abdulrahim of American University of Beirut share insights from a participatory action research study with women migrant domestic workers in Lebanon

It was a rainy Saturday morning at the Migrant Community Center (MCC) under the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM) in Achrafieh, Beirut. We sat in a circle with nine women domestic migrant workers (WMDWs) from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nepal, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka who had come to Lebanon. The session was part of a four-day training for a participatory action research (PAR) study on how women migrant workers in Lebanon organize to support one another and how social relations can mitigate exploitation and abuse. PAR is a research method that brings together researchers and community participants to jointly understand a problem and develop a research-based solution to focus on social change and on the needs of a particular group. The method involves research, action, and reflection where participants themselves are agents of their own stories and experiences and their ideas are infused during every step of the research process. For this study, migrant workers were trained as co-researchers who would interview other migrant workers, translate the transcripts, and analyze the findings as integral members of the research team.

Building trust and community is important in any type of training facilitation, especially in a PAR study, so we began every session with storytelling games and theatre exercises to get to know each other. Once everyone became comfortable, we shifted to more serious topics. Although the migrant workers shared difficult experiences and stories of abuse about themselves and other women they know, conversations organically transitioned to how they strategized and sometimes organized with others to deal with difficulties. What started out as personal stories of how one woman helped another one turned into case studies which we used to discuss the power of social relations and modes through which women migrant workers can organize within their national group, with migrant workers from other nationalities, and with Lebanese allies.

How migrant women help each other

Much research and advocacy on the rights of women migrant domestic workers in Lebanon and the Arab region has focused on the abuses of the Kafala system. Kafala or sponsorship, is a system that defines the relationship between foreign workers and their local sponsor, usually their employer. This structure gives employers complete power over the worker and strips her of agency should she decide to leave an exploitative work arrangement. In our work, however, we wanted to highlight migrant women’s agency and learn more about how they organize and strategize together through social networks. We carried out a PAR training with the migrant workers over the course of four consecutive Saturdays. Every Saturday, we met from 9 am to 5 pm and, by the end of the last day of training, we were able to co-draft and co-pilot an interview guide that included open-ended questions and probes based on the conversations and ideas exchanged throughout the training process.

We realized early on during the PAR training sessions that participants’ narratives were not solely about the mistreatment and struggles they face in Lebanon. Much of their stories also revolved around how they have helped each other individually to overcome these struggles.

For example, Cassie (all names used are pseudonyms), a migrant worker from Kenya, shared a story of how she accompanied a friend who went to the Ghanaian embassy to report a physically abusive employer and to request repatriation. At the embassy, Cassie advised her Ghanaian friend to be assertive and to speak in her language, and not English, to ensure privacy and safety. With the help of Cassie and others, the Ghanaian woman was able to leave the employer and return to her country. Suzie from Nepal shared how she and her flat mate helped a migrant friend lodge a complaint against an employer who had not paid her wages for 12 years. Suzie herself had experienced working with an abusive employer in the past and described how she never accepted abuse and always resisted it, sometimes at a heavy cost. We brainstormed other examples of ways women migrant workers of similar or different nationalities had resisted abuse they experienced and helped each other. For example, one hosted a co-ethnic who left a violent employer whilst others described how they share advice, such as to record on their phone when an employer physically assaults a worker to share on social media or with a trusted Lebanese ally.

Through these stories, the women did not present themselves as victims but highlighted how they strive to support each other through the social relations they have built. However, we felt that a gap existed when we broached the larger framework of how women collectively organize as a group and strategize to counter exploitation. Instead, the discourse revolved around how they help and receive help from each other. We therefore engaged in conversations about differentiating between ‘collective organizing’ as a more systematic form of change versus ‘helping’ as a more direct or short-term form of assistance. The PAR methodology allowed us to realize that the construct of collective organizing was perceived by the co-researchers as an everyday activity of helping.

Considering how inequalities intertwine

A second finding from the PAR approach related to the importance of adopting a feminist intersectional approach, drawing from the work of leading feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw on intersectionality, a theory that considers how power, race and sexuality intertwine and reinforce structures of inequality. As an example, we had to tell one of the participants that she could no longer continue as a co-researcher as she was married to a Lebanese man who is a recruitment agent. Her positionality could threaten the dynamics in the group as well as impact the interviews that she would later conduct with co-ethnics, since oppressions and privileges are an integral part of PAR. Positionality is how one’s identity influences the way they perceive and are perceived in the world based on the social and political context.

The importance of intersectionality also became evident when during one of the group activities, an Ethiopian co-researcher described how darker-skinned, African, and black people are mistreated more than Filipinos in Lebanon. This offended Atticus, a migrant worker from the Philippines, who noted that Filipinos are stereotyped within the migrant community and unfairly portrayed as privileged. Later, Atticus approached a staff person at MCC and complained that situations such as the one described are why many Filipinos avoid spaces where they may be stereotyped and do not engage as much with the MCC.

Atticus’ sexuality was another intersectional identity that played out during the training. Early on, we were informed by an MCC staff that Atticus is a trans man, and we had a conversation about how to include him and ensure his safety. During the training, some participants were surprised when they heard us use the ‘he/him’ pronouns and asked us about his gender in private. After getting his permission, we shared that he goes by all pronouns but identifies as a man. Whilst Atticus felt threatened in other spaces, we were happy to see that he was welcomed in a space of all cis women.

These encounters helped us shape the fieldwork through an intersectional feminist lens to support collective action and solidarity among migrant women and workers in Lebanon who fight against abuse and for their rights, even if they refer to this form of resistance as ‘helping’ each other.

The PAR study is part of an evaluation of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Work in Freedom Program that is funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office and aims to reduce the vulnerability to trafficking and forced labour of migrant women workers from South Asia in the care and garment sectors in Lebanon and Jordan. The evaluation is funded by the Centre of Excellence for Development Impact and Learning (CEDIL) and is overseen by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). The principal investigator of the Lebanon evaluation component is Dr. Sawsan Abdulrahim, a professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the American University of Beirut (AUB). May Adra is a research assistant on the study.

Cover photo: Female domestic workers and others marching together in Lebanon in 2018. Credit: Joelle Hatem

One Response

  1. This is a nice read & I hope there are effective follow up measures on the solutions.

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