Lebanon: Migrant Domestic Workers Abused, A Scripted Reality

“Stop don’t go to Lebanon!”. A member of the audience stepped forward to interfere with one of the scenes on stage, in which Nday is seen to be packing her bags to catch a flight to Lebanon. Despite knowing what awaits Nday in the form of multiple human rights violations, I could see that stopping her from seeking her awaited job opportunity in a time where she was in desperate need to make a living, was not a solution.

Amnesty International marked the International Migrants Day on 18 December 2018 with an interactive theatre performance, Chebbak, in collaboration with Wasl; a theatre collective that uses theatre for social change.

As I sat in the audience, I watched a performance exposing the reality of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon under the restrictive “Kafala System”. The play was performed by Lebanese actors and to my delight, the star of the show was a migrant domestic worker from Gambia named Mary playing her role as “Nday”.

The play’s script was developed through a focus group conducted by Amnesty International with migrant domestic workers in order to accurately portray the labor rights violations that they face.  The event was organized with the support of the Lebanon Youth Group, a team of Amnesty youth members who work together to design and lead country-wide activities on a variety of human rights topics.

Sitting next to me was a diversity of people; students, activists, migrant workers, and people with no prior exposure to the kafala system or the realities of domestic workers in Lebanon. The kafala system is adopted by the Lebanese government as a mean of regulating incoming migrant workers. Under its mercy, female migrant domestic workers are the most vulnerable, experiencing exploitative living and working conditions, racism and violence, with impeded access to the country’s justice system.

The realities on stage

The first scene of the interactive play opens up with two realities: on the left side of the stage is a domestic worker seeking an opportunity abroad to escape poverty back home, and on the right side of the stage is an overworked mother who works outside and inside the house, with an adult son who never helps with house-chores.

“Mom! I know exactly what to do! We’re getting you a gift on Mother’s Day!”, says the son.

The migrant domestic worker becomes the working-mother’s gift.

The play is carried out in Lebanese dialect reflecting on the racist phrases and expressions against migrant domestic workers which have become commonplace.

Scene after scene, I could not help but be drawn into this cause; the employers change the domestic worker’s name, they ban her from communicating with her family, they deny her a day off, they frown upon her native food, they confiscate her passport, and they lock her in the house until further notice.

None of the events on stage were too unusual, anyone living in Lebanon is dangerously familiar with these practices and violations.

Our crippling efforts

After the play ended, we were all invited to partake in role-playing and to add any of our suggestions or tweaks to the script where suitable, in hope of changing the course of the domestic worker’s life.

Several efforts were made. Absolutely none of which worked.

Through allowing us as an audience to experiment with the script, a loud statement echoed in my head. The awareness lied-not with acting out the violations which occur all too often, but in exposing a flawed system that allows for these violations to take place.

Every time someone from the audience volunteered to give a solution, whether it was better treatment in the household or by giving the abused character an empowered role, it all traced back- unfixable- to one core issue.

The Kafala System was to blame for Nday’s experience on stage.

There was tension in the air and frustration with the audience, where I felt an unspoken agreement between all of us. A migrant domestic worker’s rights are a responsibility bigger than us, and for them to be respected, the Kafala System must be abolished.

It’s time for change 

The campaign Amnesty International is launching advocates for the abolishment of the Kafala System and calls on the Ministry of Labor to enact concrete policy measures to address abuse in the relationship between the employer and the worker, tackling the series of abuses performed throughout the play.

The interactive play only calmed my frustration when it invited all of us present to join Amnesty Internatioanl campaign and become advocates for migrant domestic workers rights in Lebanon.

My beliefs about our inability to change the system were challenged. Every single one of us could contribute to persevering migrant domestic workers’ rights and dignities, simply through the power of campaigning and advocacy.

DISCLAIMER: This blog is based on the words and opinion of the author

By Zeinab Moukachar A volunteer at Amnesty International