Saturday, October 8, 2011

Migrant House: No Space for Abuse

A vegetable vendor walks beside Migrant House. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

A bold project to support the growing number of migrant domestic workers is coming to life in Beirut. The Migrant House, an initiative of the Lebanese Anti-Racism Movement in cooperation with migrant community leaders, was launched early last month.

Migrant House is primarily intended as an open space for the diverse migrant communities in Beirut and its surrounding areas. Workers can use it as a safe place to hold political and cultural activities, as well as to discuss ways to negotiate better living and working conditions.

The space is run by the migrant community with the support of Lebanese activists. House coordinator Priya Subedi explains, “it was very expensive for us to rent spaces for our meetings. The house offers the space equally to all communities and community leaders to use for meetings and activities.” Priya and her husband, Dipandra, both volunteer at the Honorary Consulate of Nepal, helping Nepalese migrant workers to return home or sort out pending payments with their employers.

The crisis of migrant workers in Lebanon is becoming more pressing by the day. They suffer from poor working conditions, an alarming suicide rate, and widespread and institutionalized racism. They are routinely abused, and deprived of their most basic rights, with no legal recourse. Local Lebanese activists are, however, beginning to take action and have been organizing along with the workers themselves to expose cases of abuse that amount to forced labor and torture, not to mention openly racist practices like banning migrant workers from swimming pools at several private beaches.

Abuse of migrant workers in Lebanon is found in personal attitudes and is institutionalized through sponsor-based contracts. Work permits for domestic workers topped 117,000 in 2010, in a country of only 4 million people. The vast majority are brought to Lebanon through the 500 or so recruitment agencies officially licensed by the Ministry of Labor.

The house's location in the working-class Burj Hammoud area suits the function of the house perfectly. A large number of independent migrant workers live in the area because of affordable housing prices. Priya explains, “people can come here walking and not have to pay transportation. The neighborhood at first wasn’t so welcoming, as they didn’t want to have ajnabiya (foreigners) living here, but we do look forward to change their perspective on that.”

Brother Simon, a worker from Nigeria who has lived in Lebanon for 13 years, works with the African United Community (AUC), an organization of African workers who have come together to support their community. “We are mostly workers with contracts and some domestic workers; we focus on uniting ourselves and taking care of our welfare.”

For the AUC, the Migrant House is a space to hold meetings and activities, and to discuss issues concerning working conditions. Brother Simon has his own take on racism: “It’s not a special case in Lebanon, racism exists everywhere, and the way to counter it should be by organizing ourselves and to unite our efforts. We need to give something to the Lebanese government to work on. I don’t criticize the Lebanese government, for someone who works in the office is different from someone who works on the street. Raising awareness should target the police officers on the street.”

Back at the Migrant House, about 10 Nepali women are practicing a dance that they will perform at the upcoming Dosay Festival, a Nepali Hindu tradition. Dikuyaserpa (27) and Kamala (29) are there with fellow friends to learn the moves and take part in the performance. Both are domestic workers in Jounieh, an area just north of Beirut, and they heard about the Migrant House from friends. While Kamala thinks that living in Lebanon is not so bad, Dikuyaserpa raises a common complaint among migrant workers: “They never give me the exact amount of money. I don’t like it when I work and I don’t get paid or the money is always less than what we have agreed on.” Fortunately, both women were lucky enough to have employers that allow them to take Sundays off, a right that is treated like a privilege by many Lebanese employers.

Priya and others welcome Labor Minister Charbel Nahas’s recent statement that he intends to eliminate the unfair sponsor system for migrant workers and issue a unified contract for foreign workers. This will decisively change the power dynamics between employers and their employees, thus better situating migrant workers to organize and fight for their rights.

The Migrant House emphasizes space in both the physical and moral realms. It ends a fierce confrontation between migrants and locals in Lebanon, to the advantage of migrants. It asserts that injustice can’t pass without accountability, even if the Lebanese seem to take the matter lightly. The house has succeeded in setting a precedent in the activist community of using one’s privilege politically to support and empower the under-privileged, without reproducing new power dynamics. As a sign of its early success, when you ask for an interview at the Migrant House, you won’t get a Lebanese speaking on a worker’s behalf. Here, the migrants speak for themselves.

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