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Trapped! The Plight of Domestic Workers in Lebanon

6 min read.

A severe economic crisis followed by the COVID-19 pandemic have had a deep impact on African domestic workers living and working in Lebanon. Some homeless female workers from Sierra Leone have found refuge in shelters, but resources to sustain them are drying up.

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Trapped! The Plight of Domestic Workers in Lebanon
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In a one-bedroom apartment in Beirut’s southern neighbourhood of Kola, fifteen women from Sierra Leone are confined day and night. After losing their jobs, or escaping abusive households, their only source of food and shelter is the local Sierra Leonean charity that rents the apartment. Social distancing, imposed amidst the current lockdown, is a privilege they cannot afford. At night, in this 15-square-metre room, they all sleep together on covers surrounded by suitcases. Some dream of returning home, while others wait for the lockdown’s end, hoping they will find work that will enable them to send money to their families again.

Mariam, a 26-year-old Sierra Leonean living at the shelter, arrived in Lebanon in July 2019, with the highest hopes built on the heaviest lies. (Miriam’s name and other names have been changed in this article to protect the women’s identities.) This mother of two from Nakin, in Sierra Leone’s Northern Province, used to be a teacher until she crossed paths with a local recruiting agency. It advised her to travel to Lebanon to become a domestic worker, promising she would double her salary and be able to support her family. It was an offer she could not refuse, though she could not afford the agent’s service fee. Mariam and her family decided to contract a loan in order to pay the $2000 fee, her ticket to a seemingly better future.

Sierra Leonean domestic worker in Beirut, Lebanon.

Sierra Leonean domestic worker in Beirut, Lebanon. Photo. Aline Deschamps

Nine months after her arrival, amidst Lebanon’s most severe economic crisis in decades, Mariam had still not been paid by her employer. After complaining to her agency, she was locked up in the bathroom for days, and beaten, or “flogged”, as she says. She decided to run away to save her life. Mariam roamed the streets of Beirut with only $1 in her pocket, until she was brought to the shelter, thanks to her friends from Sierra Leone. Fears of a COVID-19 epidemic were growing, doors were shutting and borders closing. “This is not a nightmare, this is a deadmare,” Mariam recalls saying to herself.

Mariam’s story is not uncommon. An estimated 250,000 domestic workers from a host of African and Southeast Asian countries reside in Lebanon. They are subject to the kafala system, a sponsorship structure that legally binds foreign workers to their local employers and which, according to Amnesty International, “increases their risk of suffering labour exploitation, forced labour and trafficking, and leaves them with little prospect of obtaining redress”. Most domestic workers earned monthly wages of between $150 and $300 before the country was hit by an economic recession in October 2019, and then by the COVID-19 pandemic in March.

Sierra Leonean domestic worker calling relatives, after her phone was confiscated for months.

Sierra Leonean domestic worker calling relatives, after her phone was confiscated for months. Photo. Aline Deschamps

On March 15, the Lebanese government announced a lockdown to prevent COVID-19’s spread. Like elsewhere around the world, all non-essential businesses were shut and families were summoned to stay home. For the country’s most vulnerable population, whose sources of income were already compromised by the ongoing economic crisis, this was another nail in the coffin.

An estimated 250,000 domestic workers from a host of African and Southeast Asian countries reside in Lebanon. They are subject to the kafala system, a sponsorship structure that legally binds foreign workers to their local employers…

For the women who found refuge at the Sierra Leone Committee’s shelter, things were even grimmer. Baylor Jalloh, the vice president of the Committee, explains: “During the economic crisis all the women here were working without getting paid, pushing some of them to escape their households. Now they are being thrown outside of [their] homes.”

Domestic workers rescued by the Sierra Leone Committee. They see themselves as a sisterhood.

Domestic workers rescued by the Sierra Leone Committee. They see themselves as a sisterhood. Photo. Aline Deschamps

Out of the 75 women currently hosted by the Sierra Leone Committee’s shelters, 20 were laid off during the COVID-19 crisis. Now they have no other choice except to roam the streets in search of money and food, risking exposure.

The lockdown has also made it almost impossible for homeless domestic workers to find food assistance or refuge. Mosques and churches, which sometimes used to provide food, have shut their doors. Humanitarian organisations and local NGOs have had to put some programmes on hold, and are now sounding the alarm. Madeleine Maxwell Hart, the project coordinator at Amel Association International, warns: “Shelters are in full capacity now.”

The lockdown has also made it almost impossible for homeless domestic workers to find food assistance or refuge. Mosques and churches, which sometimes used to provide food, have shut their doors.

As of April 28, Lebanon has 717 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 24 deaths. Many of the women at the shelter refuse to go out. Fear is omnipresent among them, especially because they do not feel they can access healthcare. “Of course we are so afraid of the virus. In Sierra Leone we already have one experience: corona is the sister of Ebola,” says Mariam, remembering the epidemic which killed thousands in Sierra Leone between 2014 and 2015. “We don’t have anything to protect ourselves against the corona. We just use our traditional medicine: the moringa leaves.”

Moringa, a medicine used by the rescued women.

Moringa, a medicine used by the rescued women. Photo. Aline Deschamps

Imane El Hayek, a case worker at the Lebanese NGO Migrant Community Centre, explains why many might feel they cannot count on the healthcare system: “Though domestic workers can get tested for free […] many undocumented workers may be more reluctant to try to seek medical help or testing because they are scared they may be arrested on the way,” she says.
Hart adds, “As far as we know we have not heard of anyone without a residency being targeted when they went testing, but you do need a copy of your ID. And many domestic workers don’t have it because it has often been confiscated when they arrived in Lebanon. And they don’t have a copy in most cases. This is a big challenge.”

El Hayek stresses that “migrants are also more vulnerable to the coronavirus in this situation, mostly because of their living conditions in more crowded places. They do not have the luxury to self-isolate. They do not have private transportation, so they are more likely to use public transport. (…) Most of them have limited access to clean water, gloves, masks, and anything that is recommended for self-protection.”

Domestic worker rescued by the Sierra Leone Committee in Lebanon.

Domestic worker rescued by the Sierra Leone Committee in Lebanon. Photo. Aline Deschamps

When getting help from the outside becomes hopeless, some members of the community take matters into their own hands, in solidarity with those most in need. “When I saw my sisters’ problems, I forgot about my own,” says Jalloh, who also recently lost his job as a tailor. Over the last two months, his network and efforts have helped the committee save 20 women from homelessness and hunger.

Despite being essential for homeless and penniless migrants, such relief initiatives are hanging by a thread. Indeed, they rely on the goodwill of a few individuals who are also impacted by the lockdown. The committee’s president, Mousa Sasour, used to set aside a part of his salary for the committee. Today he has no income and struggles to find enough money to sustain the 75 women that the committee supports. Apart from contributions by its members, the Committee can only count on private donations.

When asked where her hopes reside, Tenneh, 23, responds: “After God there is only the Committee. Besides that, there is nothing.”

Mariam and her flatmates have managed to gather some money to pay for an internet connection. “We speak to our families everyday, this is the only thing that makes us happy here,” they say.

Facing the situation with other women from Sierra Leone also helps. “We do everything together, we cook together, we sleep together. Everything we do is in unity,” declares Mariam as the women around her nod their heads in agreement.

Prayers in the shared bedroom.

Prayers in the shared bedroom. Photo. Aline Deschamps

For these women, all between 20 and 30 years old, the future looks grim. Sending remittances back home was the only reason they left their country. Now, some of the women’s parents are sending money for their daughters’ survival.

“They are selling their lands to pay for our bills,” says Mariam in disbelief.

This situation is bound to become unsustainable as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads in Africa, forcing countries like Sierra Leone into lockdown. A few women already reported that their close ones have lost their jobs.

For these women, all between 20 and 30 years old, the future looks grim. Sending remittances back home was the only reason they left their country. Now, some of the women’s parents are sending money for their daughters’ survival.

When asked about the future, the women sigh and raise their eyes to the sky. Will the sanitary and economic conditions allow them to find jobs again once the lockdown ends? If not, what will happen when neither community relief initiatives nor families are able to provide food and shelter?

“If I did not have this Committee, I would have to prostitute. How else could I eat?” fears Tenneh.

Some days, Tenneh and the women cook traditional food to comfort themselves and remember home. They even managed to find cassava leaf, a Sierra Leonean favourite, from which they make a spicy sauce to eat with rice. This leaves them with a glimpse of a smile on their faces.

This post is from a new partnership between The Elephant and Africa Is a Country. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site every week

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Aline Deschamps is a freelance writer and photographer focusing on the subjects of identity, migration, and resilience. Paul Fargues is an economic analyst and project manager specialized in development finance for crises contexts.

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Haiti: The Struggle for Democracy, Justice, Reparations and the Black Soul

Only the Haitian people can decide their own future. The dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse and its imperialist enablers need to go – and make space for a people’s transition government.

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Haiti: The Struggle for Democracy, Justice, Reparations and the Black Soul
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Haiti is once again going through a profound crisis. Central to this is the struggle against the dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse. Since last year Mr. Moise, after decreeing the dismissal of Parliament, has been ruling through decrees, permanently violating Haiti’s constitution. He has refused to leave power after his mandate ended on February 7, 2021, claiming that it ends on February 7 of next year, without any legal basis.

This disregard of the constitution is taking place despite multiple statements by the country’s main judicial bodies, such as the CSPJ (Superior Council of Judicial Power) and the Association of Haitian Lawyers. Numerous religious groups and numerous institutions that are representative of society have also spoken. At this time, there is a strike by the judiciary, which leaves the country without any public body of political power.

At the same time, this institutional crisis is framed in the insecurity that affects practically all sectors of Haitian society. An insecurity expressed through savage repressions of popular mobilizations by the PNH (Haitian National Police), which at the service of the executive power. They have attacked journalists and committed various massacres in poor neighborhoods. Throughout the country, there have been assassinations and arbitrary arrests of opponents.

Most recently, a judge of the High Court was detained under the pretext of promoting an alleged plot against the security of the State and to assassinate the president leading to the illegal and arbitrary revocation of three judges of this Court. This last period has also seen the creation of hundreds of armed groups that spread terror over the entire country and that respond to power, transforming kidnapping into a fairly prosperous industry for these criminals.

The 13 years of military occupation by United Nations troops through MINUSTAH and the operations of prolongation of guardianship through MINUJUSTH and BINUH have aggravated the Haitian crisis. They supported retrograde and undemocratic sectors who, along with gangsters, committed serious crimes against the Haitian people and their fundamental rights.

For this, the people of Haiti deserve a process of justice and reparations. They have paid dearly for the intervention of MINUSTAH: 30 THOUSAND DEAD from cholera transmitted by the soldiers, thousands of women raped, who now raise orphaned children. Nothing has changed in 13 years, more social inequality, poverty, more difficulties for the people. The absence of democracy stays the same.

The poor’s living conditions have worsened dramatically as a result of more than 30 years of neoliberal policies imposed by the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), a severe exchange rate crisis, the freezing of the minimum wage, and inflation above 20% during the last three years.

It should be emphasized that, despite this dramatic situation, the Haitian people remain firm and are constantly mobilizing to prevent the consolidation of a dictatorship by demanding the immediate leave of office by former President Jovenel Moïse.

Taking into account the importance of this struggle and that this dictatorial regime still has the support of imperialist governments such as the United States of America, Canada, France, and international organizations such as the UN, the OAS, and the EU, the IPA calls its members to contribute their full and active solidarity to the struggle of the Haitian people, and to sign this Petition that demands the end of the dictatorship as well as respect for the sovereignty and self-determination of the Haitian people, the establishment of a transition government led by Haitians to launch a process of authentic national reconstruction.

In addition to expressing our solidarity with the Haitian people’s resistance, we call for our organisations to demonstrate in front of the embassies of the imperialist countries and before the United Nations. Only the Haitian people can decide their future. Down with Moise and yes to a people’s transition government, until a constituent is democratically elected.

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Deconstructing the Whiteness of Christ

While many African Christians can only imagine a white Jesus, others have actively promoted a vision of a brown or black Jesus, both in art and in ideology.

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Deconstructing the Whiteness of Christ
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When images of a white preacher and actor going around Kenya playing Jesus turned up on social media in July 2019, people were rightly stunned by the white supremacist undertone of the images. They suggested that Africans were prone to seeing Jesus as white, promoting the white saviour narrative in the process. While it is true that the idea of a white Jesus has been prevalent in African Christianity even without a white actor, and many African Christians and churches still entertain images of Jesus as white because of the missionary legacy, many others have actively promoted a vision of Jesus as brown or black both in art an in ideology.

Images of a brown or black Jesus is as old as Christianity in Africa, especially finding a prominent place in Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has been in existence for over sixteen hundred years. Eyob Derillo, a librarian at the British Library, recently brought up a steady diet of these images on Twitter. The image of Jesus as black has also been popularised through the artistic project known as Vie de Jesus Mafa (Life of Jesus Mafa) that was conducted in Cameroon.

The most radical expression of Jesus as a black person was however put forth by a young Kongolese woman called Kimpa Vita, who lived in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Through the missionary work of the Portuguese, Kimpa Vita, who was a nganga or medicine woman, became a Christian. She taught that Jesus and his apostles were black and were in fact born in São Salvador, which was the capital of the Kongo at the time. Not only was Jesus transposed from Palestine to São Salvador, Jerusalem, which is a holy site for Christians, was also transposed to São Salvador, so that São Salvador became a holy site. Kimpa Vita was accused of preaching heresy by Portuguese missionaries and burnt at the stake in 1706.

It was not until the 20th century that another movement similar to Vita’s emerged in the Kongo. This younger movement was led by Simon Kimbangu, a preacher who went about healing and raising the dead, portraying himself as an emissary of Jesus. His followers sometimes see him as the Holy Spirit who was to come after Jesus, as prophesied in John 14:16. Just as Kimpa Vita saw São Salvador as the new Jerusalem, Kimbangu’s village of Nkamba became, and still is known as, the new Jerusalem. His followers still flock there for pilgrimage. Kimbangu was accused of threatening Belgian colonial rule and thrown in jail, where he died. Some have complained that Kimbangu seems to have eclipsed Jesus in the imagination of his followers for he is said to have been resurrected from the dead, like Jesus.

Kimbangu’s status among his followers is however similar to that of some of the leaders of what has been described as African Independent Churches or African Initiated Churches (AICs). These churches include the Zionist churches of Southern Africa, among which is the amaNazaretha of Isaiah Shembe. Shembe’s followers see him as a divine figure, similar to Jesus, and rather than going to Jerusalem for pilgrimage, his followers go to the holy city of Ekuphakameni in South Africa. The Cameroonian theologian, Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, in his Christianity Without Fetish, see leaders like Kimbangu and Shembe as doing for their people in our own time what Jesus did for his people in their own time—providing means of healing and deliverance in contexts of grinding oppression. Thus, rather than replacing Jesus, as they are often accused of doing, they are making Jesus relevant to their people. For many Christians in Africa, therefore, Jesus is already brown or black. Other Christians still need to catch up with this development if we are to avoid painful spectacles like the one that took place Kenya.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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In Magufuli’s Shadow: The Stark Choices Facing Tanzania’s New President

One immediate concern is what steps Hassan will take on the pandemic, and whether she will change direction.

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In Magufuli’s Shadow: The Stark Choices Facing Tanzania’s New President
Photo: Flickr/Gospel Kitaa
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The sudden death of Tanzania’s President John Pombe Magufuli has thrown the East African nation into a period of political uncertainty.

Vice-president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, has been sworn in as his successor, making her Tanzania’s first woman president.

The transition is all the more challenging given the major rupture – both political and economic – caused by Magufuli’s presidency. Magufuli, who won a second term in October 2020, dramatically centralised power and pursued an interventionist economic policy agenda. He courted controversy on a number of fronts, most recently, by claiming that Tanzania – contrary to mounting evidence – was Covid-free.

Hassan has called for unity and counselled that now is not the time to look at what has passed but rather to look at what is to come.

Despite the 61-year-old leader’s forward-looking stance, questions remain about how Magufuli’s legacy will shape her time in office.

The authoritarian turn

Magufuli oversaw the marginalisation of opposition parties and a decline in civil liberties. His first term was defined by heightened intimidation and violence against opposition leaders, including disappearances and physical attacks.

Thanks to five years of repression, the October 2020 general elections saw the opposition all but wiped out of elected office. The ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi now controls all local government councils. It also holds 97% of directly elected legislative seats, up from 73% in 2015.

In addition, media freedom and civil liberties were also restricted. A law passed in 2018 imposed jail terms for questioning the accuracy of official statistics.

But Magufuli’s authoritarian tendencies were not unprecedented in Tanzania. For instance, the rule of his predecessor Jakaya Kikwete was also marred by human rights abuses as well civil society and media repression. Kikwete also cancelled Zanzibar’s 2015 election due to a likely opposition victory.

It remains to be seen whether Hassan will adopt a more liberal approach, loosening restrictions on opposition parties, the media and civil society. Even if she does, the damage will take time to repair. Opposition parties, for instance, may well struggle to regain their strength. Among other setbacks, they have lost almost all local elected representatives – a core element of their organisational infrastructure built up painstakingly over decades.

Centralising power in the party

Another key pillar to Magufuli’s legacy is the centralisation of power within the Chama Cha Mapinduzi.

In the early years under founding president Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s ruling party was dominated by the president and a hierarchy of appointed state and party officials. But, following economic liberalisation in the 1980s and Nyerere’s retirement from politics, the party became steeped in factional rivalries. These were spurred by new political alliances and an emerging private sector business elite.

This factionalism reached its height under Kikwete amid accusations of widespread corruption. Magufuli’s nomination as party presidential candidate only occurred because the rivalry among these factions left him as the unexpected compromise candidate.

Once in office, though, Magufuli quickly signalled he would be nobody’s puppet. He used his position as ruling party chairman to create a “new” Chama Cha Mapinduzi. This involved breaking with party heavyweights, including Kikwete, suppressing factional organising, and consolidating his own support base.

Magufuli’s new base was a cohort of freshly appointed party officials as well as civil servants and cabinet ministers. His loyalists likened these changes to a revival of Nyerere’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi. But, in our view, the comparison is misleading.

Like Magufuli before her, Hassan will be taking office – and party leadership – without her own political base. She will also have to contend with revived factional manoeuvring as sidelined groups try to regain an upper hand.

Hassan could align with a loyal Magufuli faction, which includes influential figures within the party. But, early indications suggest she intends to follow the advice of “party elders”, notably Kikwete. The former president reportedly attended the party’s most recent central committee meeting on Hassan’s invitation.

Aligning herself with Kikwete will likely lead to the reemergence of the internal factional rivalries that characterised the former president’s tenure.

Implications for economic policy

If president Hassan does continue to take a political steer from Kikwete, one likely outcome is that there will be a change in economic policy. In particular, a return to growth that’s led by a more business-friendly approach to the private sector.

Calls are already being made for such a course of action..

The danger for Hassan, however, is that under Kikwete this model was associated with high levels of corruption and unproductive rent-seeking.

A careful reassessment of the Magufuli era is needed to guide future policymaking.

Magufuli used his control over the ruling party to pursue an ambitious policy agenda. This was also linked to his political project of centralising power.

Although this trend actually began under Kikwete, Magufuli accelelrated a move towards more state-led investment. Under his leadership, both state-owned and, increasingly, military-owned enterprises were offered strategic contracts.

This ambitious programme initially won him praise. But over time, his authoritarian decision-making, mismanagement, and lack of transparency prompted a more critical response.

Many state enterprises remained cash-starved, relied on government financial support, and registered losses.

When the government’s controller and auditor general called for more scrutiny of public finances, his budget was slashed. And he was ultimately forced to retire and replaced by a Magufuli loyalist.

Alongside state investment, the president also sought to discipline private sector actors. Some observers suggest that this led to more productive investment, notably by domestic investors. But others point to renewed crony capitalist ties.

Magufuli’s most high profile corporate battle was against Canadian-owned Barrick Gold and its former subsidiary, Acacia Mining. From the two, he demanded USD$190 billion in tax arrears and a renegotiation of operating terms.

Many saw this resource-nationalist approach as an inspiration and a model for African countries seeking to take greater control of their mineral wealth. But in the end – partly due to externally imposed legal and economic constraints – Magufuli walked back on some of his demands. Instead he opted for cooperation rather than confrontation.

He negotiated a joint venture in which Barrick took a majority stake of 84% and Tanzania the remaining 16%. Key elements of the nationalistic mining legislation passed in 2017 were also reversed.

On the plus side gold overtook tourism as Tanzania’s biggest foreign-exchange earner. In addition, some small-scale miners saw their livelihoods improve. Results were more mixed elsewhere, especially for Tanzanite miners in the country’s north.

Ultimately, Magufuli leaves behind a mixed economic legacy. It combines misdirected authoritarian decision-making with positive efforts to pursue an active industrial policy. Reining in unproductive domestic investors and renegotiating adverse contracts with foreign investors were part of this agenda.

There is a risk, given this complex mix, that Tanzania’s policymakers may learn the wrong lessons from his presidency, leading back to the flawed model existing before.

Significantly, neither Magufuli nor his predecessors managed to achieve more inclusive growth. For this reason poverty levels have remained stubbornly high.

The pandemic and beyond

One immediate concern is what steps Hassan will take on the pandemic, and whether she will change direction.

Whatever she does, the health emergency and associated economic crisis will likely define her presidency. It could indeed define the economic trajectory of the African region in years to come.

Both Kikwete and Magufuli ruled through an economic boom period. Commodity prices were high and access to international finance was fairly easy. This gave them latitude to choose between various development approaches.

If Tanzania reverts to the status quo of the Kikwete years, the risk is a reemergence of rent-seeking but without the same highly favourable economic growth conditions. Indeed, as external conditions worsen, Hassan may find her options far more limited.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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