BEIRUT – In a bright apartment in downtown Beirut, a dozen domestic workers are having a potluck dinner, passing around tupperware containers of food and laughing.
It’s a surprising sight in a country where stories of domestic worker abuse, exploitation and imprisonment are rife. Coming from countries like the Philippines, Ethiopia and Bangladesh, there are thought to be 200,000 foreign domestic workers in Lebanon, thousands of whom are exploited by their employers every year.
The apartment is the unofficial headquarters of a social enterprise called Equip, which is taking a controversial approach to advocating for domestic workers: involving employers.
For years, awareness campaigns and warnings from countries of origin have done little to improve the working conditions of these women, the founder, Leena Ksaifi, says. So in 2016 the former consultant for anti-trafficking NGOs and the International Labor Organization launched Equip to improve the lives of migrants by nurturing their relationships with their employers.
“Work relationships can be very complex and, if we want to help, we need to take into account the concerns of both parties,” she says.
With Equip, Ksaifi aims to make an impact (and a profit) by convincing employers that investing in the education and well-being of their workers will make them better at their job.
Their business model relies on employers paying for the company’s services, which range from $10 to $550, and include English lessons, first-aid training, legal translation and conflict mediation. Ksaifi says the latter is crucial, because even a small cultural misunderstanding, if unresolved, can escalate into abuse.
The process begins when an employer or worker notifies Equip of a problem, such as a disagreement over performance or work schedule. Recently, Ksaifi’s team was hired to help resolve a monetary dispute. After a year of employment, the domestic worker wanted a $50 raise, but the family refused, and the issue was straining their relationship. After sitting down with Equip’s mediators, both parties heard each other’s concerns and agreed to a $25 raise.
Equip’s programs are geared toward educating employers, but Ksaifi says their goal is to do so without coming across as judgmental.
“We approach the issue of domestic workers’ rights from the employers’ perspective, focusing on the benefits they will reap from providing their workers with better pay or a day off,” she says.
“When they see how their employee’s performance improves, they will encourage other families to do the same.” Indeed, she says most of Equip’s new clients are referrals.
Investing in Trust
Carlota*, 26, regularly attends Equip events. Domestic work has not been easy for her. The Filipino worker says her first employers in Lebanon would often yell and hit her. But the worst, she says, was the hunger. “If they got angry, they would stop giving me food. Some days I worked for 24 hours without eating anything.”
Carlota’s work situation has since improved. Her current employer treats her well and pays for her to attend Equip’s weekly cultural outings. She says domestic work does not have to be abusive by nature.
“When you are scared and the family is scared … it’s really hard work,” she says. “But if there is trust, this can be a very nice job.”
After brunch at the Equip headquarters, Carlotta and the other women in the program visit the Silk Museum. Ksaifi says this is an occasion for employers to show domestic workers some trust while the women learn about their host country and have fun.
As the taxi meanders along the hills of Beirut, Carlota catches up with her friend Cherry*, who she met through Equip. They talk excitedly in Tagalog about food, visa restrictions in the Philippines and work permits for Saudi Arabia. Once at the museum, the group is given a guided tour and the women take selfies next to ornate silk dresses, some of which come from their countries of origin.
Cherry says she loves going out on Sundays because her job is so emotionally exhausting. Besides cleaning and cooking, most migrant women also look after children or elderly people, often without a day of rest. “It’s so much responsibility,” she says. “You need to be paying attention all the time!”
A Limited Approach
While Equip’s group gathers to take photos on the veranda of the Silk Museum, a young Lebanese couple walks by. Trailing behind them is a young, tired-looking Ethiopian woman carrying their two young children in her arms.
The emotional toll of this kind of work and the potential for abuse mean many domestic workers suffer from depression. Representatives of a number of local NGOs, including the Anti-Racism Movement, Caritas and the Amel Association, told News Deeply that at least two domestic workers commit suicide every week in Beirut. They keep track of migrant deaths using local police reports and all believe the actual number is likely higher.
This points to the limitation of the Equip model: While most of the domestic workers in the program speak highly of their employers, they do not account for the full picture. If employers forbid domestic workers from joining Equip’s activities, or deprive them of a phone, there is little Ksaifi’s team can do to prevent abuse.
That’s why some migration activists say trusting employers at all is naive. “This is a problem of racism and you can’t expect people to change mindset overnight,” says Farah Salka, general coordinator of the Anti-Racism Movement in Lebanon. She says educating employers won’t solve much. “Equip’s problem is that it simplifies the issue [of domestic work], which is nowhere close to a simple problem of communication.”
Ksaifi admits her model is not perfect, but says it’s not an either-or issue. “There are many different ways to help and we all need to work together,” she says.
For now, her way is picking up momentum. Equip’s weekend outings are in high demand and the company recently ventured into recruiting themselves, working as a matchmaker to reduce the risk of trafficking and ensure that domestic workers get a fair deal.
Instead of using the current agency system, which matches workers with employers through a short C.V. and photo, Equip helps domestic workers who are already in Lebanon meet with potential employers in person. Ksaifi says this helps both parties develop a sense of trust and align their expectations, from salary to child-rearing methods.
But even Carlota, who has benefited from the Equip program, says there will be a long way to go before all domestic workers are treated well by their employers. “There are still many Lebanese who don’t see us as real humans,” she says.
*The domestic workers who spoke to News Deeply asked for their surnames to be omitted for privacy reasons.