Vital Collaboration in Lebanon, Part Two: An Interview With Farah Salka of the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM)

03/24/2015 04:15 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2015

Note: This is the second in a two part interview (click here to read the first part) with Farah to share more about the Migrant Community Center, and Anti-Racism efforts in Lebanon.

The attack and subsequent suicide in 2012 of Alem Dechasa-Desisa--an Ethiopian Domestic worker in Lebanon--was a turning point in the consciousness of the Ethiopian and African Diaspora. The video of Ali Mafuz--Alem's employer beating her in front of the Ethiopian Consulate in Beirut was one of the first widely shared visual examples of the exploitation that faces many African migrants in the Middle East. Due to a lack of resources and political organization, there have been few coordinated efforts by the African Diaspora to directly support migrant workers in the Middle East in three years since Alem's death.

Often lost in the discourse around migrant rights is that there are local efforts in Lebanon--led by activists and the migrant worker themselves--to support the migrant worker community. I feel this is important context to better understand how individuals living outside of the Middle East can assist in improving the lives of migrants. The news that reaches the Diaspora is normally about the tragedies. This is an unsustainable way of engaging in the issue and in the interim between public abuses, there is little real relationship building with potential allies.

To this end, I spoke recently with Farah Salka who is the general coordinator of the Anti-Racism Movement in Lebanon which manages the Migrant Community Center in Beirut. The Migrant Community Center is one of the few open spaces for the migrant communities and domestic workers in Lebanon. There are more than 800,000 migrant workers in Lebanon and more than 250,000 serve as domestic workers.

They are currently fundraising to keep up, and hopefully expand, the services offered and donations can be made on their IndieGogo page:

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Kumera: We've talked a lot about the abuses and discrimination, but what is the current situation of migrant workers in Lebanon in respect to their legal rights?

Farah: It basically boils down to three main issues when we want to sum up the overall condition of domestic workers here.

Racism and discrimination, the Kefala sponsorship system, and the exclusion of domestic workers from the Lebanese labor law--they have very little to zero legal protection.

It's much less common now than it was a few years ago to see openly racist comments in the media or socially and have them go unnoticed. You seem them and hear them and feel them--all the time of course! But they are almost always reported and targeted and shamed (by only a few unfortunately). It isn't enough change, but people are "policing" each other more in the lack of actual anti-discrimination policies.

I don't want this conversation to sound too fatalistic, because there have been positive developments, but we feel that this is only a small percentage of what needs to happen. We know there is racism everywhere in the world, and it isn't like Lebanon is the only country that has a problem with that. But we are still stuck at...shy places in moving forward. We need to get going on this.

Thus, in our fight on these fronts, we hope to see racism criminalized by law, legal protection to domestic workers pursued through their inclusion in the labour law (later noted by Farah: which will automatically insure a minimum wage, health insurance, set number of working hours, and yearly vacation-- all the decent basic rights), and last but not least complete abolishing of the sick sponsorship system which we still have here. And to have a proper visa system installed in place that ensures rights for all, employers and employees at once.

To add to that, in terms of current key updates, we are very thrilled and happy that domestic workers in Lebanon just concluded the founding congress for the first trade union for domestic workers ever in the 'Arab world', earlier this year(2015). This is a joyful, historic and long-awaited day for far too many workers and women. Starting now, there will be a united, solid, democratic, representing voice and this voice will challenge everyone, big and small, who is benefiting and feeding on the continuous, laid-back treatment of thousands of human beings as slaves. We see this as a victory no matter how pessimistic the context in Lebanon always is, and no matter what others say. It is happy news of a different kind.

Our ministry of work labor is shameful. Too shameful. On so many levels. The main one being the minister himself! Their position-- or lack of position and in many ways 'cluelessness' and indifference-- on the union establishment or on all domestic workers ,and migrant worker related issues is sad, depressing and even and revolting. They threaten, dismiss, and they make fun(sic). You'd feel that this man is anything, anything...anything in the world, but not a minister of work. He doesn't care about the rights of anybody, let alone stand in solidarity with or speak on behalf of them. He shouldn't stay in this position one extra day.

Thus, we at ARM and MCC will do anything we can to stand by and support this union and all its women and members. Throughout the years, we have tried ample different forms of organizing and collaborations-- and what not-- with domestic workers. But nothing comes close to this. We think this union and all the energy it got alone it has created; it has taken the struggle to a whole different level.

It is too simple really. If Lebanon wants domestic workers ,who make up to 5-8% of its population, to stay here (aside by Farah: and Lebanon can't do one day without them I tell you), then let it grant them the basic, decent conditions for humane working lives. They are human beings. They are workers and they are entitled to rights, well-being, improvement, happiness and the tool for this (writer's note: "this change")...at this point in time, is the union.

And about the second point; the inclusion of foreign migrant in Lebanese labor law?

Yes. This is entirely necessary. Our labor laws would give migrant domestic workers the basic, basic, basic protections of minimum wage, vacation, overtime, the ability to negotiate their contracts, or leave employers they are not comfortable with anymore, just like any other job. If you are not okay with the conditions anymore, you move on to more satisfying conditions if available... simple. These are absolutely fundamental human rights that at least 250,000 domestic workers in Lebanon do not have.

Of course, not all employers are abusive. That goes without saying. But all employers have the chance to be (abusive), and to go untouched by this current system. This is the exact problem. The laws that are now in place allow plenty of room for abuse, which is wrong. And there is almost nothing being done legally to alleviate the misery of the women who are abused or stuck in a bad situation. There are no legal convictions for people who openly attack their domestic workers--much less for labor disputes. Extending the same legal protections to foreign migrants is a most needed step.

But you have to understand that this is currently almost impossible within the political context of Lebanon. There is no lobbying. Who will we lobby? Who do you advocate with? Who do you talk to? Protest against? Expect what from? It is non-sense work in Lebanon to think of policy change at such times. We rarely ever talk about policy or laws anymore because there is such a political vacuum in Lebanon at this time. No government. No country. No systems in place. No accountability. No nothing.

So at the Migrant Community Center, we really focus on working directly with the communities in what our capacities allow and providing assistance for tangible day to day needs: cases, social work, cultural and psych-social activities, managing a center that serves as a small home for people away from home in a lonely, 'cold' place like this.

Can you say more about the new domestic worker's labor union? This is a huge step right?

The union is very needed step. Both the Anti-Racism Movement and the Migrant Community Center have invested a lot to support the migrant domestic workers in achieving this goal. We support it wholeheartedly. At this time, we are really focused on protecting the right for the workers to organize.

There is a ongoing dispute with the Ministry of Labor-- the minister called the union "illegal". But that is not our issue at the moment. It is his issue and it comes at no surprise really where he or his ministry stand now. Quite surreal the positions and opinions he puts out in public.

In Lebanon, partly through really sad videos and reports, a lot of focus is on foreign domestic workers--who are almost all women. Do you think there is a connection between women's rights in Lebanon and domestic worker's rights?

It's sad how many who advocate for the rights of Lebanese women can be so blind to the issues of thousands of migrant women in our society. You either advocate for women's' rights-- full stop-- or you don't. And domestic workers' rights rights are--and should be--at the forefront of this.

What about the situation of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon? How is this related or not related to your advocacy efforts for predominantly African and Asian migrant workers?

This government has recently decided to apply the sponsorship system to Syrian refugees. (*writer's note: Syria and Lebanon have a complicated history, but citizens of both countries were able to travel freely between the two until the Syrian situation deteriorated). Rather than abolishing the sponsorship with migrant workers --since there is no chance for reforming it--they decide to actually extend it to more vulnerable groups. And this means Syrians and refugees in our country today. Bravo Lebanon, always.

It makes no sense. It is oppressive. It is unfair. And it doesn't do anyone any good.

Last question. Can you explain more about the children of migrant workers--many of whom were born in Lebanon--and what is their current legal and social situation?

At the moment, the Lebanese government is obsessed with filtering out 'non-Lebanese' people from the country. They want to do it at any expense. There is no real plan; they just want to get rid of people. Children, adults, 80 year olds, they don't care. They think there are too many non-citizens in the country.

In the past year, so many families (children of migrant workers as an example) have been refused visa and residency permit renewals. I'm talking about visas for people who have never lived anywhere else. They have nowhere else to go. Lebanon is all they know and they love it like a home. And this is what they get in return.

This crackdown slowed for a while, but its back now. General security (GS) wants to get rid of 'excess' people. You can't have a conversation about it. GS wouldn't listen.

Say that I'm from Sri Lanka and my husband is from India--and my child who was born in Lebanon only speaks Arabic and English. They will now have to leave the only home they have known. And to go to where? God knows. It's heartbreaking. Almost every policy that comes out of this place is.

Thank you for the taking the time to share this Farah.

Of course! Yalla. Bye.

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The Migrant Community Center is currently fundraising to provide programming like language courses, referral service, music classes and cultural events for 2015. Click here to view their Indiegogo project.