Against the repetitive, exacting beats of house and trance music, removed from the static of the trendy electronic sounds in Beirut’s nightclubs, the 24/7 Labor Day campaign kicked off Friday night with an African dance party at the Art Lounge in Karantina. Here, performance music was embedded with meaning and rooted in a message: to challenge power relations, expose contradictions in the social order and call attention to the experiences of Lebanon’s domestic workers.
The 24/7 campaign was a series of events designed to symbolize the often non-stop labor of domestic migrant workers in Lebanon. It began with Friday night’s dance party, followed by a festival of food the next morning at Souk el-Tayyeb in Saifi – where domestic workers offered a taste of dishes from Ethiopia, Nigeria, the Philippines and more. Later that afternoon, around 50 people marched in solidarity from Karantina to Ain Mreisseh, where a concert and other cultural activities capped off the 24-hour period of events.
Acknowledging that no single organization or advocacy project can immediately transform the way domestic workers are perceived and treated in the country, 24/7 pushed for a more creative response this Labor Day: culture. “We want to expose people to culture… different food, dance, music, to help people understand that maids are just like you,” said Nisreen Kaj, co-organizer of the campaign.
“I’m here to ask about freedom,” Ethiopian domestic worker and community leader Victoria Andarge said at Saturday’s march.
Though the rally did not come close to matching the almost two thousand individuals who marched for secularism almost a week prior, present voices were strong and proud. Along Beirut’s streets, domestic workers periodically looked down from apartment windows to the march below. Charged by the silence of these onlookers and so many others, participants screamed: “No, no to racism. No, no to slavery.”
Furthermore, when, on at least two occasions, a madam with her domestic worker in tow encountered the march, protestors’ chants only grew louder: “Give her a Sunday, give her a holiday.”
“I’m so happy because the people here are struggling for us. It’s not your job. You are doing our job for us,” Andarge said of the demonstrators – moving words from a woman who, because she works in someone’s home, is not included in Lebanon’s labor laws.
“If they are not considered workers, what are they?” NOW Extra asked Nadim Houry, head of Human Rights Watch in Lebanon and a 24/7 campaign co-organizer.
His response: “Exactly.”
The Labor Ministry introduced a standard contract in January 2009 to help ensure, among other things, salary payment and limits on the number of working hours for the estimated 200,000 domestic workers living in Lebanon. But, according to the 24/7 campaign, there is little oversight or enforcement of the contract.
Certainly, efforts made by this weekend’s activists help tune people in to conditions not usually talked about. But, there was a major presence missing from the Labor Day events: the domestic workers themselves.
“Many domestic workers just don’t have the day off, or they’re afraid to publicly join the cause,” Houry explained.
“Some people will say: no, we give our maid a day off. But then they don’t let her leave the house. I always say to them: would you want to stay in the office on your day off?” said Lala Arabian, project manager for the Insan Association,one of several NGOs involved in 24/7.
Acknowledging that fully changing the legal labor status of domestic workers is a giant feat, the organizers involved in the 24/7 campaign are starting with the simple request for some free time.
Click here to sign a petition demanding the enforcement of the unified contract for domestic migrant workers in Lebanon. And for more information on how you can join the campaign, visit the Taste Kulcha website.